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Master Yoda and the Buddha

What happens if you don't learn compassion?

by
Charlie Martin

Bio

June 16, 2013 - 11:00 am

Rinpoche1

A few days ago, Walter Hudson had a piece up on “The Folly of the Jedi”.

I have to admit, my first reaction is the one that I’ve learned in about a thousand years of science fiction fandom — okay, it’s only 40, but it feels like a thousand — which is “Dude, it’s a movie. It’s fiction. There is no thousand-generation Galactic Empire.”

I’d fully enjoyed the pleasures of arguing about the Hollywood white-guy communism of Star Trek’s Federation and what The Force might be; the truth is, damn little of anyone’s world-building will stand up to that kind of scrutiny. It’s usually better suited to late night conversations in the con suite while wondering who will pass out next in the bathtub.

It happened though, that Walter had hit on a particular line from the movie. Master Yoda warns Anakin against becoming attached, because attachment leads to fear, and –

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“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Walter says this is stated as a self-evident fact, with no rational basis (Dude, it’s a movie) but it struck me because I remember hearing it in the movie and thinking “Heh, Lucas has been reading Dhammapada.”

Okay, PJM’s format doesn’t lend itself to sidebars, so I’m going to slip in a sidebar right here. The Dhammapada — which can be translated “The Path of Natural Law” — is sometimes known to Westerners as “the Buddhist Bible”. It’s really more like Bartlett’s Quotations from the Sutras, a compilation of things the Buddha is reputed to have said. They often sound kinda profound, and usually don’t quite make sense, which adds to their Mystical Import.

So, anyway, I thought “heh, Lucas has been reading Dhammapada” because that’s recognizably a restatement of the first of the Four Noble Truths. For those of you following along at home, the Four Noble Truths are usually stated as:

  • Suffering exists.
  • Suffering arises from attachment (or “craving” or “yearning.”)
  • The cure for suffering is to end attachment.
  • There are skillful means by which one can learn to give up attachment.

When we look a little more deeply, you find that attachment, or yearning, happens when we are confronted by the fact that all the “things” we care about are transitory, passing epiphenomena that arise by cause and effect (karma and vipaka), and eventually die and disappear. So we anticipate the loss, which leads to fear, and hate, and anger, and all the negative emotions. In Lucas’ universe, this leads to the Dark Side of the Force, which really can be summed up throughout the movies as the attempt to use the Force to compel people, and things, and really the Universe itself to yield to our will. After all, what Anakin is offered is the esoteric power to keep Amidala alive when his Force-heightened senses tell him she’s going to die. Yoda tries to warn him that everyone will eventually die, and that fighting this is one of the attachments that lead to the Dark Side, but Anakin doesn’t listen.

Of course, if he did, it would have ended the whole series, but that’s fiction for you.

Building on this, though, Walter asks a question most people ask as beginning Buddhists: isn’t wanting to do good and avoid evil an attachment? Wouldn’t a really unattached person have no moral restraints at all?

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Buddha and Buddhism has an answer to that. According to the traditions, the night before he Awakened, Buddha was able to see all of his past incarnations — he saw himself as a rabbit killed by a wolf, and saw himself as a wolf killing a rabbit so he could eat and feed his pups, saw himself as a deer and a deer hunter, as a murderer and a victim — and he saw that every one of them was enmeshed in suffering that came from attachment. From this he learned compassion and maitri

And here comes another sidebar. “Maitri” in Sanskrit, or “metta” in Pali, is one of those words where the usual translations get in the way. It’s usually translated as “lovingkindness” which is a horror of a portmanteau word that is as opaque as it is uncommon. But what maitri is is simple: when you see a baby, or a puppy or kitten, your natural reaction is to feel somewhat protective, to wish them well and not to want to harm them. That feeling is precisely maitri. From maitri arises compassion, in Sanskrit karuna.

…from this he learned compassion and maitri.

A person with compassion and maitri doesn’t want to do harm to others, not out of some external code of ethics, but because it leads to suffering, for others and for yourself.

If Anakin had learned non-attachment, he would have naturally seen when what he was doing would cause suffering.

What happens if you don’t learn compassion? It leads to what Chögyan Trungpa Rinpoche called “idiot compassion” — stealing the term from Gurdjieff. Idiot compassion is when your compassion arises from the desire to be seen as compassionate. Idiot compassion runs all through the Star Wars movies. Amidala is showing idiot compassion when she doesn’t want to be seen to “condone an action that will lead us to war,” even though her action leads to greater suffering. Anakin shows idiot compassion when he spares Dooku, and Windu shows mastery when he changes his goal from arresting Darth Sidious (did anyone else want him to knock at the door and ask “are you in, Sidious?”) to killing him, the action that would have saved untold suffering.

And honestly, it’s no surprise that idiot compassion runs through the movie, because the whole of twentieth-century “compassionate” politics, liberal or conservative, is itself thick with idiot compassion. When Michael Bloomberg wants to make sure you can’t buy a 32 ounce Slurpee, that’s idiot compassion — in all good intentions he wants to keep people from buying a 32 ounce sugary drink, even on a 100° day, which leads people to become angry at losing their 32 ounce Slurpees and the right to buy them, which is suffering, even if not on a major scale.

And where does idiot compassion come from? The desire to Do Good, and to be seen as Doing Good.

shaolin

Probably the most famous Buddhist Temple in the West is the famous Little Forest Temple (小林寺) — which happens to be pronounced “shaolin”. Shaolin is, of course, famous for achievement (功夫 “gong fu”) in the martial arts (武书 “wu shu”), but at least in the Zen tradition it’s also the place where the Ancestor of all Zen masters, Bodhidharma, settled after he came from India. (The Shaolin Temple has a web site. How cool is that?) A common confusion about Shaolin is to wonder how a Buddhist order became famous as warriors? After all, the common belief is that Buddhists are pacifists. Our poor friend Tenzin Gyatso, also known as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, caused some similar confusion when he recently said that if someone is shooting at you it’s perfectly natural to shoot back.

Pacifism, however, is itself attachment, attachment to the idea of peace at any price — idiot compassion. In the Little Forest, they taught instead “avoid rather than block, block rather than strike, strike rather than maim, maim rather than kill — and kill if needed to protect others.” All of this in the knowledge that your actions will themselves have consequences for you and for others.

Anakin, by clinging to the notion that he could thwart cause and effect, eventually acted in ways that led to great suffering — for the fallen Republic, for everyone he loved or respected, and finally, in a lake of lava, for himself.

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image courtesy shutterstock /  rnl

Charlie Martin writes on science, health, culture and technology for PJ Media. Follow his 13 week diet and exercise experiment on Facebook and at PJ Lifestyle

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All Comments   (20)
All Comments   (20)
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“Dude, it’s a movie. It’s fiction."

Says the guy in the ivory tower.

Yes, it's fiction, but iconic pop culture like Star Wars are part of the zeitgeist and are incredibly, unbelievably influential and formative for many, many people, especially young people. Pooh-pooh this stuff at your peril. You may not like it, but many people's world view have influenced by themes from these movies. They outnumber readers of Chögyan Trungpa Rinpoche 10,000 to 1.

It's sad, but sloppy thinking in influential movies infects a lot of the movie goers with sloppy thinking. With this in mind, I thinks it's very good to hold movie-makers feet to the fire on things that are objectively stupid. Maybe future movie makers with take note, realize that their own legacies are at stake, and think things through better.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Dude, storytelling has always played that role, in every culture, throughout history.

Your ratio is probably several orders of magnitude to large.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Oh, I'm not saying I don't *like* Star Wars -- just the opposite. I'm just saying "wow, there's a limit to how much soup you can usefully make out of this one bone."
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah, and besides, "120 Nights of Sodom" was fiction as well, made by a certain Marquis de Sade, yet guess what? A lot of the imagery in that book ended up imitated during the French Revolution, and was one of the primary influences (only Rousseau and Voltaire's works had higher influence, and even then just barely). Heck, the decapitated corpses were actually put in various lewd positions that were directly based on similar imagery from that POT book as well. For a more contemporary example, The Matrix trilogy was also fiction as well, yet now people have actually made a religion based on it's teachings. I swear, I'm not making this up. Heck, Stalin knew this, since he specifically targeted Hollywood and other media outlets to be taken over.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Look, I realize this is a very subtle distinction, but Walter was talking about fictional events happening in the past in a fictional universe.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm having a hard time trying to figure out why these are truths, let alone noble ones.

Let's say I'm starving. I'm suffering. But I'm only suffering because I crave food. i.e., I'm attached to the idea of eating. If I can just become detached from the idea of eating, then I end my suffering, right? And I have no doubt there are techniques for giving up the attachment -- suicide being one possibility. Or just learning somehow to avoid letting the hunger pangs bother me.

Here's a novel suggestion: how about eating something?

Maybe, just maybe, when we yearn for something, it's because there is something that exists to satisfy it. And that's the mindset we should be trying to acquire, rather than teaching ourselves not to care.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yes, I do need to write about the Four Noble Truths next week. But here's the short version:

Hunger: "I'm hungry. I should eat. What's for lunch?"

Duhkha ("suffering"(: "I'm hungry. OMG I'm hungry! But I can't eat now, it's the wrong time! I'm *starving*! I don't like being hungry! It remind me of when I was an undergrad and didn't have the money for food and had to eat ramen for days. Will being hungry make me sick?"
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Strange: I'd long thought that the first of the Four Noble Truths was not, "Suffering exists," but "Existence is/equals/entails suffering."
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Translation issue. The First Noble Truth is often just stated as "duhkha". In Sanskrit, that's a sentence. In English, you you to say what its attached to. I think I may expand on the Four Great Truths next week.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Sorry for posting twice in a row.

I wanted to mention that the origin of "lovingkindness" is almost certainly the King James Version of the Bible (a translation of the Hebrew hesed). When western scholars started translating Buddhist concepts, they probably selected a word that seemed to both be closest in meaning, and also had religious overtones, from its connections to the KJV.

Your explanation is much better, and differentiates maitri from hesed very well.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you, by the way.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
To be honest, I feel being completely devoid of detachments is grounds for sociopathy. As a matter of fact, one of the steps towards sociopathy is lacking any traditional human attachments to morality or anything like that. Heck, Palpatine was completely devoid of detachments, almost being the absolute paragon of what a Jedi's anti-attachment policy preaches, and he's a Sith, and a psychopathic backstabber who won't even hesitate to kill his own parents if the opportunity arose (as a matter of fact, that's exactly what he did). Actually, I'm beginning to wonder whether Buddha was a psychopath as well. I'm beginning to think the Buddha would probably have fully supported the atrocities of Communism (several of the monks certainly did, seeing how they underwent public self-immolation in protest to America's involvement in Vietnam despite the fact that we were defending them from the Communists).
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Actually,the guy who set himself on fire was named Thich Quang Duc and was protesting Diem's attempt to impose Catholicism on everyone. Happens that happened 50 years ago on the 11th.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
If that was the case, why did some of the militant Buddhists side with the Communists, despite the latter group being infamous for purging anyone who even dares mention being religious?
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Okay, I'll bite. Why do all Christians believe in conquering the Holy Land?
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
*devoid of attachments, sorry.
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
See, this is why I started studying Chinese and Sanskrit as I got more into Buddhism: the words are no more "correct", since they're just limited symbols, but when you hear "attachment", there is all sorts of stuff attached (heh) to it. With a half-dozen more sidebars, I might have gone into how suffering (duhkha) arises from: avidya or misunderstanding; raga, or the craving for pleasurable experiences; and dvesha, the fear of unpleasant experiences. It's not to lack attachment in the sense of love -- Buddha cried when his family died -- it is to understand the transitory nature of the things to which one is attached, and so be freed of the fear and cravings.

Huh. You know, the best term might be "addiction".
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Very helpful explanation of compassion (both true and "idiot"). Thanks
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Very cool. I learned a new phrase, a very useful one at that: idiot compassion. I've known this concept for some time but never knew what to call it. Thanks!
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
Barbara Oakley got to a concept I think is very similar in pathological altruism: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324688404578545523824389986.html
43 weeks ago
43 weeks ago Link To Comment
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