Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Dharma of Star Wars by Matthew Bortolin

Title: The Dharma of Star Wars
Author: Matthew Bortolin (no website found)
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
Rating: WARTY!

Line gap between 'of' and 'misunderstanding' (p15)
"regiment" used where "regimen" was intended (p15)

After I'd done reading chapter two, I was done reading this book because it failed for me - and failed miserably. The last straw was the attempt to link Luke Skywalker's experience in the cave on Dagobah with our experience in everyday life on Earth. Yoda tells Luke that the only thing which is in the cave is what Luke takes with him, clearly implying that the only thing on Earth is what we all carry with us, and that just as Luke was responsible for his experience in seeing Vader (and contrary to what this book suggests, actually failing to realize that the dark side was in him too), so too are we all responsible for the suffering on Earth.

Now I concede that as a society overall, we all share responsibility for what that society does, good and bad, but there is no way in hell you are going to tell me that anything I could have personally done in my own life would have either caused or stopped that psycho from killing those people in the church this week.

That's not on me. It's not on any one person, and nothing any one person can do was going to stop that from happening - unless that one person had a gun and shot the guy before he could kill other people. That is one thing which would have prevented this (short of going back to that guy's childhood and taking charge of his upbringing), but this one thing is the very thing for which Luke is chided in this book: that taking his light saber (how is it even a saber? Lol!) with him somehow precipitated the appearance of the Vader/Luke hybrid! Or that while not intending to start trouble, being prepared for trouble was a mistake?! No. Being prepared is never a mistake.

Luke's experience had nothing to do with the weapon, and everything to do with Luke's own mindset, but changing his mindset would not have magically made Vader disappear from the galaxy and undone all his evil. That's what this author seems to fail to grasp. First and foremost, he is applying Buddhism to a purely fictional world, not to the real one. I haven't read all of this book, but nothing that I have read has demonstrated to me how applying the principles of Buddhism in your own life is going to change anything any more materially than simply doing what most of us do anyway - living a good, considerate, and decent life - is changing anything.

Yes, if all of us ran wild and had no respect for others, then the world would be a truly horrible place, but just because some of us choose to live a decent life - even if the majority of us did so, this will not cause the recalcitrant minority to quite hurting people or blowing up people, or shooting people, or driving like idiots, or being boorish, thoughtless, inconsiderate, and stupid. All we can do is deal with our own lives, and while what we do can indeed help keep a bad situation from escalating, what we do is not going to magically make the world a paradise. Even if everyone whole-heartedly embraced Buddhism, this would not stop volcanoes and earthquakes and floods and tornadoes from taking lives and bringing suffering into lives. The only preventative for that is for all of us to commit suicide, and the Jonestown "solution" is utterly unacceptable to me!

This is an attempt to popularize an aspect of Buddhism by linking it with a very successful movie franchise. Dharma or Dhamma has no simple or direct translation into English, but can be thought of as the natural order of things. This isn't to be thought of in any pejorative way or as some idiotic Victorian idea of superiority or one class or race over another. It's focused on the way nature works and how humans can try to live their lives in harmony with this natural system just as we used to when we were apes. If you think of all of nature as a team, then Dharma is about how we can become the best team player we can be.

In that light, the problems with approaching this topic by linking it to Star Wars are manifold. Star Wars wasn't about the natural order of things. It was about might makes right and about how the underdogs could destroy that might. You can argue that this was really more about the Jedi way of life, but the Jedi were not really a part of the natural order of things. They were a gifted and superior 'race' who far from fitting in with the natural order sought to dominate and control that order for their own ends, no matter how benign some of those ends might have been.

In this way, the Jedi vis-à-vis the galaxy were no different than humans have been vis-à-vis planet Earth. As the Jedi sought to put in place a certain order of things, so humans have done the same on Earth. Given what we 'superior' humans have done with our power, I'm far from convinced that this is really the best way we have to look at how we live our lives!

I should probably say at this point that I do not believe in any gods. There is no good or useful evidence for any, nor is there any evidence that we live more than one life or are reincarnated or are in some sort of endless loop through which we will continue moving, like a pet rat on a treadmill, until we break the cycle and move on to the next level. None of it makes any sense, and for those who believe it does, I invite then to consider how all of this works given what we now know of the appearance of life on Earth and its evolution.

Humans have no always been here. At one point, and for massively overwhelming majority of the time that life has been extant upon Earth, there was nothing human here, but about six million years ago, a species started moving towards what we have now become. For all those who believe in reincarnation, I invite them to consider what the real evidence for this is, and to explain to themselves when this all began. Was it with the first cell that arose out of the chemistry of Earth? Was it when mammals evolved? Was it when primates evolved? Was it when Australopithecus evolved? If so, which species? Was it when Homo neanderthalensis evolved? When and why did this system come into being? No one has even tried to explain this, much less explained it with supportive evidence and made sense of it! That's why I don't buy into this juvenile concept of a cycle of death and rebirth.

In short, the Buddhist claims are nonsensical and have no evidence. That doesn't mean that living decent life, or that practices like meditation and yoga are of no value. It means that we shouldn't blindly invest them with meaning and value to which they have no right, and it especially means that eastern religions do not get a bye simply because they're new-agey, and exotic, and perhaps don't even posit any gods, like the three big monotheistic ones do, or like Hinduism does.

This book begins by recalling the beginning of the Star Wars saga (episode one, The Phantom Menace), where Qui-Gon Jinn reminds Obi-Wan Kenobi to keep his mind focused on the here and now, and not some speculative future course of events. In their circumstances, this was appropriate, but in life in general, it's important to both keep your mind on the here and now, and to plan for the future. Anyone with Jedi skills ought to be able to do both! Any human who fails to do this is inevitably going to run into trouble.

We jump from this to episode 4 A New Hope and are reminded that Luke only succeeded in destroying the Death Star when he abandoned the technology at his disposal and relied purely on instinct. In real life this is nonsensical. It's like disabling the brakes on your car and relying on your natural instinct to start slowing down in good time. We know how well that works by counting the skid marks on the highway, and the bumper scrapes on the concrete walls of on and off ramps! We have brakes and air-bags for a very good reason. Technology works. Humans often don't. Anyone who disagrees is invited to compare death and injury rates from accidents prior to seat belts and air bags with the same thing now.

Yes, you can argue that if we were more mindful when driving we would have far fewer scrapes and close calls, and this is true, but to make a blanket claim that we can all rely on instinct and our inner pilot to get through life is to assume that everyone has already achieved enlightenment, and no that one is mentally ill, not in any way at all. This is nonsensical and dangerous.

The Nazis were following their inner guide when they determined that all handicapped people, homosexuals, Jews, Roma, and other 'undesirables' should be exterminated or at least neutered. They were following their inner pilot when they pursued their belief that the "Aryan" race was superior. In the same way, organized religious groups have followed their instinct when they have tried to exterminate members of competing religions, such as when the Catholics tried to purge everyone they deemed to be a witch, and later those who were Protestant, or when they tried to force "heathens" to submit. Islam is all about submission. Judaism is only for the house of Israel.

Everyone today who isn't blind knows that these people were delusional, no matter how much they acted on their instincts and inner pilot. Your inner pilot isn't always reliable, no matter how much we may fantasize that it is. If it were otherwise, we wouldn't need laws to protect people from those who act on instinct and who give no thought for the future or for others.

We're reminded of Luke on Dagobah, where Yoda loses patience with him because his mind is all over the place and we're expected to believe that Luke was a poor student when the truth is that Yoda was a really poor teacher, as was Obi-Wan Kenobi. They had years in which they could have trained Luke yet neither lifted a finger. This was precisely because they were focused on the here and now - on their own survival - instead of planning for the future! Their incompetence nearly cost them everything. A little planning for the future would have made a huge difference, but each of them was so obsessed with the here and now that they took no thought for tomorrow. The founder of Christianity advised the same short-sighted tack.

Qui-Gon Jinn wanted to train Anakin and he was refused because despite the extreme youth of the boy and despite his qualifications (as judged by his midi-chlorian levels), it was already deemed too late in his life to teach him. The fact that he was taught so late was the reason he was so easily won over to the dark side, we're given to believe. Yet not a one of them questions the teaching of Luke who is considerably older than Anakin when he starts and far less qualified midi-chlorian-wise. yet no one questions this wisdom of this move!

Yes, Luke could have applied himself better, but so could Ben and Yoda - they could also have begun his teaching a hell of a lot earlier. Yes, this is fiction, but it wasn't me who decided to use Star Wars as a teaching tool for the Dao of Buddhism!

When Qui-Gon fights with Darth Maul, we're told that he is smart enough to center himself when the doors close between them, so he's ready to fight when they open, but this is a classic example of his failing to properly plan for the future. If he'd waited just a minute or two for Ben to catch up with him, there would have been two of them to take on Maul, and Qui-Gon might well not have been killed. By taking no thought for tomorrow, and getting himself killed Qui-Gon failed Anakin. Planning for the future is important. Focusing on the now is good, but it's not all there is, as Qui-Gon himself actually realized. He was planning for the future in an unfortunately limited way when he took the time to center himself.

An example is made of Anakin's anger over his mother's death, and his slaughter of the Tusken people, but this doesn't work either, because the root of this anger is that he was taken from his mom at an early age. No attempt was made to allow him to reconnect or to bring his mom to join him, or at least bring her to safety. that would have been planning for the future, so it's forbidden, You must focus on the here and now! Immediate gratification is demanded again Obviously this preyed on Anakin's mind, and his behavior was perfectly understandable. Some thought and planning here would have made a huge difference. Clearly neither Yoda nor Qui-Gon, nor Obi-Wan meditated on this!

What this book doesn't tell us, when it discusses suffering, is how selfish and callous the Buddha himself, Siddharta Gautama, truly was. He was a married man with a child. His wife was Yaśodharā, and his son was Rāhula. He was also a wealthy ruler of a people, yet he abandoned all of that and took off on his own selfish path. He never invited his wife and child to join him and share his journey, much less the people for whom he was responsible. He purportedly rejected wealth yet there is nothing to indicate that he redistributed what he had amongst his people. How much suffering did he put them through? His actions were not admirable. They were very selfish. Abandoning a wife and child is inexcusable. Women and particularly men are rightly pilloried in this day and age for this, yet we're expected to admire and emulate a man who did exactly that when there was no reason whatsoever for him to act as he did?

We're told that before we can improve a situation we must accept it for what it is, but this is wrong. We are forced to live with it, but acceptance of it means we're not likely to be looking at how it came to be or how it can be remedied. Women would never be able to vote now if they had accepted that they were unjustly excluded from voting and took no thought for the future. It's understanding, not acceptance, that we need, because only understanding will convey to us the power to change injustice, and to prevent it happening again. I think this book represents blinkered advice - or very poorly written guidance at best.

We're told that being mindful of our daily life allows us to see suffering as it manifests, but being mindful of what is likely to happen in the future means we can take steps to avoid that suffering manifesting in the first place. This is yet another example of how focusing on the current and the state we're in to the exclusion of all else isn't the best plan at all. There's nothing wrong with acknowledging the state we're in and understanding it, because this may offer ways out or at least insights into avoiding getting into this mess again, but to sit around wallowing in it, or meditating on it isn't going to get anything done in and of itself. Ultimately it's action which changes things, even if that action must be preceded by thought.

I think the dharma of Laurel and Hardy might have been a better comparison than this one with Star Wars. They never had a problem acknowledging that this is another fine mess you've gotten me into. Their intentions were always the best, and they had no problem working diligently to fix troubles rather than simply of sitting around meditating on them. I can't recommend this book. I see little real point in it and no value to it.

The short conclusion is that this book offered me nothing that any other decent religion offers - or that abandoning religions altogether and simply being a society of good and thoughtful people would deliver. I didn't see what this had to offer and I thought it was a poor approach to teaching this topic.


  1. Above you said, "What this book doesn't tell us, when it discusses suffering, is how selfish and callous the Buddha himself, Siddharta Gautama, truly was. He was a married man with a child. His wife was Yaśodharā, and his son was Rāhula. He was also a wealthy ruler of a people, yet he abandoned all of that and took off on his own selfish path. He never invited his wife and child to join him and share his journey, much less the people for whom he was responsible."

    But he did bring his son along to share his journey once he'd lived through years of dedicated practice and even asceticism which helped bring him the answer he sought. The woman who raised him -- the Buddha's mother died when he was an infant, and her sister took her place caring for him -- also ultimately joined him. His wife joined him, too. I doubt they'd have given up life in a stable community for a renunciant's life if they thought he was "selfish and callous".

    He was not a ruler of his people, he was the son of the man who ruled under a system that was something like a combination of an oligarchy and a republic. He didn't abandon them in that sense, though the ancient texts that capture bits and pieces of his story do show him feeling the weight of his early decision to continue to live his life away from home and family in order to teach, against the possibility of return.

    The Buddha came up with a very keen insight that is very helpful to many people, and techniques for seeing that insight, and explanations that make perfect sense in the light of modern understandings of consciousness and our sense of who we are, and even psychology. I am sorry that this book didn't give you a good introduction to that insight.

    I do agree with you that there is no good evidence for rebirth. When I first began to understand Buddhism and see how much sense most of it makes, I had to question, myself, what rebirth was doing in such an otherwise logical system. Nine years of study later (including learning the language of ancient Buddhist texts, Pali, so I could see for myself what words were used and learn why) I am satisfied that the Buddha never meant that anyone who didn't already believe in rebirth should adopt it as a belief. Quite the contrary -- the whole basis for everything he teaches rests on the individual's ability to see for themselves with very clear-eyed accuracy the difference between what it is possible to know, and what we just think we know. His system requires no faith in anything you can't see for yourself, in fact, it is the antithesis of faith.

    I do wish you'd gotten that from the book -- or that you come to see it, eventually, in some book on Buddhism you read -- because there's a lot of value in the Buddha's approach.

    1. No amount of post-hoc "rationalization" can alter the fact of what he did. He did abandon his wife and child and his people and thought only of himself. You admit it yourself when you say "...which helped bring him the answer he sought". The answer he sought - not the answer his family or his people needed, but the selfish answer he sought, based on nothing more than a whim.

      I don't care what his immediate family rationalized about him. Their "prodigal son" behavior towards him is entirely expected, but it isn't relevant to what he did. His behavior was unacceptable and your employment of some some vague and nebulous claim for enlightenment - for which there is absolutely no independent evidence - to justify his behavior is yet another instance of a person buying into his personality cult. He was not only an authority figure, which lent him undue power over others, he was also a cult figure, so it's not at all surprising that people were sucked into his delusional life

      And what was his keen insight? That life treats some people very shabbily? Duhh! That if we become attached to something, it hurts when we lose it? Duhh! He brought nothing new to the table. On the contrary, he actually dissuaded people from helping others by lying to them that there is rebirth, so we must shun all attachment to this world and to everything in it in order to break the cycle and "move on". Don't give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, tell them to get enlightened instead! No, I'm sorry, but I will never come to see that as a good thing no matter how much I read about Buddhism. His position was that of cowardice in the face of the enemy, nothing more nor less.

      It would have been a far keener insight that he had, and a far far better thing that he did, had he sought ways to alleviate pain, deprivation, and suffering. Yet despite having the position, power, and wealth to do this, he did nothing like that. On the contrary - he hid himself away from it and determinedly ignored it. His meditative practice was that of sticking his fingers in his ears and his mantra was chanting "La la la la".

      I have read lots about Buddhism and nothing about it has shown me any reason to buy into it, and I resent your implication that I'm somehow "missing" something simply because my PoV is at odds with yours! How selfish and arrogant of you! In short: how Buddhist of you.

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