After learning a little bit about Zen, I realized that my original introduction to Zen philosophy, though I didn’t know it at the time, was from Star Wars. The original Star Wars movie was a smash hit. The movie spoke to audiences of all ages on a deeper level. I believe I can elucidate the tenets of Zen thought in this iconic film.
1) The samurai influence
Obi-Wan Kenobi was based on a traditional samurai warrior. His clothes were folded left over right, in the Japanese style. His Jedi beliefs eschewed laser guns for the far more elegant lightsaber from a more noble age, echoing the samurai sword. Furthermore, even his name has a samurai resonance: an “obi” in Japanese is actually the sash worn around a kimono.
Obi-Wan is not the only nod to samurai culture. Darth Vader’s helmet is clearly modeled after a samurai helmet. Yoda is a standard Japanese name. When Yoda spoke, he didn’t use Japanese grammar exactly, but he did switch subject, object, and verb around, and often finished sentences with a verb, as is done in Japanese. Such as when he said to Luke, “Mudhole? Slimy? My home this is!” or “Found someone, you have” or “It is the future you see.” Yoda, however, does not represent a traditional samurai warrior. He harkened back to a much earlier incarnation of Zen, namely the old rogue Chinese Daoist priest. He had retreated from life and lived in the midst of pure nature and laughed far too much to represent a samurai warrior.
Campbell highlighted the difference between these two types: “In China, the ideal is really the old rogue, the old fellow who’s got wisdom in him, a kind of comical character through whom life just flows. The ideal in Japan, however, is this samurai discipline, the discipline of life in form.”
2) Focus on the present
In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda emphasized one of the key principles of Japanese Zen Buddhism: staying in the present.
When Luke asked Yoda to train him, Yoda said, “Ready are you? What you know of ready? For 800 years I have trained Jedi. My own counsel I will keep on who is to be trained. A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life he has looked away…to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm. What he was doing. [Yoda poked Luke with his cane.] Hmph! Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless!” (Emphasis mine)
Similarly, the Buddha said, “The past is already gone, the future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live, and that is the present moment.” He also said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present.” From the 300-year-old book on the samurai ethic Hagakure: “There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment.”
3) The Force and Ki
The concept of the Force in the original Star Wars movies was also very close to the concept of ki in Japanese (気) or qi in Chinese.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda said, “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.”
D.T. Suzuki defines “ki” (気) as “something imperceptible, impalpable, that pervades the entire universe. In one sense, it corresponds to spirit, it is the breath of heaven and earth.”
Intuition is another key aspect of Zen that came up in Star Wars. In Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi puts a blast helmet on Luke so he is essentially blind during his lightsaber training.
Obi-Wan then tells Luke, “I suggest you try it again, Luke. This time, let go your conscious self and act on instinct.” Luke replies, “With the blast shield down, I can’t even see. How am I supposed to fight?” Obi-Wan responds, “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them. Stretch out with your feelings.”
Star Wars is only a movie, so Luke learns intuitive thinking in only a few short lessons from Obi-Wan and Yoda. A true samurai would dedicate his life to learning how to cultivate his intuition. Yoda gives a separate lesson on using the intuitive mind and not the rational mind in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke asks Yoda how he will know the good side from the bad.
Yoda responds, “You will know—when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense. Never for attack.” Luke responds, “But tell me why I can’t…” Yoda exclaims, “No. No! There is no why.”
In a true Zen story, at that point, the teacher would sometimes strike the student to get them to stop trying to understand with their rational mind what needs to be understood intuitively. “Zen upholds intuition against intellectualism, for intuition is the more direct way of reaching the truth.”
5) Dedication and commitment
Another aspect of Zen is that the practitioner must be dedicated and committed. In The Empire Strikes Back, when Yoda said his famous line to Luke, “Do or do not…There is no try.”
Without intense focus, concentration on the present, and complete commitment, intuitive thinking does not develop. The Eastern masters say that the mind needs to be still like a pond at night; only then can it properly reflect the image of the moon. An agitated or disturbed surface of the pond would distort the image of the moon. Similarly, only with the mind still and clear and not distracted or racing from thought to thought can the subconscious mind effectively communicate with the body and the conscious mind.
6) Truth is relative
Another interesting aspect of Zen that came out in the Star Wars movies was that truth is relative. In Return of the Jedi, there is an interesting exchange between Luke and Obi-Wan:
Obi-Wan: So, what I told you was true…from a certain point of view.
Luke: A certain point of view?
Obi-Wan: Luke, you’re going to find out that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.
Buddha said, “Nothing exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.”
One big source of consternation among my generation of Star Wars fans was that George Lucas went back and changed the scene in the original Star Wars movie where Han shoots at Greedo first. He tried to turn the story into a simple one about good and bad, right and wrong, with simplistic morals that match a linear-logic, absolute world of good and bad. The Zen and Eastern view of life is much more in line with the original scene. Han Solo had good and bad in him, as we all do. In Tibetan art, there are horrific monsters. Those monsters are inside all of us.
As Nietzsche said, “Be careful in casting out your demons, lest you get rid of what is best in you.” Zen teaches us that we must learn to balance the good and bad in our nature and live a life that brings out our best qualities.
Lucas went back to simplistic Western absolute thinking in having Greedo shoot first. But that is not who Han was. Han shot Greedo first precisely because he was a survivor focused on saving his own skin. Because Han was this type of person, his decision later in the movie to go back and save Luke was precisely the reason why his action was so heroic. The positive influence of Luke’s attitude of self-sacrifice evoked the heroic part of Han’s nature.
In these shared themes, Star Wars has given whole generations of people from all over the globe an informal introduction to Zen thinking.
This article was adapted from the book Culture Hacks: Deciphering Differences in American, Chinese, and Japanese Thinking.