If You See Yoda on the Road, Kill Him! A Defense of The Last Jedi

I am, of course, aware that Yoda is already dead, and has been for decades (to say nothing of being a fictional character).  Bear with me on this….  Beginning in 2015, the long-dormant big-screen incarnation of the Star Wars franchise was revived.  All the original cast returned, playing their iconic characters, and fresh new faces playing new characters were also present.  It was the first time since Revenge of the Sith in 2005 that a big-screen Star Wars movie had been made at all, and the first time since Return of the Jedi in 1983–thirty-two years previously!–that the original cast was back in action.  As of this writing (July 2019), two of the movies of the third and final trilogy–The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi–have been released, with the third, The Rise of Skywalker, slated for release in five months.  Two standalone movies, Rogue One and Solo have also been released, and further movies with a new cast are projected; but the main attention has been focused on the three movies which conclude the Skywalker saga.  Fan and critical reaction has been sharply divided on the two released so far, with seeming storms of controversy regarding The Last Jedi in particular.

I don’t really have anything to add to the discussion in terms of a conventional movie review or rating.  It’s been forty-two years since the original Star Wars debuted, and I still don’t think The Empire Strikes Back has been topped.  I certainly don’t have any interest in further stirring the pot of accusations and counter-accusations of sexism, racism, political correctness, and so on and so forth.  More heat than light has been generated on this front, and I doubt there is much likelihood of dialogue in this area, anyway.

What I do want to look at is the metaphysics, or perhaps more precisely, the philosophical and spiritual themes that are present in The Last Jedi and which have been little remarked on in all the tempestuous arguments about other issues.  I think The Last Jedi has definite flaws (some of which, in fairness, were inherited from the plot of its predecessor, and some of the stupid and cockamamie decisions J. J. Abrams made in writing the script for said predecessor), drags somewhat in the middle, and arguably loses focus a bit by expanding the already expanded cast even further.  I definitely would not place it above The Empire Strikes Back.  All that said, I would argue that Last Jedi is actually the second-best movie of the seven Skywalker-centric sequels and prequels to the original Star Wars, right after Empire (and allowing for the fact that Episode IX has not yet been released).  This, I assert, is because of the themes I have already alluded to, and because The Last Jedi is the only movie in the entire Star Wars franchise to take those themes seriously since The Empire Strikes Back (Rogue One made a nod towards some of these themes, but not to the extent that Last Jedi does).  Some of these films have been around quite awhile, and some not; but just to play fair, SPOILERS ABOUND for all the movies in the franchise from this point onward–tread with caution!

To make my argument, I’ll have to discuss these themes; but that will require a little background work.  We’ll start with the Force.  The Force, as aficionados well know, is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the Galaxy together,” in the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars, aka A New Hope.  We don’t really see much of it in that movie, though.  Darth Vader shows it can be used to Force-choke those one dislikes; Obi-Wan gives the first demonstration of the Jedi mind trick; and during the practice session with his father’s light saber while traveling to Alderaan on the Millennium Falcon, and later when firing the shot that destroys the Death Star, Luke is able to “reach out with his feelings”, going beyond his ordinary senses.  That’s about it.  In Return of the Jedi, Luke telekinetically pulls light sabers to him a few times, fails to pull a mind trick on Jabba the Hut, senses Darth Vader’s presence, and by lapsing in concentration, allows Vader to read his mind and find out about his sister.  That’s it for Episode VI.  On the whole, as portrayed in the first and last installments of the original trilogy, the Force isn’t much more than a plot device that adds a bit of local color–not much different in principle from the chop-socky antics of the fighters in a cheesy 70’s kung fu film.

It is in The Empire Strikes Back that we see depth added to the concept of the Force and a use of it which is a notch above typical B-movie expectations.  Much of this can be credited to Irvin Kershner, who directed the film.  George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars franchise, had decided, after his experiences with the original Star Wars, that he did not want to direct.  At this time Lucas was also involved in the production of Raiders of the Lost Ark along with his friend Steven Spielberg.  For both of these reasons, he was less hands-on with Empire than he had been with Star Wars.  This gave Kershner more creative freedom, and he used this freedom in two ways.  One was his penchant for collaboration and ad-libbing.  Harrison Ford had famously said to Lucas, regarding the script for Star Wars, “You can write this shit, George, but you can’t say it!”  With Empire, Kershner encouraged input from the cast, and approved among others an ad-lib that became the most iconic line of the film–Han Solo’s response to Leia’s declaration of love with “I know!”

The second thing creative freedom allowed Kershner to do was to explore his interest in the spiritual themes of the movie.  Kershner, though Jewish by birth, had been a long-time student of Zen Buddhism.  He immediately saw parallels between the beliefs and practices of the Jedi and those of Zen.  These parallels were played up in the movie as filmed, and are clear to anyone who knows something of Zen.  To make the parallels clear, we’ll need to touch very briefly on Zen.

“Zen”–literally “meditation”–Buddhism is a form of Buddhism that developed from about the 6th Century AD onward in China.  Most scholars consider that Zen was a sort of syncretism of Mahayana Buddhism with the native Chinese religion of Taoism.  Zen certainly shares many traits with Taoism, which we’ll see in a moment.  From China, Zen spread to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.  It continues to exist in all these areas, but it had the most profound effect on the culture of Japan.  From there, it has become popular in parts of the West, including the United States.

While all schools of Buddhism practice at least some forms of meditation, meditation is central to Zen–remember, the very word means “meditation”–in a way not characteristic of the other schools.  In Zen philosophy, words all too often conceal more than they reveal, and conventional logic, useful as it may be, is never capable of embracing the whole of reality as it is.  Silent meditation gradually trains the mind to let go of preformulated doctrines and assumptions, and leads eventually to a direct experience of the interconnected nature of reality, an experience that can never be expressed in words.  The inexpressible nature of reality is a theme Zen has in common with Taoism.  The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching, the founding text of Taoism, famously declare, “The way that can be told is not the true way.  The name that can be named is not the true name.”  Reality as it actually is can never be verbally expressed.

This notion comes out most clearly and famously in koans, pithy statements or stories that on the face of it seem paradoxical at best, if not outright crazy.  Some famous examples are “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”, “What was your original face before your ancestors were born?”, and “Mu!” (which I discussed in detail here).  The idea is not that koans should “make sense” in the ordinary meaning of that term.  Rather, their purpose is to shake the properly prepared mind out of its usual modes of logic and reason, modes which, while not bad in and of themselves, and which are quite useful in the appropriate contexts, nevertheless can never give more than only the vaguest approximation of reality itself.

Given this emphasis on direct personal experience, Zen had a natural antipathy for anything too grandiose or highfalutin.  The aesthetic of Zen, most notable in Japanese culture, but present elsewhere, has always tended to prefer the humble, the imperfect, the everyday, and the simple to the self-important, the refined, and the extraordinary.  Zen has a natural preference for the homey, the day-to-day, and the down-to-earth.

Finally, in close connection to its down-to-earth aesthetic, Zen has tended to see enlightenment–the perception of the true nature of reality–not as some transcendent state knowable only to the spiritual elite, nor as some rarefied spiritual accomplishment, but as something available to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear in even the most humble of circumstances.  Anything pursued with single-mindedness and devotion presents the opportunity of grasping reality as it is, if one engages it properly.  This is the idea behind the Japanese concept of the (道, literally “way”, equivalent to the Chinese dào).  Any human activity, be it martial arts, painting, calligraphy, or flower arrangement, to name but a few, if pursued with single-mindedness and the proper disposition of mind, is a potential vehicle of enlightenment and realization of reality as it is.

This last point is behind the conception of the warrior monk.  Zen meditation and discipline help stabilize the mind and emphasize letting go of fear and negativity (or more precisely, integrating those emotions without being dominated by them).  It also is directed at overcoming fear of death.  Moreover, from a Zen perspective, any human activity, including being a solider, can be conducive to enlightenment.  Thus, Zen is a perfect religion for a warrior.  The connection of Zen to the martial arts began in China.  The records are murky, but during periods in which the central government was weak and the countryside rife with banditry and warlords, many monasteries (particularly the legendary Shaolin Temple, according to legend) developed exercises originally designed as a form of calisthenics to keep the monks from becoming drowsy into fighting arts.  This ethos later spread to Japan, where it became immensely popular with the samurai class.  Japanese martial arts to this day have a strong Zen flavor.

So, getting back to the movies and the parallels:

1. The Force is conceptually much like the Tao of Taoism–the mysterious unifying principle of reality out of which all springs and back into which it returns.  The Star Wars franchise gives a half-hearted quasi-“scientific” explanation of the Force as “an energy field created by all living things”, but the way it’s actually presented seems to belie a more materialist interpretation.  In a Zen context, the Force could be equated to an extent with the Dharmakāya, which, to avoid an excruciatingly long explanation, is more or less the underlying, unifying principle of reality.

2. The focus and concentration attained by skilled Zen practitioners is generally held to give them amazing skills in swordsmanship, archery (think of the classic Zen and the Art of Archery), and so on.  This is certainly demonstrated in the many light saber battles of the Star Wars franchise.  Actual paranormal abilities–telekinesis, telepathy, and so forth–are more associated with Tibetan Buddhism and esoteric Japanese schools such as the Shingon.  Such powers are known in those schools as siddhis, and many scriptures of those sects teach methodical ways to attain them.  Whether or not they actually exist in the real world is not germane to the issue–in pop culture they are perceived to, forming a common theme in kung fu and wuxia films.  Thus, while the connection with Zen is more tenuous, it’s still, in my mind, a legitimate parallel.

3. The “dark” and “light” sides of the Force are the farthest afield from actual Zen.  Neither Zen nor the Taoism that influenced it is morally dualistic.  Taoism is indeed dualist, but its dualism is metaphysical–hot/cold, dry/moist, male/female, active/passive–not ethical (good vs. evil).  There is no Taoist concept of a principle of evil like the Devil or the Dark Side of the Force–“evil” is instead a lack of balance between yin and yang.  Zen tends to be non-dualistic in that it would view all apparent dichotomies as mere appearances on the level of ordinary perception, with everything being equally sacred–or profane–from the perspective of an enlightened mind.  “Good” is merely the natural response of a being who is in harmony with the cosmos (that’s really a poor way of putting it, but I don’t have space for a long philosophical discussion), and “evil” is the unskilled activity of untrained minds.

All this said, it has been argued that a one-sided emphasis on practice and mind-training at the expense of explicit moral training has left Zen without adequate tools to avoid moral atrocities.  This article–subtitled, interestingly, “The Dark Side of the Tao”–not only gives an excellent summary of the history of Zen, but explains how it was all too easily co-opted to violent and imperialistic purposes by the Japanese government, with many “enlightened” Zen masters quite eager to help out the Japanese war effort and downplay Japanese atrocities.  Maybe there is a “dark side” of the Force, after all.

4. The idea of meditation and proper cultivation of the Force as leading to focus, peace, and harmony is certainly in keeping with many presentations of Zen.

5.  Zen emphasizes simplicity, humility, and life in accord with nature.  This is very much in evidence with Obi-Wan Kenobi, who lives for decades in a hovel in the desert on Tatooine, and even more so with Yoda, who lives in a mud hut beside a swamp on Dagobah.

6.  Zen masters are often portrayed in the literature as enigmatic, speaking in seeming riddles (often using koans as noted above), eccentric, confounding the expectations of potential disciples, and having a strong sense of humor.  All of these are perfect descriptions of Yoda (at least in The Empire Strikes Back–the script portrays his personality significantly differently in Episodes I-III), and to a lesser extent of the older Obi-Wan.

7. Finally, the Jedi are nothing if not kung fu Shaolin monks in space with cooler weapons!  That parallel is one hundred percent valid!

As I noted above, The Empire Strikes Back was the only film before The Last Jedi to take these themes with any degree of seriousness.  The Force served as no more than a plot device in Episodes IV and VI, and only alluded to in Episode VII.  The treatment in Episodes I-III is stupid, fatuous, and grossly inconsistent.  There is talk of prophecies and bringing balance to the Force (prophecies are about the most un-Taoist, un-Buddhist thing imaginable, outside of the Tibetan Kālacakra tradition), the “will of the Force” (according to Qui-Gon Jinn in Episode I), which makes the Force sound like the Judeo-Christian god, and Palpatine’s claim (apparently false, but who knows?) that a Force user could bring back the dead (as more than Force ghosts, by implication).  Let’s not even start with the midichlorians, the single stupidest and most idiotic idea George Lucas ever came up with….

In Empire, though, we see Luke training under Yoda, learning how to use the Force, and Yoda admonishing Luke for his limited understanding of it.  Luke–who is always the audience stand-in in the original trilogy–persists in seeing the Force as something cool to give you super powers.  Yoda continually tries to get it through Luke’s skull that cool abilities are a byproduct of the practice, not the point of it at all.  This classic sketch presents the same idea humorously; but the point is a serious one.  At their best, all the great warrior traditions–both Eastern, such as Japanese bushido, or Western, such as the art of chivalry–teach spiritual development as the main goal, with military prowess as an ancillary aspect of the training, to be used only in times of real need.  Too many Westerners–and Easterners–failed in this, of course, but it’s still the ideal.  Luke, the enthusiastic young buck, is simply unable to see this, instead itching to boot Darth Vader to the head.

Well, actually he cuts off Vader’s head.  Not really–it is the visionary sequence when Luke enters the tree on Dagobah and experiences a fight with Darth Vader, kills him, and sees his own head beneath the helmet.  This is not only a foreshadowing of the big reveal that Vader is in fact Luke’s father, but a very vivid demonstration that Luke’s tainted, or to be charitable, muddled, motives are leading him down the very same path taken by Anakin Skywalker on the way to becoming Darth Vader.

As it progresses, the movie actually subverts, in a very subtle way, many of the audience’s expectations.  I think probably everyone who watched the movie when it came out was rooting for Luke when he impetuously left Dagobah to save his friends, despite the urging of Yoda and the ghost of Obi-Wan that he stay and complete his training.  We were all mentally going, “Boo Obi-Wan!  Boo Yoda!  Yay, Luke!  Go get ’em!”  What none of us did–then, or often even later–was to think through the results of Luke’s actions.  Let’s see:

Han Solo was tortured (this is what Luke had apparently seen clairvoyantly from Dagobah) before Luke arrived on Bespin, and frozen in carbonite as Luke was still searching for his friends.  Thus, Luke helped Han not a whit.  Well, he did manage to bust Leia, Chewbacca, and the droids out of captivity, right?  Well, not really.  It’s interesting to note, first of all, the actual dialogue (courtesy of here):

			(to Fett)
		You may take Captain Solo to 
		Jabba the Hut after I have 

Han's screams filter through the torture room door.

		He's no good to me dead.

		He will not be permanently damaged.

		Lord Vader, what about Leia and 
		the Wookiee?

		They must never again leave this 

So Leia and Chewie were in no danger for their lives, at least not immediately.  They were apparently to be held under what amounts to house arrest on Bespin, but Vader seems to have  had no motivation to kill them.  Perhaps he thought they’d be useful pawns in his schemes.

So they weren’t in immediate danger, but at least Luke freed them.  Well, no, he didn’t do that, either.  He sees Leia for one moment in the hall, she screams, “It’s a trap!”  and then is immediately hustled away by the guards.  Of course, Luke winds up in the epic battle with Darth Vader, in which he epically–loses.  Just as Yoda and Obi-Wan told him, he is far from ready to take on the Dark Lord of the Sith, and gets himself handily beaten up and his hand sliced off for his trouble.  It is sheer dumb luck that his plunge from the platform–apparently a suicide move, since enough of a light bulb has gone of in Luke’s thick skull that he realizes that Vader will take him captive otherwise and that he will be unable to resist the Dark Side-doesn’t in fact result in his death.  Meanwhile, it is Lando, who having double-crossed Han, Leia, and the others, now double-crosses the Empire, frees Leia, Chewie, and the droids, and gets them to the Millennium Falcon.

In fact, not only did Luke not save his friends, it is they–at great risk, by the way–who save his ass.  Leia senses Luke through the Force as he hangs from the antenna at the base of Cloud City, and at her urging and against his better judgement, Lando flies the ship back to Cloud City–in which, mind you, all hell has broken loose and Imperial agents, including Vader himself, are on the move!–to pick up Luke, and then beat a hasty retreat.  Only Artoo’s last-minute repair of the hyperdrive, worthy of Scotty from Star Trek, keeps them all from getting captured again, and probably permanently.

So, minus one point to Lando for betraying his friends, but plus two for saving them at great risk, so he comes out ahead; one point to Vader for cleaning the floor with Luke and almost capturing him; one point each to Obi-Wan and Yoda for knowing exactly how this would play out; one point to Leia for saving Luke; and minus ten to Luke for thinking he was a badder badass than he actually was, for not listening to his teachers, for not helping his friends the least bit, for almost getting himself captured or killed, and extra bonus negative points for forcing his friends to come fly back into the jaws of danger to save him.  Not looking good for Team Skywalker!

For those who are still rooting for young Skywalker, it bears repeating that Luke’s arrival did not keep Han Solo from being tortured, frozen, and delivered to Boba Fett, and thence to Jabba the Hut.  Leia, Chewie, and the droids were not in danger of death or disassembly.  It’s very clear that Lando’s conscience was bothering him, and his decision to double-doublecross Vader and rescue Leia and company was not in the least way influenced by Luke’s arrival (at this point, Lando doesn’t know who Luke is, and if you watch the film carefully, it’s not clear that he even sees Luke before flying the Falcon back to rescue him later).  The point of all this is that Han would have been tortured, frozen, and sent off to Jabba the Hut, and Leia and the rest rescued from Bespin whether or not Luke had left Dagobah.  It’s quite plausible, in fact, that Lando would have managed to rendezvous with Luke on Dagobah, Luke could have completed his training, and they could have formulated a plan to spring Han from Jabba’s palace that would have been more effective than the one in Return of the Jedi (remember, Luke almost botched that, too.  Then again, if they’d planned better, Leia wouldn’t have got captured and we wouldn’t have got to see her in a bronze bikini…tradeoffs, always tradeoffs….).  Not to put too fine of a point on it, Obi-Wan and Yoda were right all along.

Thus, though the movie is full of the exciting action we’d expect, at the same time it deconstructs the whole storyline by showing that all that exciting action resulted from Luke’s impatience and refusal to take advice.  Things ultimately worked out; but had Luke done as Yoda and Obi-Wan urged him, things might have been smoother and he might not have lost his hand.  Perhaps the entire rebellion could have been completed with greater efficiency and less loss of life.  By his impetuous actions, Luke proved Yoda was right all along when he said, “Wars not make one great.”  Thus, The Empire Strikes Back is far more subversive of the typical pop-culture tropes present in it than would seem on the surface.

Having now laid a ton of groundwork, I’m finally ready to discuss The Last Jedi.  The most interesting parts of the narrative are the scenes between Luke and Rey on Ahch-To, and the scenes between Rey and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo through the Force and later face-to-face aboard Snoke’s ship.  For the first time since Empire, spiritual issues are taken seriously.  Note this early scene between Luke and Rey, my emphasis, editing for length (all script citations courtesy of here):

LUKE: What do you know about the Force?

REY: It’s a power that Jedi have that lets them control people and make things float.

LUKE: Impressive. Every word in that sentence was wrong.

LUKE:  The Force is not a power you have. It’s not about lifting rocks. It’s the energy between all things, a tension, a balance, that binds the universe together.

LUKE:  That Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die, the light dies, is vanity. Can you feel that?

Luke makes two important points.  First, the Force goes beyond just a field generated by living things.  It’s between all things, and far more than “binding the Galaxy together”, it binds the entire universe together (for the record, I always thought the Expanded Universe idea that beings from beyond the galaxy, such as the Yuuzhan-Vong, would therefore not be affected by the Force, was a stupid one).  Moreover, the Force does not belong to the Jedi (or to those with lots of midichlorians!)–it’s truly universal.  This, really, returns to the initial presentation of the Force.  Recall in Episode IV when, on the way to Alderaan, Obi-Wan, in response to Solo’s skeptical sniping at Luke’s lightsaber practice, offers to teach him.  The original idea seems to be that, just as some are more musical or athletic than others, but everyone can learn to sing somewhat or become more fit than they are, likewise, while the Force may be stronger with some than with others, everyone can learn how to use it to an extent if they’re trained.  This is not only more egalitarian, but it fits in more closely with human life (you don’t, for example, need “musichlorians” in your blood to sing!).

Luke goes on to harshly criticize the Jedi for being unable to stop the rise of Darth Sidious and everything that happened after.  This implicitly returns to Yoda’s comment that “Wars not make one great,” and Luke’s own confusion as to proper goals.  As we noted, all throughout the original trilogy, Luke never can quite grasp that cultivating the Force is not just a means to the end of getting cool powers.  Rather, cultivating the Force is the goal, and the powers are a side-effect.  The light finally starts to go on for him when Emperor Palpatine almost goads him into killing Darth Vader in Episode VI.  By the time of The Last Jedi, having had decades to ponder the past and his own failings, Luke has realized that the entire Jedi project was misguided.  The Jedi Order itself had subtly been corrupted.  They started as spiritual seekers who, as a byproduct of their search, found themselves with powers they could use to help people.  They ended not as seekers of spirituality, but seekers of power for its own sake, justifying it with the claim that they were on the side of the Good Guys (which if you follow Episodes I-III closely, is at best debatable).

This resulted in the Jedi tending to use the same methods as the Sith, and justifying it because they were the Good Guys and the Sith were the Bad Guys.  Certainly, in the prequel trilogy, the Jedi seem surprisingly bloodthirsty.  Anakin is quick to lop off the hands–and then the head–of Lord Dooku.  Yeah, Anakin’s a problem child, anyway; but note how in Attack of the Clones, Mace Windu beheads Jango Fett–who’s really more of a mercenary than a villain outright–without even trying to immobilize him, in front of his horrified child, to boot.  That really was a WTF moment for me when I first watched it.  Even worse, note the last–and best–of the prequels, Revenge of the Sith.  After their epic battle, Obi-Wan Kenobi cuts off both of Anankin’s arms and both of his legs and leaves him lying, his flesh catching fire from the lava.  Does Kenobi mercifully dispatch him?  Why, no–instead he gives a pompous speech about how he loved Anakin like a brother–and then casually walks off leaving Anakin to freaking die in agony!!!  If that’s how you’d treat your brother, then no thanks!  I don’t think this has been sufficiently commented on in fandom, frankly.  Obi-Wan seems stone-cold for sure.  Even twenty years later in the cantina on Tattooine, he’s awfully quick to draw his lightsaber and lop off the arm of the guy trying to start a rumble with Luke.  Do Jedi, with all their Force mastery, have no non-lethal or at least non-amputational techniques available to them?

So, by the time of The Last Jedi, the moral bankruptcy of the Jedi Order in comparison to its purported goals and self-image has finally become clear to Luke, and he has no bones about pointing that out.  Even he let his impetuosity and hair-trigger temperament get the better of him when he almost cut down Ben Solo merely because he felt the darkness in him (hell, he could presumably feel the darkness in dear old Dad, too, but he kept giving him second chances!).  He has come to realize that the entire Jedi project was misguided, and that even if the Jedi cease to be, it would be vanity to say that the light will die, too.  It will, of course, carry on–perhaps in people who are better balanced than the Jedi.

Which brings me to one of the best lines in the movie, which proves that Kylo Ren was right, at least in part:

REY: Why did you hate your father? Do you have something, a cowl or something you can put on? Why did you hate your father? Give me an honest answer. You had a father who loved you, he gave a damn about you.

KYLO REN: I didn’t hate him.

REY: Then why?

KYLO REN: Why, what? Why, what? Say it.

REY: Why did you… Why did you kill him? I don’t understand.

KYLO REN: No? Your parents threw you away like garbage.

REY: They didn’t!

KYLO REN: They did. But you can’t stop needing them. It’s your greatest weakness. Looking for them everywhere…. in Han Solo…. now in Skywalker. Did he tell you what happened that night?

REY: Yes.

KYLO REN: No. He had sensed my power, as he senses yours. And he feared it.

REY: Liar.

KYLO REN: Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.

Kylo accurately sees that Rey is desperately holding on the past, looking to “fix” it by “looking for [parents] everywhere”.  She finds two father figures, one who is greatly deficient and ends up slain by Kylo Ren, and another who is unwilling to take on the mantle of father/guru.  All the while, she is uncertain about herself.  Kylo’s solution?  “Let the past die.  Kill it if you have to.”  Which brings me to the Heart Sutra.

The Heart Sutra is probably the most famous piece of Mahayana Buddhist scripture, and also one of the shortest.  Its best-known line is “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”  This cannot truly be understood without years of meditative experience (and I make no claim to that), but for non-mystics, it’s not that hard:

On the one hand, nothing exists in and of itself and by itself in a permanent way, unconnected with everything else in the cosmos.  I think I have a “form”, a me-ness; but I’m not the same person at fifty-six that I was at forty-six or thirty-six or twenty-six or sixteen or six.  I’m not even really the same person I was six minutes ago.  Nor am I a solid reality “in here” as opposed to the world “out there”.  I exist because of my ancestors back through the millennia, back through pre-human species, back to the first microbes; my body is constantly losing old cells and making new ones, taking in new material and excreting old.  Everything is changing, impermanent–in fact the impermanence of all phenomena (what is called anicca in Pali or anitya in Sanskrit) is one of the key teachings of Buddhism.  My “self” seems remarkably elusive.  The form I think is “me” is actually emptiness.

On the other hand, emptiness is not nihilistic nothingness, either.  It is because nothing has a permanent, set existence apart from everything else that anything exists in the first place.  If the cosmos was full of unchanging essences, there’d be no room for growth or change.  If I were a solid “form”, I’d be like a statue–dead, inert (even a statue, if we could see it on a timescale of millennia is not truly inert, as it wears away over time).  Life itself is only possible because of the constant flux of the cosmos, coming into being constantly out of the void.  Thus, emptiness is indeed form.

In a sense, spiritual life, from the Zen perspective, could be said to consist of embracing both sides of the formulation “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”.  If one focuses on only one half of the aphorism, one goes out of balance, with negative results.  In the Star Wars series we can see, in fact, the opposite but equally bad outcomes of embracing only one side of the saying.

The Jedi Order were stuck in “emptiness is form”.  They realized that meaning and being came out of the flux of the universe; but they appointed themselves as bosses over that meaning, thinking that they could keep the Republic perfect (by their definition, of course) forever.  This, of course, makes the error of thinking you can stop the flux and keep everything all nice for as long as you want.  If not, you just try harder.  In other words, they tried to nail down emptiness to keep it as form.  We see where that led.

Kylo Ren, on the other hand, is stuck in “form is emptiness”.  He perceives with one hundred percent accuracy that even good things sooner or later outlive their usefulness and need to go.  “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” One of the most famous sayings in Zen is attributed to the great master Rinzai (in Chinese, Línjì):  “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”  Of course this is not an incitement to homicide, nor to sacrilege.  Rather, Rinzai’s point is that we all have a nice, pat image of the Buddha, or Jesus, or Krishna, or whatever religious, or even secular, figure we revere, in our minds.  We have a framework about what we’re supposed to believe; and all too often, this framework is static, outworn, and incapable of dealing with new situations, let alone the passage of time.  While our beliefs and attitudes may have their uses, and in fact be very helpful at times, we must always be on guard against letting them ossify.  We can’t use yesterday’s solutions for today’s problems.  When reality looks us in the face, and we come up against our old cherished modes of thought–when we meet the Buddha on the road–sometimes we have to toss those cherished modes of thought utterly aside.  We have to kill the Buddha, as it were.  Kylo Ren understands this perfectly–“Kill [the past] if you have to.”

Unfortunately, he takes this too far too literally.  He sees that form is ultimately emptiness–that there’s no eternal One Right Way–and that we sometimes have to be willing to trash our most fondly held patterns of doing things.  Unfortunately, he responds not by creative destruction–that is, changing the way he thinks and feels and acts and learning to relate to the world in a new way–but by plain old destruction, murdering his father and his master, Snoke.  Well, Snoke was a bad guy bend on galactic domination, so no tears shed; but there is not the slightest iota of strategy on Kylo’s part.  If Rey has clung mindlessly to finding the perfect father figure, Kylo equally mindlessly slays every father figure he has ever had.  Thus, while Kylo was right in principle that you have to let the past die, and sometimes you have to actively “kill” it, he was grievously wrong in practice.

The balance is “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”.  In short, don’t get too hung up on permanence because everything is insubstantial, everything changes; but don’t be busting things up just for the sake of busting, either.  To be honest, we don’t actually see that true balance in The Last Jedi, at least not in a fully realized form.  What we do see is just the slightest hint.

Shortly after the scene above, when Rey has told Luke her intention to leave Ahch-To because she thinks Kylo can be turned back to the light, Luke decides to destroy the tree and the sacred Jedi books that he showed Rey earlier.  As he approaches the tree, the Force ghost of Yoda appears.  Luke is taken aback, but explains what he intends to do:

LUKE: I’m ending all of this. The tree, the text, the Jedi. I’m going to burn it down.

He steps up to the tree holding a flaming torch, but pauses, unable to carry through.  Giggling, Yoda shoots a lightning bolt at the tree, instantly setting it on fire.  Luke staggers back and sits down near Yoda’s ghost.  They begin to speak of the Jedi texts, and the following conversation ensues, my emphasis:

YODA: Page-turners they were not. Yes, yes, yes. Wisdom they held, but that library contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess. Skywalker, still looking to the horizon. Never here, now, hmmm? (pokes Luke with his walking stick) The need in front of your nose. Hmmm?

LUKE: I was weak. Unwise.

YODA: Lost Ben Solo, you did. Lose Rey, we must not.

LUKE: I can’t be what she needs me to be.

YODA: Heeded my words not, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure, also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.

Luke, as usual, is focused on the wrong things.  He has indeed learned since the days of his youth, as we’ve noted.  Still, he is either brooding about the past, or uncertain about the future, especially in his concern for Rey–anything but dealing with the here-and-now, which is all any of us ever have in the last analysis.  Yoda, on the other hand, realizes that there must be change and continuity.  The young learn from the old, carrying on where they left off, while growing beyond them.  Ideally, they take the best of what they’ve learned, leaving behind what is unnecessary, and adapting to new situations as they occur.  If all goes well, they are not locked into the impossible task of maintaining an illusory past, like the Jedi Order, or trying to burn everything down, like Kylo Ren.  They see that form is emptiness and that emptiness is form.

This hint of balance is also alluded to in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that occurs later in the film.  Yoda has just bad-mouthed the sacred Jedi texts, saying that they contained nothing that Rey “does not already possess”.  We are led to believe, when Yoda ignites the tree, that the books are in or beside it, and also burn to ashes.  Later, though, when Rey is leaving on the Millennium Falcon, there is a very brief shot in which we see the Jedi texts.  Yoda’s words had a double meaning–the books contain nothing that Rey does not possess, because in fact she does possess them.  In his typical, cryptic, Zen master way, Yoda has subtly indicated that the books were not a complete waste of time, after all.  It’s just a matter of putting them to proper use, rather than allowing them to sit and gather dust, or thinking that they are the end-all and be-all.  Literally destroying them was no more necessary than literally killing the Buddha.  All that had to be destroyed was the wrong attitude toward them.

Luke’s final act is a return to his glory days and a self-effacement.  He realizes simultaneously that he can no longer sit out the struggle between the Resistance and the First Order, and that nevertheless his time has passed.  By projecting his Force image, he is able to distract Kylo Ren and the First Order long enough for the Resistance to flee Crait.  By baiting Kylo without actually killing him, Luke in a sense makes up for his lapse years ago while perhaps giving the younger man something to think about.  Maybe, just maybe, he will finally reform (though with Abrams writing the last movie, who knows?).  Exhausted by the effort, Luke dies and is absorbed into the Force, to appear next time, we presume, as a Force ghost to guide Rey in ways he could not before.

I think I will now draw this extremely long and rambling post to a close, having covered all the major themes I wanted to cover in regard to The Last Jedi.  Is it a great movie?  No.  Could it have been better?  Yes, in several ways.  Is it a travesty?  No, not at all.  It is the only movie in the Star Wars series besides The Empire Strikes Back to take the spiritual themes merely implied in the others with seriousness and to look at what implications those themes have as the storyline draws to a close after over forty years.  We can only hope that J. J. Abrams doesn’t botch the last entry in the Skywalker story.  Even if he does, though, we can always ignore it and ponder the interesting themes that the Star Wars movies have given us over the years.  May the Force be with you all–and if you meet Yoda on the road, kill him (not literally), if you have to!

Part of the series “Reviews, Views, and Culture, Pop and Otherwise

Posted on 23/07/2019, in Buddhism, Entertainment, Laozi, movies, philosophy, pop culture, religion, science fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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