Master Yoda and the Buddha


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 —

“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?


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.


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.


image courtesy shutterstock /  rnl


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