The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

The Dharma of Star Wars

by Matthew Bortolin
November 11, 2015
Wed, 11/11/2015 - 10:00 -- Matthew Bortolin

In April 2015 I attended the galaxy’s biggest party (Star Wars Celebration Anaheim), and was once again amazed at the unifying power of George Lucas’s cinematic creation. I cannot explain the comradery, the profound sense of connection, and the shared joy I felt watching the premiere of the second trailer for The Force Awakens in a room brimming with dedicated and ardent fans. 

Star Wars conventions have an uncanny power to break barriers of religion, ideology, and age, and bring together people of vastly different walks of life to share a common love. It is truly a unique experience that awakens something deep inside all of us and makes us feel part of a larger family. Perhaps it stems from a shared childhood connection to the galaxy far, far away—after all, so many of us were raised on lightsabers and action figures. Or maybe it’s the saga’s mythological roots that tap our humanity at a primordial level. Whatever it may be, the Force awakened in me last month at the Anaheim Convention Center and, judging by the reactions I witnessed, I wasn’t alone.

Now I understand that the Force is fantasy, but it’s also a touchstone everyone can relate to, a byword for the ineffable something that reaches all of us and ties us together. We can’t see it, but we know it’s there. We know it because we feel it—like that swell of communal joy that erupted over three little words: “Chewie, we’re home.” Or the sense of brotherhood we have when tragedy strikes our community and we drop pretenses and help our neighbors authentically and without barriers. The Force is a way of describing interbeing—the interconnectedness we all share, the fact that we depend on each other for our existence.

Obi-Wan Kenobi said the Force is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Interbeing is always there binding us together. It just usually takes something big for us to notice.

In our busy lives we often overlook this indescribable connection we have with others. We rush past our spouse every work morning, we roll our eyes at the talking heads on TV, we ignore the unspoken needs of our children. But every so often we remember, and the illusory walls between us melt away.

The Buddha taught meditation to help us stop running blind, come home to ourselves, and reconnect with our eternal connectedness. It might just be this practice that made my fellowship with Star Wars fans so palpable. It might be that moment was bigger than us all. From the first note of John Williams’ score to the final beat of the trailer, I shared this connection with thousands of strangers in a darkened theater. And just like Han said to Chewie, I knew I was home.

This month marks the ten-year anniversary of the release of my book The Dharma of Star Wars, and this fall Wisdom Publication is offering it again—completely revised and updated with brand new content and a fabulous new cover. I present here a small excerpt from this new version. It is representative of how we blended the old with the new, and continues the theme of interbeing—specifically around the Buddhist teachings on relative and absolute truth—touched on in this post.

In Attack of the Clones Obi-Wan tracked Jango Fett—the man behind an assassination attempt on Padmé—to the water world of Kamino. The seas outside Tipoca City on Kamino swelled. On Kamino oceans dominate the surface of the planet and their waves rolled and crashed like the troubled thoughts in Obi-Wan’s mind. Each of those waves had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some waves were bigger than others. Some crested quickly, while others rolled on for several seconds. Some were beautiful and some ugly. Looking out on those waves, Obi-Wan would have been able to contemplate both their relative and their absolute nature.

From the point of view of relative truth, a wave is a wave. It is born, exists for a span of time, and dies. If we look at ourselves from the relative point of view, we may experience a lot of anxiety, because we are caught in a conceptual view of the world that isolates self from other, birth from death, joy from suffering. But from the point of view of absolute truth these concepts aren’t real. Like a hologram of a Rancor monster they can’t do anything to us (there is no real “us” to do anything to), they’re just a vision. From the point of view of the absolute, a wave is ocean. The wave arises out of, abides in, and returns to the ocean, all while being indivisible from it. You cannot separate the wave from ocean. And you can’t have the ocean without the wave.

Our lives are like waves and nirvana is like the ocean. When tangled in concepts and ideas about our world, we see “I” and “mine”; we are tossed about by what happens to “us” and “ours.” But when we disentangle ourselves from conceptuality, where we previously saw crashing waves of “I” and “mine” we see only the peace of an infinite and all-encompassing sea. If Obi-Wan looked out at the waves on the seas of Kamino with the insights gleaned from understanding the symbiont circle, he’d know the nature of the waves is ocean; he’d understand that each discrete moment of relative experience is but a shimmer on the surface of the absolute. Relative and absolute truth are interconnected. In a way, the absolute truth is understanding what relative truth really is. Joy and suffering arise and fade away together.

I hope you enjoyed this brief glimpse into the new and improved The Dharma of Star Wars, and remember: the Force will be with you, always. 

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