“Star Wars”: A Modern Reinterpretation of Buddhism

1006176_10151520807002901_1211978318_n (1)Did you know that without Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, pragmatism, determinism, Plato’s Republic and countless other religious and philosophical ideas, there is a good chance that we would have never seen this:

Without all that “boring stuff” that supposedly has no place or value in the real world, thousands of young men would have been deprived of a cultural sex symbol. The phrase “I am your father” would have zero significance to generations of young men and women. I would have never pretended to be a Jedi by putting on a bath robe and wielding a tube of green gift wrapping paper. We would never have had the joy, nay the privilege, of witnessing one of the greatest stories ever told—Star Wars—unfold before our very eyes.  

Now I hear some of you muttering, what does a bunch of religious mumbo jumbo and philosophical nonsense have to do with Jar Jar Binks? Well, absolutely nothing because Jar Jar  Binks is absolute trash on the best of days. However, they have a lot to do with the Jedi Order—ya know the “good” guys of the story. Wookieepedia describes the Jedi Order as “an ancient monastic peacekeeping organization unified by its belief and observance of the Force”. This is probably better than my definition of them as “space ninjas with magic space swords that can move stuff with their mind”.

The Jedi Order was influenced by a myriad of ideas—most notably Taoism, Bushidō and Buddhism. In fact, much the mythology concerning the Force—and therefore the Jedi Order—is a modern reinterpretation of Buddhism. For example, Obi-Wan Kenobi describes the Force as “an energy field created by all living things,” that “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” Buddhism teaches that all living things are connected through a vast, god-like reservoir of energy and it is this eternal, uncreated spiritual reality that allows for individuals to achieve enlightenment. It’s no surprise that a key virtue for both Buddhists and Jedi is mindfulness of one’s actions, oneself and one’s environment. In The Phantom Menace, Obi-Wan warns the Gungans, “what happens to one of you will affect the other”.

The similarities don’t stop on a metaphysical level either. Frederick Brenion notes:

 …it is when we first meet Yoda that we are struck by the similarities between him and the examples and teachings of many Zen-masters. Later in “Phantom Menace” we meet Padme Amidala, whose name; Padme is that of “Lotus” from the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum,” and Amidala, a feminine form for the Buddha Amida, the central figure in Pure Land beliefs. But it is in “Attack of the Clones” that we receive the strongest signal yet of the centrality of Buddhist thought in the Jedi. In a discussion Padme asks Anakin if Jedi are even allowed to “love,” He says: “Attachment is forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is central to a Jedi’s life, so you might say we’re encouraged to love.”

Removed detachment from the physical world is the foundation of Buddhism. The First Noble Truth teaches us that life is temporary. The strong become weak and the weak become strong. Beauty withers with age. M. Night Shyamalan goes from producing award-winning movies to winning the title of “worst director’ and “worst picture” multiple years in a row. One of the few things that we are assured in life is that everything is in a state of constant change. Suffering arises when we try to force permanence on an impermanent world. We go through life trying to grab on to people, ideas and opinions about the world in order achieve some degree of stability. We grow frustrated when the world doesn’t conform to our expectations or when The Last Airbender turns out to be a one of the lowest rated movies of all time. Consequently, we suffer—and possibly write about it in a blog many years later.

I’m still a little upset about this.

Therefore, we must remove ourselves from the world. This does not mean we love the world any less. In fact, we love it more because we know that which we love can be taken away from us at any moment. This move is expressed in the Buddhist virtues of compassion and loving-kindness. So, as Anakin correctly puts it, one is encouraged to love. However, problems arise when one grows overly attached to the object of one’s desires or tries to change them—as Anakin did.

Now here’s the really cool stuff. Remember those Jedi mind tricks? Well, it turns out that some Buddhist monks are capable of “mind tricks” of their own as a result of meditation. If a person gets really good at meditating, he or she can cause “structural and functional changes to the brain”. Scientific research shows that meditation can actually aid in the reduction of stress related illness like depression. Some monks are even able to resist intense amounts of physical pain or reduce the negative effects of extreme temperatures on the body with the aid of meditation.

And they say the humanities is useless.

 

On an unrelated note, Han shot first.

 

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