Spiritual Star Wars

The Force is strong with the Buddha’s teachings.
By Diana Estigarribia
June 20, 2005
In 1996 I found myself getting deeper into Buddhism. I was reading everything in sight that I could about the Eastern philosophy. But it was often tough going, with unfamiliar ideas and terms. One day I looked up the word “dharma” in the glossary of my copy of The Lotus Sutra. I was shocked to see a word I did recognize: dagoba. What, I wondered, was the name of Yoda’s planet doing in a book of Buddhist scripture?

For the record, dagoba, or stupa, is a rounded receptacle for important Buddhist relics. George Lucas chooses to name Yoda’s planet of exile as Dagobah perhaps providing a clue to Eastern philosophy-savvy moviegoers. When I started down the Buddhist path in 1996, it had a been a very long time since I’d thought very much about Star Wars. But this experience made me re-think these movies. And with the premiere of The Phantom Menace three years later, I never expected my favorite movies growing up to take on this deeper meaning.

I’m hardly the first person to notice the inclusion of Eastern philosophy in SW (or Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc). A small industry of books exists around the mythology and religion, most recently Matthew Bortolin’s The Dharma of Star Wars. (Actually I wish I’d written it first!) The aspect of Buddhism that appealed to me at the very beginning (besides its viewpoint that we are responsible for our “self,” and it’s generally atheist outlook) is the training of the mind. Buddhism is a very exacting philosophy; you can’t simply rely on “faith” or prayer; you’ve got to put it into practice. Effort is required at all times, and even more effort.

The Jedi way of training the mind has a direct relationship with Buddhism. Meditation to calm the mind (shamatha) and to gain insight (vipissana) must be done every day if you want to call yourself a practicing Buddhist. We’d never seen a Jedi in meditation until Ep. I, and that comes at an unexpected moment: in the life-and-death duel between Qui-Gon and Darth Maul. When those pesky force-shield doors separate Qui-Gon and Maul, Qui-Gon takes it as an opportunity to practice a little shamatha.

You can’t blame the guy for taking a “time out.” Buddhists believe that, as Yoda instructs Luke, when you are calm, at peace, you perceive reality as it really is. You no longer dwell in the past that is gone or an unrealized future yet to be. Living in the present moment, there is true freedom from afflictive emotions like anger, sadness, or fear. Qui-Gon teaches Anakin this idea in the scene that introduces the much maligned midichlorians in Episode I. “When you learn to quiet your mind, you’ll hear them speaking to you.” You can interpret that as literally (or as loosely) as you like, but he’s saying one important thing: learn to stop the endless tape recorder running in your head, and you’ll find peace (the Force).

That scene is significant in another way. Qui-Gon’s instruction, “your focus determines your reality,” is almost word-for-word from the first lines of the Dhammapada, a book of over 400 tenets compiled in the third century B.C.E., and one of Buddhism’s most important texts. The first lines of the Dhammapada read, “What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: Our life is the creation of our mind.”

Of course, life just isn’t about intellect. It’s about emotions, and how we’re often ruled by them. This is where the Yoda-isms we’re all familiar with come into play. In Empire Yoda says about Luke, “I cannot teach him; the boy has no patience…much anger in him….” Buddhism has a lot to say about anger, much more than we can touch on here, but you don’t have to be a sanskrit scholar to realize how damaging anger and rage can be to yourself and others.

Yoda’s teachings in Empire are some of my favorite dialogue in all the movies. But as an adult learning the ways of the Force — that is, the Buddhist path — his teachings are like Buddhist 101. But as good as the stuff in Empire is, Yoda’s pronouncements in the PT are even better for Buddhists. It begins, naturally, with his line in Phantom Menace, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” It sets up what’s to come in Episodes II and III.

I was particularly struck by Yoda’s meeting with Anakin in ROTS. Whereas previous Star Wars movies came at the Buddhist philosophy in a subtle way, by Revenge of the Sith George is writing away whole-hog as if from scripture itself. We see this in the scene between Anakin and Yoda. Anakin is troubled by visions of Padme’s death (as Luke will be by a similar insight into Han and Leia’s suffering in Cloud City). When Anakin seeks Yoda’s counsel, Yoda gets directly to the heart of the matter, saying, “Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” Attachment is one of the aspects of the Self that must be faced in order to reach enlightenment or nirvana. It is the very basis of Buddhism, called the Four Noble Truths.

The Four Noble Truths teach that cravings — for material possessions or experiences, or basically anything you want and wish for — ultimately causes suffering. You really want that Ipod but can’t afford it; you hope and pray that the Cubs win the World Series but they falter…the more you cling to these desires the more your suffering increases. In Buddhism, ignorance leads us to believe that things are somehow permanent, when in fact, the opposite is true. Life is changing in every second, with every breath. Anakin can’t accept that death is a natural part of life; as he proclaims in Ep. II, he wants to extend life and keep the people he loves from dying. By clinging to this desire more than anything else, he’s already on the path to the dark side of the Force.

Despite years of training, Anakin never learns to “let go” of his attachments to his mother. His actions are motivated not by what he’s learned but by the feelings he has for his wife, whom he “cannot live without.” He lacks mindfulness, the self-awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings and actions. His attachments cloud his judgment, fatally, and takes him further and further away from his training and the “good side of the Force.” This is what Palpatine exploits so well in ROTS.

When I think about the Buddhist groundwork of the Star Wars universe, I find it particularly poignant that even after decades of being Darth Vader, training there is for Anakin. That comes in the form of his own son. Luke is Anakin’s last teacher, his final spiritual guide in this life. Luke achieves what Anakin failed to do when he was a young Jedi: he faces the Dark Side, rejects it and chooses the true path. But he also helps his father on the way to enlightenment by challenging Anakin’s perception of himself, when he tells him, “I feel the conflict within you…let go of your hate.” Many people have said it, religions preach it, and singers sing about it: “only love can conquer hate.”

As the symbol of love, forgiveness, and compassion, Luke embodies the living Force. As Buddhists, when we put our palms together and bow, we acknowledge the Buddha nature within others; wishing peace and compassion for all living beings — it’s the Buddhist way of saying “may the Force be with you.”