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Star Wars: Buddha in Space

Films that we apply the classic label to tend to blind us, because no matter what its faults, we want it to be okay.  We need it to be okay.  Otherwise, what we will we do with the $50 extended edition blu-ray?  But sometimes the most frustrating classics to re-examine are not the ones that are explicitly bad, but ones that strive to tell a good thing in the wrong way.

The original Star Wars film is superior in many regards to the ones that followed.  Even beyond the impressive chemistry between the three main actors, and the remarkable quality considering the film’s low budget, it tackles a lot of very emotiona topics in either direct or indirect ways.  There’s the loss of family, governmental abuse of power, escaping from damaging lifestyles, and human relations and connection between clashing personality types.  But the thing that really makes the film noteworthy is that before there was a long-established history of the epic space ninjas known as jedi to detract us from George Lucas’s main point, there was that one very simple conversation between an aged Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo that explained, in a nutshell, what the point of the film was.

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“You don’t believe in the force, do you?” Luke asks Han.  “I’ve been from one side of this galaxy to another,” Han replies.  “I’ve seen a lot of crazy things, but I’ve never seen anything that makes me thing there’s one all-powerful force controlling everything.”

It’s this same conversation where old Ben gives Luke a helmet with a blaster shield down, blocking his vision, and tells him to continue draining with the laser droid.  Wielding a lightsaber, Luke trusts his feelings, and anticipates the droid’s moves, thereby proving, to the audience at least, that The Force is indeed a real thing.  Han, being a true skeptic, laughs it off as luck.

But it’s also this same Force that the saga’s villain Darth Vader claims as the source of his power.  By its power he chokes insubordinate officers with a flick of the wrist, senses the presence of force-strong people, and even anticipates Obi-Wan’s plans.  And yet, Vader is unapologetically evil, a villain in the most traditional sense of the word.  It’s also in one of these looks at Darth Vader that an Imperial officer explicitly calls Vader’s belief in the force “that old religion.”

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And there we have the crux of the matter.  The Force is indeed a religion.  That’s lost on the franchise’s later installments, which are more about space battles and lightsabers than this ‘religion,’ but it truly is one.  Many a devotion and short sermon have been made using the analogy that The Force is God.  But that’s really only half true.  The Force might be god, but it’s not Jehovah.  It’s stretching for a different present-day religion entirely – one that you’d have to go to the Far East to find in concentrated numbers.

You see, The Force draws its inspiration not from concepts within the Judeo-Christian realm, or any realm that we might traditionally consider monotheistic, but rather finds its inception within Buddhism.  Obi-Wan telling Luke to “stretch out with your feelings” and “empty your mind” are as reminiscent of Buddhism as a film can possibly be without mentioning the term itself.  Nagarjuna, a Buddhist philosopher who lived in the second and third centuries, taught the idea of śūnyatā, which is, emptiness.  Buddhism generally encourages the release of anger, attachment, and dissatisfaction (notice that attachment, and thereby virtues such as love, are somehow seen as vices), but emptiness is more than that.  It is the release of being independently existent.  You still exist, just not independently.  This is exactly why Buddhism is sometimes given the seemingly paradoxical moniker “nontheistic religion.”

Are any powerful jedi speeches about “becoming one with The Force” coming to mind?

But if that were all there were to the story, then there’d be no conflict, we could just denounce the saga and move on.  Instead, Star Wars offers some explicitly and undeniably good messages that it’s really hard to see a problem with.  Han Solo, a selfish smuggler and border-line mercenary, learns to act selflessly and forget about the money.  Luke, while becoming more attuned to The Force, forms close bonds with his companions (thereby throwing out, in a sense, the aversion to attachment in Buddhism, as well as a few jedi statements elsewhere in the saga).  We see Obi-Wan, the mentor of the group, consistently going out of his way to help others.

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So even with its train wreck theology, Star Wars strives to tell us good things.  Even the fact that Vader and Obi-Wan draw from the same ‘religion’ is a good conversation piece, that those who’ve used God’s name to commit violent acts should not equated with peaceful Christians, for example.  So perhaps the most prudent approach is to cling to Star Wars for its good moral messages while closely scrutinizing its theology, especially for younger viewers.

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