The Zen of Star Wars: Suffering

In my previous article I discussed how the vision George Lucas had of the force, and more specifically the Jedi order, was based in large part on Buddhist tradition. This time around we will be exploring the concept of suffering and its application in Star Wars, specifically with regard to the story arc of Luke Skywalker and his confrontation with his father Darth Vader. While it may seem obvious that Luke Skywalker went through quite a painful ordeal, it is important to stop to ask why. In Buddhism the acceptance of suffering is very important, and this has led to the misconception that Buddhists enjoy or seek out pain, having some masochistic tendencies. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Buddhists have a very unique view on suffering and their ideas mesh very strongly with those of the Jedi. It is unlikely that this was anything but deliberate as George Lucas has self-identified as a Buddhist Methodist. In Buddhism the point of accepting suffering is to become fully aware of it and to gain a complete understanding of it. The core point of the philosophy is that through acceptance of suffering you can eventually bring an end to all of your suffering, rising above it completely. This is part of the larger Buddhist ideal that involves using awareness to gain enlightenment.

Of course, suffering has other important applications as well, though these may not be entirely agreed upon by all Buddhist schools of thought, of which there are many. Among this is simply the comparison factor. Those who have never suffered have nothing to compare the best experience in their life to. It is all about context. Imagine if you got to have the best day in your life but, as a tradeoff, you had to lose your memories of every bad day you ever had. Many of you might take that trade, but the underlying cost of that is that, without the context of the bad times, that best day of your life doesn’t seem all that great anymore because you have nothing to compare it to. As humans we tend to always want something more, something different. Whenever we get something we had wanted to achieve, we don’t feel satisfied for long, and we want to keep pushing. It is human nature to desire to continuously better ourselves, even if it means going to incredible lengths, it is human nature to suffer, but we don’t have to hate it.

But this site is apparently about Star Wars, so now that I have laid down enough background, we can move forward. In [i]The Empire Strikes Back[/i], without a doubt the best Star Wars movie ever made, Luke Skywalker is training on Dagobah, with the Jedi Master Yoda, when he has a vision. Luke rushes off against the advice of the wise old sage and confronts the evil warlord Darth Vader who toys with him for awhile before the dramatic Maury Povich DNA test reveals, “You ARE the father!” Luke freaks out and throws himself down a chute while screaming incoherently, eventually self-proclaims as a Jedi knight, and does a bunch of stuff in the desert. But what is important is what happens after all of that; the importance is in Yoda’s death-bed scene in [i]Return of the Jedi[/i], where Luke talks to Yoda for the last time. In their conversation Yoda expresses his dissatisfaction with the way things went down between Luke and Vader, feeling that their Springer-esque reunion hadn’t gone very well. Luke asks Yoda if it is unfortunate that he knows the truth, and Yoda explains that it is not about knowing the truth, it is about being ready.

When Luke Skywalker first started training on Dagobah he was raw, green and possibly some sort of time lord, because he was able to learn quite a lot in the time it took Han and Leia to arrive at Cloud City from the Hoth system. Anyway, he hadn’t even been training that long before he left so it shouldn’t be particularly surprising that Yoda didn’t think he was ready, but it wasn’t about combat readiness or skill level. Yoda was talking about a deeper connection to the force that can only be accessed through understanding of self, the maturity and wisdom to handle the truth. As far as Yoda was concerned, Luke was not yet ready to accept his suffering. And we can clearly see that Yoda was right, Luke’s reaction to the news was either a botched suicide attempt or a really desperate maneuver, neither making him look particularly emotionally mature. But then if Luke hadn’t rushed off he may never have gone through the painful shock of finding out so suddenly, and it may have been the only way to set the gears in motion that would make him truly ready for the challenge that lay ahead.

In the end Luke seems to finally understand that he must confront Vader, but he accepts his suffering. Luke understands that this isn’t about beating Vader isn’t submission. At first Luke attempts to reason with his father, reminding him of who he once was and uses the fact that he is a blood relative in an attempt to sway his father’s heart. It is a noble attempt but unlikely to work on someone as brainwashed as Vader. After that Luke is taken to the Emperor and Luke begins failing as he tries to fight the Emperors attempts to turn him to the dark side. You can clearly see the Buddhist influence in the writing, when Luke’s struggles occur while he is fighting and struggling. Whenever he shows more passion, or struggle, things seem to get worse. In the end, as he gets angry and loses complete control, he fears he is becoming his father. To ensure this doesn’t happen he throws his lightsaber away knowing it will leave him totally defenseless against both of his enemies, but he doesn’t care. At this point Luke Skywalker has accepted his suffering, whatever it may be, and that is when the tide turns in his favor. Luke’s acceptance leads to the Emperor beginning to torture him to death, which leads to Vader intervening and saving his sons life, killing the emperor once and for all and bringing balance to the force.

On a note unrelated to Luke, we can see this same theme playing out in the other scenes going on at the same time in [i]Return of the Jedi[/i]. The rebels on Endor led by Han Solo are being helped by the Ewoks but the furry little bears are driving him absolutely crazy. However, the Ewoks begin to turn the tide of the battle and has Han and the others learn to work with them, they win out against all odds and destroy the Empire’s shield generators. At first in the space battle above Endor, the fish face wants to turn around and leave because he believes that the enemy has engaged them in an elaborate ruse. However, when they decide to remain and engage the Star Destroyers at point blank range, the tide of the battle turns and the Super Star Destroyer is disintegrated, followed eventually by the Death Star. When the rebels accepted the suffering of their fleet, they were then able to pull through and succeed.

I’m not saying George Lucas intentionally created Star Wars as Buddhist propaganda, but there is no question that the influence is very strong. This is just one example out of many that can easily be fleshed out much further, the tip of the iceberg as it were. However, while George Lucas may have been greatly influenced in many different ways by Buddhist philosophy, accepting suffering is one of the strongest themes. Other examples include Han only finally finding his feet with Leia after offering to “stay out of the way”, when Luke gets back. Or in the prequel trilogy, Padme being forced to watch Anakin killing younglings, even though it seems that there is little good showing her the video could do, because she needs to understand. Obi-Wan and Yoda also had to go through this same experience. The most important point of course is the reason behind all of this. None of these characters are suffering just to drive the story along, in fact to a certain extent their suffering is the story. The pain that is inflicted upon our heroes is for the purpose of enlightening them to greater truth or understanding, and in the end leading to the salvation of everyone.