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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.  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!

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An Introduction to Zen Buddhism

I have written previously of the profound influence the Dhammapada had on me when I read it at about the age of eighteen.  That resulted for me being for a considerable time what I’ve described elsewhere as a “pseudo-Buddhist“.  During that period, I read pretty much anything about Buddhism I could get my hands on.  This was actually much less than you might think.  Because of immigration from China and Japan, there had been Buddhists in the United States as far back as the mid-19th Century.  Pioneers such as Nyogen Senzaki had even begun to teach Buddhist practices, particularly meditation, to non-Asians by the turn of the 20th Century.  Still, it wasn’t until the post-World War II era that relatively large numbers of Americans began to study Buddhism in earnest.

As these early adopters of Buddhism gradually completed their studies, becoming ordained in some cases, and setting up schools of their own, a trickle of books started to become available in the 60’s and 70’s.  It wasn’t really until the late 80’s and early 90’s, though, with the increased visibility of and interest in Buddhism, partly because of awareness of the plight of Tibet and high profile advocacy by celebrities such as Richard Gere, that the trickle of books became a flood.  One can find Buddhist books and magazines even in bookstores in relatively small towns these days.  Back in the 80’s, even though I lived in a fairly large urban area, the pickings were much slimmer.

My initial interest, for reasons I’ve explained before, was in Theravada, the tradition of Buddhism of Sri Lanka and Thailand.  As noted, though, the pickings were slim, and most of what was available at that time dealt with Zen.  Philip Kapleau’s classic The Three Pillars of Zen was all over the place.  I tried to read it more than once, but I never could get very far in it.  It struck me as boring and irrelevant, and didn’t answer specific questions I had.  I actually bought a used copy of it a couple of years ago and tried to read it again.  Thirty years later, I still found it pretty much as unreadable as I had as a twenty-something, and I passed the book along.  In any case, at some point in the mid-80’s–probably around ’84, though I’m not sure–I came across An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by the famed Japanese scholar of Buddhism D. T. Suzuki.  That book clicked with me immediately, and I reread it time and again.

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Joshu

With the possible exception of Bodhidharma himself, the greatest of all Zen masters is usually considered to have been 趙州從諗, or, as it is pronounced in Modern Mandarin, Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn.  In Japan, he is known as Jōshū Jūshin.  Most commonly, he is known merely as Zhaozhou or Joshu (henceforth I drop the diacritics).  The tendency in writing about the Chinese Zen masters these days is to use the original Chinese forms of their names.  Since Zen came to the English-speaking world mostly via Japan, older books typically use the Japanese forms of the name.  Thus, for example the noted Zen scholar and popularizer D. T. Suzuki, in his seminal works on Zen, always refers to the worthy we are considering here as “Joshu”.  For the rest of this post, I’ll follow his lead.  Yes, it’s less accurate; but then again, the Chinese of the Tang dynasty, during which Joshu lived, was pronounced significantly differently from modern Mandarin; and Joshu probably didn’t pronounce his own name as “Zhaozhou”.  Certainly, with Western religious figures, it doesn’t bother us that we don’t use the original forms of names–that we call the carpenter of Nazareth “Jesus” instead of Yēšūă‘ and his disciple “Peter” instead of Kêphā.  I certainly first encountered and developed an admiration for Joshu under his Japanese name; so Joshu it will be for the rest of this post.

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The Second Most Evil Song of All Time!

 

Here we go again….  😉  As with the Most Evil Song of all time, it’s not about musicianship, or whether the song is a “good” pop song or not, or what your feelings about Justin Timberlake may be.  It’s not even about the conscious intentions of the songwriter(s).  It’s about the message contained within the song.  Let’s jump right in.  Here are the full lyrics (which can be found lots of other places, too); and I’ve quoted the part I want to look at below, my emphasis, as usual:

‘Cause I don’t wanna lose you now
I’m looking right at the other half of me
The vacancy that sat in my heart
Is a space that now you hold
Show me how to fight for now
And I’ll tell you, baby, it was easy
Coming back into you once I figured it out
You were right here all along
It’s like you’re my mirror
My mirror staring back at me
I couldn’t get any bigger
With anyone else beside of me
And now it’s clear as this promise
That we’re making two reflections into one
‘Cause it’s like you’re my mirror
My mirror staring back at me, staring back at me

Superficially, this is better than Savage Garden’s “I Knew I Loved You”, which implies that the lover is brought into very existence merely at the whim and pleasure of the narrator.  Here, the beloved has a separate existence, at least.  The first line of the song, not in the block above, says, “Aren’t you somethin’ to admire/’Cause your shine is somethin’ like a mirror” which at least acknowledges the lover as a “Thou“, a real Other, and compliments her.  However, in the very next line, the narrator says, “And I can’t help but notice/You reflect in this heart of mine.”  Well, it was good while it lasted.

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The Mind is Like a Mirror Bright

mirror

In which I clarify and expand some notions that I unintentionally left hanging last time.

My thesis there is that sin–or human imperfection, if you prefer more neutral terminology–is much like addiction.  An addict, becoming progressively more deeply addicted, becomes less in possession of true freedom of action.  Unlike a first-time user, who freely uses nicotine or heroin or whatever, the addict uses it from physiological and psychological need.  Even with the realization that what he’s doing is bad for himself and that it may compel him to do other negative things–lying, cheating, stealing, even murder–in order to get the next fix, he is powerless to stop.  His freedom of will is mitigated, overlaid, suppressed, all because of the addiction.  This is why interventions are often necessary to get an addict on the way to healing.  Unable to take the first step himself, he needs a prod from others.  He may even need to be forcibly institutionalized.

By analogy, I said sin is like an addiction.  We suffer from it as a result of genes, upbringing, society, and so on, and are in its grip from the start (what we could call “Original Sin”).  Thus, our freedom is compromised by our sinful tendencies, and we are unable, by ourselves, to take the first steps to overcoming sin.  In traditional theology, prevenient grace is God’s “intervention”–the prod he gives us that makes us able to begin the process of spiritual rehab (I should point out that this works in any religious framework.  God can, and in my view does, give prevenient grace to non-Christians as much as to Christians.  The basic concept here could be re-framed in terms of other religions, too, but in this context I’m using the Christian perspective).  Extending this further, I argued that this is not a breach of our free will.  My contention was that just as an addict’s free will is compromised by his addiction, ours is compromised by sin.  I think a strong Scriptural and theological case can be made for this.

Thus, there is a person’s surface, or “false” will–the will that is wounded and compromised by sin.  Just as the addict “wants” drugs, we think we “want” all kinds of bad things.  Below the false will is the true will–what we’d really want if cleansed of sickness.  Just as an addict, after drying out, realizes he doesn’t really want more drugs, the sinner, after cleansing, realizes he never really wanted to sin.  Of course, this rests on my unexamined assumption–that is, that there actually is a “true” will, and that this true will is on the side of the angels–that it really, beneath it all, wants the good and wants to escape addictions, of drugs or of sin.  But is this assumption true?

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