Every ten or so years, when the national government carry out their population census, the question of religion always appears prominently on the form – a document which everyone is legally obliged to complete and return to the authorities.
Ever since the release of the early Star Wars films in the late 1970s some citizens have declared on their census papers that they were ‘Jedi Knights’ – to begin with merely as anti-establishment joke but later on as a serious political statement.
In 2008, 23-year-old Daniel Jones, along with his brother Barney, founded the Church of Jediism. They believed at that time that the 2001 UK census had recognised ‘Jediism’ as a
…legitimate and fully-operational religion.
Today, all over the world, pressure is being brought upon governments to recognize Jediism as a form of worship.
Even students in Turkey have petitioned education authorities to build Jedi temples on their campuses.
A Modern Philosophy
One of those who, whilst not professing that Star Wars is a religious philosophy, but who has been caught up in the philosophical under-currents of the block-busting films, is Buddhist writer Matthew Bortolin.
In his book ‘The Dharma of Star Wars he takes both a serious and a light- hearted look at the various spiritual and metaphysical concepts that flow through the many situations, scenarios and characters within all Star Wars films.
As a central, or core principle, he identifies the Jedi practice of mindfulness and concentration as key features to a spiritual philosophy – one that he believes helps us to discover who we are and how to deal with the various stresses that we experience in life.
The practice of mindfulness is, of course, an important practice within Buddhism and the author reminds us that:
Throughout Star Wars we see the Jedi practicing mindfulness and concentration not only as a means to better understand the Force but also as a means of preparing to face the dark side within.
The suffering that we all experience as a result of engagement with the dark side is a concept that every practicing Buddhist is drawn towards having to consider within every stage of practising their faith.
Cinematic Myths to Live By
Darth Vader, as representative of the power and influence of this Dark Force, is just one of several characters within the Star Wars films that carries important psychodynamic themes.
In his book, Bortolin also features Anakin Skywalker, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Princess Leia – along with their storylines, as important allegorical themes that permeate both the cinematic drama as well as the Buddhist’s perception of life.
In this regard the human experience of feelings play an important part in defining how we experience reality – as well, of course, express our relationship towards our fellow human beings.
Indeed, as the author points out in a quotation from ‘Attack of the Clones’, the Jedi concept of love is that of the display of non-attachment through non-commitment and unconditional love.
The Way of the Force
Every good story, and in fact every great spiritual philosophy, is founded upon personal redemption.
Bortolin points out that in Star Wars this process is experienced most dramatically by Darth Vader’s karma; which is inextricably bound up with that of Luke Skywalker’s.
In all regards the dramatic dynamic that plays out here is that of release or of letting go – a Buddhist philosophy which operates as a way of creating a condition of non-attachment in our lifetime.
The ultimate goal of developing non-attachment is the attainment of an ultimate state of consciousness.
In Buddhism this is referred to as Nirvana.
In Star Wars this is equivalent to the process of entering The Force.
In the closing chapter of his book, Bortolin addresses the single largest discrepancy between the pacifist ethics of Buddhism and the central theme of all Star Wars films which are based upon war and violent confrontation.
These are, of course, anathemas to the Gentle Way of Buddhist practice.
In dealing with this issue the author questions the true purpose behind a great deal of the violence that is meted out in the films.
As with all great philosophical questions the answer as to where the pursuance of active defence becomes aggression is not clear or simple to define and Bortolin opens up questions that only deeper analysis of the spiritual messages within Star Wars can unravel.
Maybe it is for this reason, if no other, that many who peer deeper into all of the dark themes within Star Wars – and who recognize the paradoxical questions that are played out within them, are moved to believe that the stories operate as powerful psychospiritual elements which can be used as constructs for a religion in its own right.
Our Review of ‘The Dharma of Star Wars’ by Matthew Bortolin
All of the greatest block-busting films of our time are successful simply because they express powerful and eternally recurring mythological themes.
Star Wars is one, particularly successful fantasy epic that reveals many core ethical questions that blight our lives from time to time and which force us to think more deeply about ourselves, life and Universe.
Budddhism is one of the few great repositories of religious thinking that could actively embrace concepts regarding life and death and offer any sort of meaningful semi-spiritual framework by which to assess them.
Throughout his book Matthew Brotolin has done a really interesting job in weaving core Buddhist principles into the Star Wars cosmology. It may not be a move that is popular with Buddhist purists but nonetheless the book builds important philosophical bridges that many who believe that Jediism offers a real religious experience can easily follow.
I enjoyed the approach that the author takes in fusing Buddhism with such a popular cinematic stories. I also appreciated his simplified use of Buddhist ideas which made his arguments somewhat easier to follow and understand.
This is certainly a book to recommend to those who understand that Star Wars is offering a much broader and expansive look at the human, and non-human condition…. and yes, even R2D2 is featured in the book!
‘The Dharma of Star Wars’ takes an in-depth look at a series of thoroughly modern philosophical psycho-dramas but from a Buddhist perspective. Within its pages Matthew Bortolin adds new and interesting layers to the stories and opens Buddhist philosophy to a new generation of spiritual-seekers.