The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Darth Vader’s Karma

by Matthew Bortolin
April 13, 2016
Wed, 04/13/2016 - 10:00 -- Matthew Bortolin

 “Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.”

“You mean it controls your actions?”

“Partially. But it also obeys your commands.”



In Return of the Jedi Darth Vader makes a decision that changes everything. He chooses to forsake the dark side and to destroy his evil master, Emperor Palpatine, thereby saving his son even as he brings about his own death. Yet Vader’s decision was not solely his to make. In part, Vader is carried to that decision by life itself. Vader was born Anakin Skywalker, a slave on a remote world, who by chance met Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. Qui-Gon began Anakin’s Jedi training, an education that put him in a position to be tempted by the dark side and later, in the wake of the Clone Wars, led him to become Darth Vader. But something else happened when he met Qui-Gon; he fell in love with a girl named Padmé. He married Padmé, and they had two children, Luke and Leia. Years later it is Luke whose insight and compassion help awaken Anakin. And when the truth tears away the Sith scales from his eyes, Anakin finally acts for the good of others. He seizes Emperor Palpatine and saves his son’s life.

Through Anakin’s experience we can see that life is a vast web of cause and effect, conditioning all aspects of the universe. When we look at where we are right now we cannot say we got here all by ourselves. Whether in a prison or a penthouse, our upbringing, our education, even our nationality, all helped create our present status, personality, and state of mind. We cannot stand outside the network of cause and effect that is life. Rather, we are part of and conditioned by the perpetual movement of life.

Without the Emperor and his entire Sith legacy there would have been no threat to the Republic. There would have been no trade embargo of Naboo, no crisis in the Senate, no secession movement, no Clone Wars, and no destruction of the Jedi Order. Without the trade embargo of Naboo it is unlikely Anakin Skywalker would have ever found his way to the Jedi Temple, met Palpatine, and turned to the dark side. Had he never turned to the dark side he would not have battled his son. His son, in fact, would have never been born had he not met Padmé. And their meeting was contingent on the trade embargo of Naboo. Anakin needed the trade embargo, needed the Clone Wars, and needed his son to put him in the position to save the galaxy. Had conditions not come together in such a way for Anakin he may never have destroyed the Emperor in Return of the Jedi.

Seen from this perspective, Vader’s act of killing the Emperor began long before Luke was born. It began before Anakin was born and even before Palpatine was born. Each of their lives and actions played a crucial role in setting up Anakin’s heroic act, but they were all conditioned by the world. All actions, all thoughts are conditioned by what has come before them and what is occurring simultaneously with them. We can call this cause and effect—but that is not entirely accurate.

“Cause and effect” suggests a beginning and an end, with one thing clearly the cause and another clearly the effect, but there is no sequence that could be isolated and defined with a definitive starting point and an end. Life is not a two-dimensional timeline; it’s multidimensional and conditioned from all directions. Everything has an impact on everything else. Consequently, life is, in a sense, guided by the interaction of conditions. Yet this gives only a partial, and overly mechanized, picture of life, for there is another factor we need to consider: human will and action.

Recall Luke’s first training aboard the Millennium Falcon in A New Hope. Obi-Wan instructs Luke, “Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.” “You mean it controls your actions?” Luke asks. “Partially, but it also obeys your commands.”

We know from looking at Darth Vader’s experience with the Emperor that life conditions us. When Obi-Wan says the Force “partially” controls our actions, it is like saying life conditions us. We are, of course, active participants in our lives. We are conditioned by the universe, but conversely, we condition it. Ideas, beliefs, salient issues flow through us from our friends, neighbors, world events, and the media. They become part of us, alter our thoughts and our actions, but we also add a bit of ourselves to them. Thoughts, feelings, and world opinion are both collective and individual. The collective contributes to our individual thoughts, feelings, and opinions; our individual thoughts, feelings, and opinions help make up the collective. The collective influences the individual, and the individual influences the collective. The two interpenetrate one another. 

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