Newsletter... 5-25-02

Sun, May 26, 2002
MONKS SEEING DOUBLE: Echoes of dharma in 'Star Wars'
Director George Lucas is lucky Lord Buddha didn't copyright his teachings "In whom there is neither fraud nor conceit. Who is without greed. Unselfish. Desireless. With anger quelled, his mind quenched. He is a - Jedi?" Buzzzz! Wrong answer. Thank you for participating in "The Weakest Link". You may step down. Although we have learned that the Jedi code says: "A Jedi shall not know anger. Nor hatred. Nor love", the correct answer to this question is a "bhikkhu" or monk, according to the Udana section of the Buddhist cannon. The verse is said to have been uttered by none other than the Lord Buddha himself.
Now try again. Who said, "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering." If you think the answer is "Buddha", then you're wrong again. It's actually the top Jedi master Yoda. (Notice how similar the names sound).
Anyone familiar with Buddhism can spot its parallels with the Star Wars' Jedi order, particularly in George Lucas' latest instalment. This clone-like copying gives a new and quite literal meaning to the film title "Attack of the Clones." Incidentally this is also Episode II. Anyone seeing double? Lucky Lucas can get away with it without paying royalty fees, because the Buddha didn't copyright his teachings or Dharma, describing them as the universal truth which he had only discovered, not created. And if that sounds familiar, perhaps you're thinking of The Force, described by Yoda in these words: "Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Feel the force around you . . . Here, between you and me, the tree, the rock."
This sci-fi franchise is long known for its religious overtones, which differentiate it from the next-in-line Star Trek with its secular techno-babble. Lucas himself admitted in a Time magazine interview before Episode I: "I see 'Star Wars' as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distil them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct, that there is a greater mystery out there." Nodding 'Star Wars' fans say this mystical side taken to mythical proportion gives the films their "soul". Although Lucas borrowed freely from many myths and several religions - Anakin's virgin birth and the larger theme of the fall, wandering, return and redemption are unmistakably Biblical - there is a strong Buddhist flavour to it that has been called by one critic "the second coming of the Beatles and their Maharishi Yogi, a conspiracy to lead our youngsters away from Christianity into Zen Buddhism . . . or worse." Talk about paranoia!
Like any good myth, "Star Wars" can be interpreted in many ways and on more than one level. The theme of the battle between the forces of good and evil is as old as civilisation itself. It can be traced back 2,500 years ago to Iran, where the Zoroastrians believed that Earth was the field where the war between good and evil was played out. On this level, the movie "borrows" much from Japan. Lucas' Jedi are obviously modelled on samurai - watch how they hold their light sabres - whose Bushido philosophy combines Zen Buddhism and Taoism. Another give-away are many of Amidala's outfits and hair-dos, which are obviously Japanese rip-offs.
The movie also gives a veiled "Free Tibet" message. It suggests the planet Naboo as Tibet, threatened by the vaguely Chinese-looking Trade Federation bad guys to the point that its leader (read Dalai lama) had to flee. "Amidala" is a resemblance of Amitabha, a future Buddha, just like the Dalai Lama. And her other name "Padme", meaning lotus, is taken from the Tibetan chant, "Om mani padme hum" ("The jewel is in the lotus").
However, like the Indian epics "Mahabharata" and "Ramayana", "Star Wars" can also be read on another level. The common thread among these sagas is the notion, more in line with Theravada Buddhism as practised in Thailand, that the real battle is an internal one. The spiritual journey is often described in Buddhism as a war against Mara and his army, the personification of all defilement. (One of the Buddha's epithets says "one who has won the most difficult of wars".)
In Episode II, Anakin, now 19 years old, is shown to be gradually swerving away from the Jedi order and veering to the "dark side." In one scene he is told to practise compassion and turn away from attachments and possessions, for they lead to the fear of loss. But the request is to no avail. Anakin will fall in love with Amidala and slaughter those who killed his mother. Besides, he's seen to become arrogant with his abilities, swearing at his teacher Obi-wan. These are easily identifiable as the Buddhist concept of the three roots of evil: desire, anger and ego.
In Yothajivasutta, in the Buddhist cannon, Buddha compares a monk to a warrior. He says there are those warriors who give up a battle for three reasons: seeing the dust from the enemy camp, seeing the enemy flag, and hearing the thundering sound of the enemy army, while others engage with the enemy and fight all the way to victory.
Likewise, a monk's battle is against the temptation of sex. He says there are monks who give up celibacy at 1) hearing about a woman, 2) seeing a woman, 3) being talked to by a woman and 4) being touched by a woman. Then there are those monks who do not yield to such temptations. By this standard, it is obvious that Anakin's resistance fails at the very first round. (He was already a goner when he learned that he would see Amidala again).
Seen in that sense, the real "Star Wars" are the ones in our minds, and each of us is, like Anakin, an apprentice Jedi who struggles against the temptations of the "dark side", not necessarily to the same end. Perhaps on the occasion of Visakha Bucha (Buddha's Birthday) this year it may be appropriate to say to each other: "May the Force be with you."
Paisarn Likhitpreechakul
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