In Celebration of May the 4th: “Buddhism in Star Wars: Jedi Knights and Samurai”

When I first encountered Star Wars seven years ago, I had not been familiar with the concept of Buddhism. Back then, I only thought Star Wars as an epic intergalactic saga with an absolutely amazing characters like Master Yoda, Obi Wan, Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader, Padme, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, Chewbacca, etc. To me Star Wars is only an explosive amount of coolness. I did not have the capacity to think beyond the characters and the magnificent set.

Around two or three years ago, I became fascinated with the teaching of Buddhism and the concept of Zen Buddhism. And a year ago, I took a clas about Japanese Society and became engrossed with the concept of Samurai and their code of living, Bushido.

Ever since I became familiar with the concept of Buddhism and Samurai with their Bushido, I started to see Star Wars in a different light. I used to think about Jedi as a great warrior with a freaking awesome weapon, the divine Lightsaber, but not anymore. The teaching of Buddhism and the concept of Bushido alters my view of Jedi. I realized that there’s an striking similarity between the Jedi Code and the Buddhism teaching as well as the concept of Bushido.

Jedi to me now is not only a great warrior but they have escalated to become an intergalactic diplomat, monk, and samurai. Which makes them practically everything I want to be.

In celebration of May the 4th or commonly known as Star Wars Day, I want to share a great article about Buddhism in Star Wars and the comparison between Jedi and Samurai based on their striking similarity. Enjoy the article and May the Force be with You.

“Buddhism in Star Wars: Jedi Knights and Samurai”

by PSwinson, artofdharma.com

The Force as Source of All Ethics

Surely anyone with a casual interest in Star Wars has noticed the steady stream of Buddhist thought flowing throughout the Star Wars epoch. George Lucas, in fact, considers himself a Buddhist Methodist, readily admitting the religious overtones in Star Wars were borrowed freely from multiple religions.  Upon examination, Buddhist thought is central to the Jedi Code, as well as the samurai code of conduct, or Bushido.

Obi-Wan Kenobi describes the Force as “an energy field created by all living things.  It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”  This is analogous to the concept of Ch’i, the Chinese word used to describe the spiritual energy of the universe.  It may be likened to the Buddhist view of the vast Godlike reservoir of energy that connects all living things.

Buddha-nature is the ultimate, uncreated and immortal core spiritual reality in all living creatures – an indestructible, omniscient, eternal, infinite, pure, benevolent, nurturing and blissful Buddha Essence in each and every being (animals included), which empowers each being to become a Buddha.

For Buddhists, cherishing other living things is the source of ultimate happiness while cherishing ourselves over others is the source of suffering. Therefore, caring for the welfare of all living beings is central to enlightenment. The first of “Eight Verses for Training the Mind” helps students appreciate the sanctity of life,

“By thinking of all sentient beings as even better than the wish granting gem for accomplishing the highest aim, may I always consider them precious.”

Similarly, Reverence_for_Life is the concept of Nobel Prize laureate, Dr. Albert Schweitzer which he considered to be the basis of all ethics.

Ethics is nothing other than Reverence for Life.  Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.”

“Through reverence for life, we come into a spiritual relationship with the universe. The inner depth of feeling we experience through it gives us the will and the capacity to create a spiritual and ethical set of values that enable us to act on a higher plane, because we then feel ourselves truly at home in our world. Through reverence for life, we become, in effect, different persons.”

Dr. Albert Schweitzer

In Buddhism it is known as the First Precept. It states, “Abstain from taking life.”  It extends the Sixth Commandment prohibition of murder of human beings to all living things. It is embellished by Thich Nath Hanh,

“Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I undertake to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.”

This supremely egalitarian concept upholds the democracy of all living things and the equal importance of all sentient beings.  It is a precept at the heart of the environmental movement, the human rights movement and the establishment of the National Parks System.  It is also at the heart of such controversial issues as abortion, euthanasia, veganism, capital punishment, abolition, bullfighting and even putting your dog ‘to sleep.’  From the Tibetan Buddhist perspective, all human beings and animals possess “shepa” or consciousness, and this consciousness is the primary characteristic of life. “As far as sentience is concerned, there is no difference between humans and animals.” writes the Dalai Lama in The Universe in a Single Atom.

Holding nature holy has not always been politically expedient. Many Native North American tribes also have religious beliefs grounded in the idea that anua (souls) exist in all people and animals.  Interestingly, Native Americans are the only known ethnic group in the United States requiring a federal permit to practice their religion.  This protection did not come until the Native American Religious Freedom Act of August 11, 1978. Though the law pledged that Indian people would enjoy the free exercise of religion, it contained no enforcement provision. Samurai were also essentially outlawed in 1876 by the executive order of Emperor Meiji.  Of course everyone is familiar with  The Great Jedi Purge initiated by Darth Sidious in 19 BBY to eradicate the Jedi Order.

Jedi Knights and Samurai

Every major religion has taken Star Wars and used it as an example of their religion relating it to stories in the Bible, Torah, Koran and Buddhist canon.  Lucas also borrows central tenants from American Indian, Zen, Hindu and shamanistic religions.  In Babylon, where history imitates art, the ancient temple of Naboo has been invaded just like the planet Naboo in the Star Wars epoch.  Naboo was the Babylonian God of Wisdom.  So Padme, who gets her name from the Tibetan Buddhist prayer,  “OM Mani Padme Hum,” as Queen of Naboo also represents the Queen of Wisdom.

But the Jedi most certainly get their name from Jidaigeki, or Japanese samurai stories. The similarity of Jedi Knights to samurai warriors with light saber instead of Japanese sword (nihonto) is unmistakable. Donald C. Trull elaborates in Go:  The Obi-Wan Connection, “Both are chivalrous orders driven by strict codes of honor and duty. Each consists of skilled swordsmen who settled their disputes through one-on-one duels. The mystic principles of the Force and the Jedi code, especially as lectured by Yoda and Qui-Gon Jinn, bear many similarities to the teachings of Zen Buddhism followed by Miyamoto Musashi and other (but not all) samurai.  Even the name of the prototypical Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi, sounds suspiciously Japanese in origin…In fact, Lucas claims that at one point he considered casting Star Wars with Asian actors in the principal roles.”  The samurai fascination with decapitation and dismemberment is clearly embraced by the Jedi. Given the apparently similar religious nature of both groups and their incongruous use of violence, it is worthy of consideration to compare their history and teachings.

The literature of feudal Japan is filled with intriguing encounters between samurai warriors and Buddhist philosophy.  To the embattled samurai, a Zen state of mind, without distraction or delusion, could make the critical difference between life and death.  Also Zen focus and immediacy  was an aid to improving warriors’ skills and technique as well as a means of coping with death which surrounded them.

The Dangers of Violence

Unfortunately, throughout history religious beliefs have been used to condone violence almost as often as to condemn it.  As incongruous  as it seems, holy wars are not unknown in the history of Buddhism. Mikael S. Adolphson states, “Buddhism in Japan seems no different from Christianity in Europe . . . or Islam in Minor Asia, neither do Japanese monastic warriors appear any different from European crusaders or Spanish Moors.” In the late 1800′s through World War II, prominent Japanese Zen leaders turned Buddhist doctrine on its head by teaching blind obedience, mindless killing, and total devotion to the emperor.  It must not be forgotten that the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world, the Mongol World Empire, was ruled by a Buddhist, Kublai Khan.

Thus, the prohibition of killing, or Ahimsa, has not always been strictly observed by all Buddhists or followers of any other religion, even the fictitious Jedi knights.   Frederick Brenion writes in the excellent Jedi-Shinshu, The Buddhist Heart of Star Wars.

Drawing parallels between Star Wars and Buddhism will undoubtedly resonate with some, more than it will others. Yes we can find similarities between Buddhist philosophy and the teachings of the Jedi, but at a deeper level, are their perspectives compatible? Star Wars is after all a movie that revolves around violence and warfare. The teachings in Buddhism revolve around non violence while seeking an end to warfare. There are many Buddhists who will argue that violence can’t be motivated by compassion and so the Jedi aren’t in accord with this central tenet.”

The Dalai Lama reiterates the dangers of violence,

In fact the use of force may not only fail to solve the problems, it may exacerbate them and frequently leaves destruction and suffering in its wake. Human conflicts should be resolved with compassion. The key is non-violence…No matter what the case may be, I feel that a compassionate concern for the well-being of others – not simply for oneself – is the sole justification for the use of force.”

This correlates with the Jedi Code as summarized by Luke Skywalker,

“Jedi are the guardians of peace in the galaxy.Jedi use their powers to defend and to protect.Jedi respect all life, in any form.Jedi serve others rather than ruling over them, for the good of the galaxy.Jedi seek to improve themselves through knowledge and training.”

 

 

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