The Spiritual Message Hidden in Star Wars

by Daniel Burke, CNN Religion Editor

Star Wars has always kept its fingers close to America’s spiritual pulse. In the ’70s and ’80s, the interstellar saga explored Eastern traditions, mainly Buddhism and Taoism, just as many “spiritual, but not religious” dabblers were doing the same. At the turn of the millennium, Star Wars caught the McMindfulness craze. The Phantom Menace opens with two Jedi talking about the benefits of meditation. Riveting, it was not. But the latest film in the saga, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, touches on trends in American religious life in some surprising ways, especially for a franchise that’s so nakedly commercial. (The Last Jedi was the highest-grossing movie in the United States last year and raked in nearly $1.3 billion worldwide.)

“It is very much a movie of this time,” said the Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, a Buddhist teacher, social justice activist and Star Wars aficionado who lives Berkeley, California. “It draws on ancient teachings, as well as what is happening in this country right now.” But there’s some debate about what The Last Jedi intends to say about modern religious life: Is it warning about the end of organized religion, or a parable about spiritual renewal?

‘Do, or do not. There is no try.’

Star Wars is, at heart, a story about the rise and fall of an ancient religion.
When we meet the Jedi, in Episode I, they’re mindfulness-meditating, axiom-spouting space monks who keep order in the galaxy and swing a swift lightsaber. By Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, the once-great order is reduced to a lone soul, Luke Skywalker, serving a self-imposed penance on a remote island. When Rey, the young heroine, shows up seeking spiritual training, Luke refuses. The Jedi religion is over, he says, a victim of its own hypocrisy and hubris. Luke even prepares to burn the ancient Jedi texts. (In a bit of historical irony, the island on which the scene is filmed, Skellig Michael, was home to medieval Irish monks who “saved civilization” by rescuing ancient Christian books.) But the film hints that Luke might not be the “last Jedi,” after all. Even without his help, Rey is remarkably skilled at connecting with the Force, the mysterious energy that pervades the galaxy.
This is where some cultural commentators see an argument against organized religion. In previous Star Wars films, using the Force required joining the Jedis and spending years learning the “old ways” from established masters.
Luke seems to say that none of that matters anymore. “He is making a very modern case for spirituality over organized religion,” argues Hannah Long in The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine. “If all roads lead to the Force, then the dusty tradition and doctrine doesn’t really matter.” In The AtlanticChaim Saiman makes a similar argument. The Last Jedi seems to reflect many millennials’ ideas about religion, namely their waning interest in “structured religion” in favor of “unbounded spirituality,” he writes. But is that the whole story?

‘Always two there are: A master and apprentice’

George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, says he wanted to do more than entertain the masses. He wanted to introduce young Americans to spiritual teachings though “new myths” for our globalized, pluralistic millennium. “I see ‘Star Wars’ as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and accessible construct,” Lucas has said. “I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery.” In this, Lucas sounds a lot like his mentor, Joseph Campbell, a scholar who studied world myths. Campbell argued that all cultures impart their values to the next generation through archetypal stories. He believed the same about organized religion, but said it must “catch up” to the “moral necessities of the here and now.” Lucas himself has been called a “Buddhist/Methodist,” though it’s not clear that he identifies with either religious tradition. “Let’s say I’m spiritual,” he told Time magazine in 1999.
Irvin Kirshner, the director of the The Empire Strikes Back, says Yoda, the small but spiritually powerful Jedi master, was created in part to evangelize for Buddhism. “I want to introduce some Zen here,” he said, “because I don’t want the kids to walk away just thinking that everything is a shoot-’em-up.” Mushim Patricia Ikeda, a Buddhist teacher and social justice activist, said Yoda reminds her of the monks she studied with in Korea: wise, cryptic and a little impish. “I watched those movies and I thought, check, check, double-check,” said Ikeda, the community coordinator at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California. There’s been a lot written about Buddhism in Star Wars, from scholarly papers to popular books, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say, “Star Wars” borrows quite a bit from Buddhist symbols, teachings and practices. One writer calls it “Zen with lightsabers.”
The name of the Jedi Order itself could be borrowed from Asian culture, said religion scholar Christian Feichtinger. The “jidaigeki,” a genre of popular movies in Japan, depict samurai learning to combine swordsmanship with spiritual training, and slowly discovering that the mind is mightier than the sword. (Sound familiar?) Throughout “Star Wars,” the Jedi talk often about mindfulness and concentration, attachment and interdependence, all key Buddhist ideas. Two — mindfulness and concentration — are steps on the Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s guide to spiritual liberation. You could argue that The Last Jedi telegraphs its spiritual debts to Buddhism. When Rey is meditating, she touches the ground, mirroring an iconic image of the “earth-touching” Buddha. And, as an astute colleague noticed, a mosaic pool a Jedi temple shows an icon that looks a lot like Kannon Boddhisattva, a large-eared Buddhist being who hears the cries of the world. But there’s more to spirituality in Star Wars than Buddhism. Like Zen itself, the saga blends aspects of Taoism and other religious traditions. “The Force,” for example, sounds a lot like the Taoist idea of “chi,” the subtle stream of energy that animates the world.
There’s plenty about “Star Wars” that doesn’t jibe with Buddhism, not least the fact that Darth Vader — the supreme personification of evil — is an avid meditator. Even the storylines that borrow from other religions teach Buddhist lessons. Take Darth Vader’s narrative. He was born of a virgin, and was supposed to save the galaxy before he succumbed to temptation, all ideas with clear Christian resonances. But the reason for Vader’s fall from grace — the lessons viewers are supposed to take away — seems distinctly Buddhish. Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi who will become Darth Vader, had been “attached” to the idea of saving his family, Yoda says. “Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is.”

‘Clear, your mind must be’

Earlier this month, the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California, hosted a workshop called “Jedi Insights: A Force For Justice.” About 40 people turned out, including several teenagers and new meditators. Ikeda, who co-led the workshop, said many teens are like Rey, the inexperienced but enthusiastic Jedi: looking for mentors to help unravel the mystery of self-knowledge. “They’re like, please, please, please, give me that spiritual training,” Ikeda said. During the workshop, Ikeda and her co-teacher, John Ellis, discussed Star Wars scenes and led guided meditations. Inevitably, a few lively lightsaber battles broke out. Almost as inevitably, because this is America in 2018, the discussion got political. “There’s so much going on, from the environment to taxes to education, that it’s easy to be overwhelmed,” Ellis said. “‘Star Wars’ help us think about how meditation teaches us to focus on the task at hand, and bring our best self to it.”

‘A pile of old books’

So what is the spiritual message in The Last Jedi, and what — if anything — can it tell us about religion in real life? It’s true that millennials may be eager for spiritual training, but they are are increasingly unlikely to identify with a specific religion. Nearly one in three says they have no religious affiliation.
But let’s take a closer look at why millennials are leaving, or forsaking, the fold. A new study of young former Catholics, conducted by St. Mary’s Press Catholic Research Group and Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, found that more blamed their family for the decision to leave the church than the church institution itself. Only 11% said they quit Catholicism because they oppose the church or religious institutions in general. The study also found that nearly half had joined other religious communities, including other Christian ones. So is organized religion really the issue here?
It’s no secret that we’re living during a time of seismic shifts, from technology to politics to spirituality. It’s not so much an “era of changes,” Pope Francis has said, as a “change of eras.” So what’s the leader of a 2,000-year-old church to do? The answer is not resurrecting “obsolete practices and forms,” Francis says. Some Catholic customs, while beautiful, “no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel.” But the Pope is no iconoclast, eager to discard sacred traditions. In fact, he wants Catholics to go back to the roots of their religion, the Gospel. Francis has repeatedly implored Christians, particularly priests, to put Jesus’ words into action by caring for the sick, the lame and the poor. He wants shepherds who smell like their sheep, not bookkeepers who smell like sheepskin. Which brings us back to the spiritual message encoded in The Last Jedi.
As Luke prepares to torch the tree containing the sacred Jedi texts, Yoda appears out of nowhere and does the deed himself, cackling all the while. “Time it is,” Yoda says, “for you to look past a pile of old books.” Some fans were aghast that Yoda would feign sacrilege against the Jedi tradition. But when you look at the scene from a Buddhist lens, the meaning shifts. Zen is full of stories about ancient masters trying to jolt their apprentices from mental ruts. In one ancient monastery, the students paid too much attention to Buddhist images, so the head monk torched them. (“If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha,” says a famous koan.) These lessons and koans are not meant to be permanent prescriptions for all Buddhists for all time. They’re highly particular, transmitted from master to apprentice, one mind to another. In that light, maybe Yoda’s apparent willingness to burn the “old pile of books” isn’t really about texts, which he already knows are safely in Rey’s possession. Maybe it isn’t even about religion. It’s just about Luke. Yoda is trying to shock him out of his guilt and shame about the past, and make him focus on “the need in front of (his) nose,” the Resistance that could sorely use a little saving.
So perhaps the real spiritual message of “Star Wars” isn’t about the end or beginning of organized religion. Maybe, like a good Zen teacher, it’s a mirror showing us our own minds. Are we preoccupied with the past, concerned about the future, or paying attention to the needs in front of our noses?
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Daniel Burke is CNN’s Religion Editor, where he edits the award-winning religion section, CNN Belief, and offers on-air analysis on CNN and its affiliated networks. CNN Belief was named the “Best Online Religion Section” in 2014 and 2015 by the Religion News Association
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