Zen and the Art of Being Jedi
The Buddhist roots of George Lucas's galactic heroes
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there were great men—guardians of freedom and justice—who were in touch with nature. These men were known as Jedi, and they had a deep understanding of how the world really works. A Jedi is not a Buddha; but many of the practices and concepts that are part of their art can be found in the Buddha’s teachings. In developing Star Wars, George Lucas drew upon many religions, myths, and cultural practices from all parts of our world. As we will soon see, the roots of the Jedi can be found in Asia.
Clear Your Mind
In Star Wars, we often hear Jedi masters, such as Yoda and Qui-Gon Jinn, telling their pupils to clear their minds or to "let go." This is one of the most basic principles in Buddhism.
Through the act of meditation, those who want to touch the Buddha are encouraged to clear their minds of all thought and to become aware of the moment. This can be done through breathing meditation. When beginning breathing meditation, it is helpful to count from 1 to 10. This helps you clear your mind of other thoughts and pulls you into the moment. Once you are in the moment, the next thing is to be "mindful." This means that you are aware of what you are doing, of your body, of the moment.
Breathing meditation was actually seen being practiced by Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace. Near the end of the film, during the climactic battle with Darth Maul, the two become caught in a corridor of doors that open and close, apparently on a timer. As they approach the final door, Darth Maul gets through but Qui-Gon doesn’t. Instead of yelling at or taunting Darth Maul through the force field, Qui-Gon simply kneels, closes his eyes, and breathes calmly. He is quieting his mind and collecting himself. He is truly in the moment.
There’s No Time Like the Present
One of the problems that we all face in the modern world is that we are always dwelling on the future—and the past. Our lives are so hectic and we’re always being pulled in many directions at once. We get so caught up in what happened at work last Wednesday or what we are having for dinner tomorrow night when the guests come over that we forget to be aware of the moment. For us, the flow of time is very real and we are locked into a vicious cycle of birth and death, beginning and ending. We dwell so heavily on these first and last moments that we forget to live in the here-and-now.
The Buddha taught that these are only concepts, not true reality. What we believe to be reality is subjective—it is what we make it. To be caught up in concepts is to be out-of-touch with the moment. If you are concerned with concepts, theories, and ideas, you can’t see the true nature of things.
Seeing the true nature of things is one of the keys to being Jedi. Abandoning preconceptions, avoiding being caught up in past and future, and focusing on the present are all things that Jedi masters teach their Padawan.
At the beginning of The Phantom Menace, when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are in the meeting room aboard the trade federation vessel, Obi-Wan begins thinking about things yet to come. Qui-Gon tells him to keep his mind focused on the here-and-now. In response, Obi-Wan says, "But master Yoda says that I should be mindful of the future." Qui-Gon replies, "Yes, but not at the expense of the present." He is teaching his student to be aware and mindful. In Buddhism, this is known as Right Mindfulness.
The Circle of Life
Ever since the very first Star Wars film, it has been taught that everything in the universe is interconnected. The details of how this works have changed with the development of the franchise, but the basic principle has stayed the same. I titled this section "The Circle of Life," but when we speak of interconnectedness, both in Star Wars and Buddhism, we speak not only of living things but of non-living things as well.
In A New Hope, Obi-Wan taught Luke that if he let go of his thoughts he could "hear" the Force speaking to him, guiding him. He said that this is because everything is connected through the Force. Later, in The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda teaches Luke of the interconnectedness of all things, that Luke and the rock are one in the same. Finally, in The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon finds himself explaining this principle to young Anakin. This is where Lucas changed the concept a bit.
In the first three films, the Force was presented as a mysterious power that simply flowed through the Universe. But in The Phantom Menace it is presented as the result of a symbiotic relationship between living things and microscopic organisms called midi-chlorians that reside in all living cells. But regardless of this change in position on Lucas’s part, the concept remains the same. We are all part of one another. Everything in existence is interdependent on everything else. Everything contains everything else. A flower, for example, contains not only flower elements like a stem and petals, but also stardust, the earth, and the gardener. In Buddhism, this interconnectedness of all things is known as the Second Dharma Seal.
As Qui-Gon explains this to Anakin, he says that these microorganisms speak to us and tell us the will of the Force. When Anakin says that he doesn’t really understand, Qui-Gon encourages him by saying, "When you learn to quiet your mind, you will hear them speaking to you." Again, this returns us to Right Mindfulness and being aware of and in touch with the moment.
Hate Leads to Suffering
If you had to sum up the goal of Buddhism in just four words it would be "the elimination of suffering." The purpose of the practices taught by the Buddha—The Four Noble Truths and The Noble Eightfold Path (Right View, Right Thinking, Right Mindfulness, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Diligence, Right Concentration, Right Livelihood)—is ultimately to identify, come to terms with, and eliminate suffering.
Suffering can be caused by many things. The desire for something you can’t have can cause you to suffer. A physical ailment can cause you to suffer. Exposure to things that can water the seeds of fear and hate can cause you to suffer. In order to achieve nirvana, you must identify and eliminate all suffering. Nirvana is, in fact, the elimination of not only all suffering but also all concepts, all thought.
In The Phantom Menace, when Anakin faces the Jedi Council, Yoda questions him about his mother. "Afraid to lose her, I think," he says. Anakin responds by saying, "What does that have to do with anything?" To this Yoda replies, "Everything! Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering… I sense much fear in you."
What Yoda was telling him is that being controlled by fear makes it impossible to eliminate suffering and find happiness. The Jedi are aware of this and, because of the danger posed by the dark side of the Force, they identify and train Jedi soon after birth—before they have time to know fear, anger, or hate. As we already know, Anakin ultimately will allow his fear to get the best of him and lead him to the dark side.
A Jedi is not a Buddha. There are many aspects of the Jedi that are mystical and supernatural—the ability to move objects with the mind or the ability to see things before they happen, for example. These are not principles or teachings of Buddhism. It is not the aim of this article to convince you that the Jedi are space Buddhists. But many elements of Buddhism have been incorporated into the Jedi, and it is very interesting to see how this aspect of Lucas’s sci-fi epic relates to our earthly culture. May the Force be with you. Always.