The Dharma of Star Wars - Preface
A New Revised and Expanded Edition
“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at you side.”
—HAN SOLO IN A NEW HOPE
What is the Dharma? And what in Sith spit does it have to do with Star Wars? Well, if you’re like me, the Dharma has everything to do with that glorious galaxy far, far away.
The Dharma is the Buddhist teachings that points to the true nature of reality. Like an X-wing targeting computer that zeroes in on the bull’s-eye, the Dharma isn’t the target, the truth, itself; it only aims us in the right direction. That’s because the true nature of reality isn’t something that can be understood through words or concepts—it’s the way your life is right now, free from the confusion of hokey religious beliefs, philosophical ideology, and Sith sophistry. The Dharma directs us to the truth of reality, of heart of real life. And my life has (almost) always been about Star Wars.
Like everybody and (nowadays) his mother, I grew up with Star Wars. The “Early Bird” figures, Death Star playset, Chewbacca’s bandolier strap figure case—I played with all that stuff. My earliest memory is the Star Wars logo slamming against the star-flecked blackness of my local theater’s big screen. My dad whispered the crawl in my ear as it rolled passed, and I was hooked—Star Wars would forever be my life. If you cut me open, I bleed X-wings and lightsabers.
I came to process my experiences through my understanding of Star Wars. My interpretation of its myth colored the way I viewed everything from relationships to politics. My feelings of longing and boredom are always accompanied by John Williams’ music and twin suns setting on my mind’s horizon. Star Wars occupied my every waking minute. It was also my first experience with the Dharma, although I didn’t know it at the time. “To me, Yoda is a Zen master.” commented The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kirshner during filming. Zen is one expression of the Dharma, and Yoda did indeed say very Zen-like things. He tells Luke, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Most of us don’t do, we try. We try to clean the floor, try to work at ILM, try to put the ship on the land—try to realize the truth of reality. Trying always implies a goal, an end result that doing leads to. We push through the doing to get to the goal. But the thing is, almost every second of life is doing. Goals can be achieved, but in a flash they’re gone and we immediately turn our attention to the next goal, to the future, the horizon—never our minds on where we are, on what we are doing (to paraphrase Yoda). And before you know it, twenty, thirty, sixty year fly by and we’ve spent almost all of our lives pursuing goals that pretty much exist only in our heads.
Realization of the true nature of reality can’t come from trying because trying suggests you already have an idea of the truth that you’re aiming for. The concept of the truth is never the truth itself. You must put aside trying and do— fully engage in the present moment—then the truth beyond concepts will be revealed. This is called living a realized life.
There is a story I think Yoda would appreciate about a Buddhist student asking his master to explain the secret of the Dharma. When asked, the teacher answered, “Have you finished your breakfast?” Confused, the student stammered that he had. The teacher replied, “Then go wash your bowl.”
Like trying to achieve a goal, the student is trying to grasp the meaning of Dharma intellectually. But the Dharma isn’t interested in concepts. It’s pointing us to concrete reality and encouraging us to live a realized life. We can’t do that with our intellect. We have to do that by doing. By Force levitating the X-wing; by washing our bowl.
We live much of our lives in our head juggling two or more things at once. We try to puzzle out meaning and form conceptual frameworks that give purpose to our actions. This is understandable—it’s part of being human. But to live a realized life we have to move past concepts and do what we are doing. Life isn’t a goal we achieve or an idea we grasp. Life is what’s happening right now.
“Do or do not” and “Go and wash your bowl” are clear directives to live a realized life. We do what we are doing or we don’t. Trying resides in the realm of ideas.
Why is this important? Or in the grumpy words of Harrison Ford whenever he’s asked about Star Wars, “Who cares?” Well, the reason I care is because life can only be lived in this instant and truth can be understood only in the present. I can also tell you when your mind is unencumbered by abstractions and your happiness isn’t dependent on achieving goals, your life and the lives of those around you are simply better. And that’s extremely important.
Hokey religions can’t save us. Ancient weapons won’t tame our minds. Like Han’s blaster, the Dharma is immediate and practical. It isn’t interested in simple tricks and nonsense. It’s about your real life: bills, meetings, brokendown space freighters, and bowls that need cleaning.
If you want to know the truth, Buddhism urges you not to let time slip by. Life is short and death can come at any moment. So shoot first. Eat your breakfast. Wash your bowl. Don’t trouble your life with abstractions. Just do. Then you will truly see what life is all about.
This new version of The Dharma of Star Wars is the equivalent of a Star Wars Special Edition. Unlike its movie counterparts, however, this book is more than CGI embellishments and shoehorned additions. It’s an examination of what the Force can teach us about Buddhism, and what Buddhism can teach us about the Force.
So, strap on your lightsaber…or maybe don’t. These pages will reveal only what you take with you.