When George Lucas’ space saga about a budding rebellion of Jedi Knights battling the evil Galactic Empire hit cinemas in 1977, few could imagine it would become one of the most successful film franchises in history.
There have been many influences on the mythology and director Lucas created for the Star Wars universe. Some cite Joseph Campbell’s study of mythological archetypes, The Hero of a Thousand Faces, while others refer to the films of famous Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.
But what many miss are the influences of Eastern religions and philosophy such as Buddhism and Taoism, an ancient Chinese religion and philosophy focused on harmony with the universe.
As a philosopher, Buddhist, and huge Star Wars fan, I can’t fail to see these strong Eastern influences, especially in the idea of ”strength” and in the Jedi view of attachment.
In the original Star Wars film, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi describes the Force to young Luke Skywalker as “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us, it binds the galaxy. Some see it as an influence of the traditional Chinese belief in “chi,” the life force or energy present in all living things.
Other possible Chinese influences include the concept of Tao, which means “the way” or “the way”. A Jedi would most likely think of the force in very similar terms. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines the Tao as “the source and principle of cosmic order”.
Te King, the main text of Taoism, proclaims the following:
The Tao is infinite, eternal. Why is it eternal? He was never born so he can never die. Why is it infinite? He has no desire for himself. Thus, he is present in all beings.
The force reveals the interconnectedness of the Star Wars universe, and there are Buddhist principles that evoke this idea, such as sunset, meaning “void” formulated by the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. He maintained that everything is “empty” (the silence) of self-existence, which means that nothing exists independently of everything else because everything is connected. In different ways, these two ideas are possible influences on strength.
The Jedi Order teaches its members not to get attached to people or things as this will eventually lead to the dark side. This is why Jedi are not allowed to pursue romantic relationships or marriage, and why characters Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala from Attack of the Clones have to keep their relationship a secret.
This aversion to attachment is expressed throughout the prequels that were made after the original Star Wars trilogy. In The Phantom Menace, the Jedi are reluctant to train the infant Anakin because he is afraid, which he believes comes from missing his mother. Yoda, the oldest and wisest Jedi master, said, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to pain.
In Attack of the Clones, Padmé asks Anakin if Jedi are allowed to love, to which he replies, “Attachment is forbidden. Possession is prohibited. Finally in Revenge of the Sith, Anakin seeks advice from Yoda after having nightmares about Padmé’s death. Yoda told him, “Death is a natural part of life…attachment leads to jealousy, that is, to the shadow of greed.” Train yourself to let go of everything you fear you will lose.
It’s a very Buddhist way of looking at things. Buddhism teaches that suffering or dissatisfaction, expressed by the Pali word dukkha, is inherent in the human condition. The reason for this suffering is tanhameaning “thirst” in Pali, but better translated as attachment or thirst.
Humans yearn for things to be different from what they are, which causes suffering when they are not the way we want them to be. The roots of tanha are the “three poisons” of hatred, greed and ignorance (or delusion). These poisons are similar to Yoda’s fear, anger and hatred and all three, as he puts it, “lead to suffering” – another clear Buddhist influence.
Anakin is unable to overcome his tanha. Naturally, he finds it difficult to come to terms with his mother’s death. However, he also gives in to his attachment (love) for Padmé, having premonitions of her death, he longs to save her, rather than accepting that death is inevitable for all of us.
This desire allows him to be manipulated by Emperor Palpatine, who promises him that he can learn how to save his wife. In the end, Padmé dies of a broken heart after watching Anakin become the evil Darth Vader, leaving him to suffer for his mistakes.
Some claim that it was the strict philosophical doctrines of the Jedi that caused Anakin’s surrender to the dark side. From a Buddhist point of view, however, the Jedi were right.
Anakin had to accept the impermanence of life, another fundamental concept of Buddhism called aniccaand understand that it was his despair (tanha) for the inaccessible immortality of his relatives which caused his downfall. His transformation into Darth Vader proved Yoda and the Buddha right, and underscores the Buddhist influence on the Jedi view of attachment.
There are many influences on Star Wars from different traditions, beliefs, and mythologies. But the obvious presence of concepts from Eastern religious and philosophical beliefs in particular demonstrates the impact that philosophy can have on popular culture.
Creations like Star Wars can serve as a useful and moving medium to help make philosophy more accessible beyond an intellectual or academic sphere, engaging viewers in something bigger and more enduring than the mere plot of a Hollywood movie.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Lee Clarke does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.
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