The spiritual message hidden in 'Star Wars'

Some say films reflect modern religious life

(CNN) - "Star Wars" has always kept its fingers close to America's spiritual pulse.

In the '70s and '80s, the interstellar saga explored Eastern traditions, mainly Buddhism and Taoism, just as many "spiritual, but not religious" dabblers were doing the same.

At the turn of the millennium, "Star Wars" caught the McMindfulness craze. "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace," from 1999, opens with two Jedis talking about the benefits of meditation. Even I was bored, and I meditate.

The religious references in those films were timely, though the lessons were sometimes banal. "Compassion is good, envy leads to evil" -- you don't have to be a Jedi to get the gist.

But the latest film in the epic saga, "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," touches on trends in American religious life in some surprising ways, especially for a franchise that's so nakedly commercial. ("The Last Jedi" was the highest-grossing movie in the United States last year and raked in nearly $1.3 billion worldwide.)

"It is very much a movie of this time," said the Rev. angel Kyodo williams, a Buddhist teacher, social justice activist and "Star Wars" aficionado who lives Berkeley, California. "It draws on ancient teachings, as well as what is happening in this country right now."

But there's some debate about what exactly "The Last Jedi" says about modern religious life: Is the film a warning about the end of organized religion in America, or a parable about the path to spiritual renewal? That's the koan I hope to crack, with some help from Zen Buddhism and Pope Francis.

'Do, or do not. There is no try.'

It sometimes gets lost amid the talking droids and tortured plot twists, but the "Star Wars" saga is, among other things, a story about the rise and fall of an ancient religion.

When we meet the Jedis, in Episode I, they're mindfulness-meditating, axiom-spouting space monks who keep order in the galaxy and wield a mean lightsaber.

By Episode VIII -- "The Last Jedi" -- the Jedis are reduced to a solitary soul, Luke Skywalker, serving a self-imposed penance on a remote island. When Rey, the young heroine who may or may not be a Jedi herself, shows up seeking spiritual training, he refuses.

The Jedi religion is over, Luke says, a victim of its own hypocrisy and hubris. He even prepares to burn the ancient Jedi texts.

(In a bit of historical irony, the island on which the scene is filmed, Skellig Michael, was home to medieval Irish monks who "saved civilization" by rescuing ancient Christian books.)

But the film hints that Luke might not be the "last Jedi," after all. Even without his help, Rey is remarkably skilled at connecting with the Force, the mysterious energy that pervades the galaxy.

This is where some cultural commentators see an argument against organized religion. In previous "Star Wars" films, using the Force required joining the Jedis and spending years learning the "old ways" from established masters, just like real-life clergy.

Luke seems to say that none of that matters anymore.

"He is making a very modern case for spirituality over organized religion," argues Hannah Long in The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine. "If all roads lead to the Force, then the dusty tradition and doctrine doesn't really matter."

In The Atlantic, Chaim Saiman makes a similar argument. "The Last Jedi" seems to reflect millennials' real-life ideas about religion, namely their waning interest in "structured religion" in favor of "unbounded spirituality," he writes.

But is that the whole story?

'Always two there are: A master and apprentice'

George Lucas, the creator of "Star Wars," says he wanted to do more than entertain the masses. He wanted to introduce young Americans to spiritual teachings though "new myths" for our globalized, pluralistic millennium.

"I see 'Star Wars' as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and accessible construct," Lucas has said. "I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery."

In this, Lucas sounds a lot like his mentor, Joseph Campbell, a scholar who studied world myths. Campbell, who died in 1987, argued that all cultures impart their values to the next generation through archetypal stories, including the "hero's journey." He believed the same about organized religion, but said it must "catch up" to the "moral necessities of the here and now."

Lucas himself has been called a "Buddhist/Methodist," though it's not clear that he identifies with either religious tradition. "Let's say I'm spiritual," he told Time magazine in 1999.

The director's co-creators in "Star Wars" have shared his desire to bring spirituality to the cineplex.

Irvin Kirshner, the director of the "The Empire Strikes Back," says the character of Yoda -- the small but spiritually powerful Jedi master -- was conceived in order to bring a bit of Buddhism to the sci-fi series.

Kirshner was a student of Zen and told one "Star Wars" actor, "I want to introduce some Zen here, because I don't want the kids to walk away just thinking that everything is a shoot-'em-up, but there's also a little to think about in terms of yourself and your surroundings."

That message wasn't lost on Mushim Patricia Ikeda, a Buddhist teacher and social justice activist who studied with Buddhist monks in Korea. It struck her how much Yoda reminded her of some of her teachers: the robes, the wise little sayings, the impishness.

"I watched those movies and I thought, check, check, double-check," she said. "'Star Wars' is the way Zen Buddhism has entered so many people's lives."

There's been a lot written about this topic, from scholarly papers to popular books, so I won't go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say, "Star Wars" borrows quite a bit from Buddhism, from its symbols to its teachings and practices. One writer calls the film saga "Zen with lightsabers."

The name of the Jedi Order itself could be borrowed from Asian culture, said religion scholar Christian Feichtinger. The "jidaigeki," a genre of popular movies in Japan, depict samurai learning to combine swordsmanship with spiritual training, and slowly discovering that the mind is mightier than the sword. (Sound familiar?)

Throughout the entire "Star Wars" franchise, the Jedi talk about mindfulness and concentration, attachment and interdependence, the belief that all beings are inextricably connected. All of these are key Buddhist ideas, and two -- mindfulness and concentration -- are steps on the Eightfold Path, the Buddha's guide to spiritual liberation.

"The Last Jedi," too, telegraphs its debts to Buddhism. When Rey is meditating, she touches the ground, mirroring an iconic image of the "earth-touching" Buddha.

Likewise, a mosaic pool in the Jedi temple on Ahch-to, where Luke is exiled, bears an image that looks a lot like Kannon Boddhisattva, a big-eared Buddhist being who hears the cries of the world and responds accordingly.

'Clear, your mind must be'

In "The Last Jedi," Luke Skywalker rescues the ragtag Resistance while meditating, one of the few times in cinema history in which the hero saves the day while seated in the Lotus position.

Outside the cineplex, it has become increasingly common to find liberals bringing Mindfulness and other forms of meditation to their real-life resistance, including last week's Women's March.

Groups such as Meditate Your Action, a partner in the march, and Mindful Resistance aim to teach progressives how to balance contemplative practices with political mobilization.

Robert Wright, author of "Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment" and founder of the Mindful Resistance Project, said his newsletter has been adding about 1,000 subscribers each month since Trump's election.

In the newsletter, Wright tries to analyze the week's news with a dispassionate eye. It's not always easy, he says, but it's better than the tribal, us-versus-them postures that plague our culture.

"The human mind seems designed not to see enemies and opposing forces with perfect clarity," Wright says. "We're often inclined to overreact. Mindful Resistance is an attempt the see the roots of Trump and Trumpism clearly, so we can do something about it."

Earlier this month at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California, a similar effort was underway.

Ikeda, the center's community coordinator, and John Ellis, a martial arts expert, hosted a "Star Wars"-themed workshop called "Jedi Insights: A Force For Justice." About 40 people turned out, including several teenagers and new meditators.

Ikeda said many teens are like Rey, the young heroine in "The Last Jedi," looking for mentors to help unravel the mystery of self-knowledge.

"They're like, please, please, please, give me that spiritual training," Ikeda said.

Ikeda and Ellis discussed scenes from "Star Wars" films and taught participants how to meditate. A few fans dressed in their best Jedi garb. One guy came as Chewbacca.

Inevitably, a few lively lightsaber battles broke out. Almost as inevitably, because this is America in 2018, the discussion got political.

"There's so much going on, from the environment to taxes to education, that it's easy to be overwhelmed," Ellis told the workshop participants. "'Star Wars' help us think about how meditation teaches us to focus on the task at hand, and bring our best self to it."

Ellis and Ikeda also explored the spiritual themes of "Star Wars," particularly its connections to Zen Buddhism.

There's more to spirituality in "Star Wars" than Buddhism, of course. Like Zen itself, the saga borrows a good bit from Taoism and other religious traditions. "The Force," for example, sounds a lot like the Taoist idea of "chi," the subtle stream of energy that animates the world.

And there's plenty about "Star Wars" that doesn't jibe with Buddhism, not least the fact that Darth Vader -- the supreme personification of evil -- is an avid meditator.

But even the storylines that borrow from other religions often teach Buddhist lessons.

Take Darth Vader's narrative. He was born of a virgin, and was supposed to save the galaxy before he succumbed to temptation, all ideas with clear Christian resonances.

But the reason for Vader's fall from grace -- the lessons viewers are supposed to take away -- seems more Buddhist than Christian.

Yoda says that he has become "attached" to the idea of saving Anakin Skywalker's wife and child, which, in the end, will only lead to more suffering.

"Death is a natural part of life," the Jedi master tells Anakin, who will later become Darth Vader. "Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is."

'Time it is, for you to look past a pile of old books'

So what is the spiritual message in "The Last Jedi," and what -- if anything -- can it tell us about religion in real life?

It's true that millennials, like Rey, are less likely than older Americans to identify with a specific religion. Nearly one in three says they have no affiliation with any religious organization or community.

That means lots of religious communities in America are losing members, from Jews to mainline Protestants to the Southern Baptist Convention.

But let's take a closer look at why millennials are leaving the fold.

A new study of young former Catholics, conducted by St. Mary's Press Catholic Research Group and Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, found that more blamed their family for the decision to leave the church than the church institution itself. Only 11% said they quit Catholicism because they oppose the church or religious institutions in general.

The study also found that, although a large slice (35%) of former Catholics said they no longer belong to any faith, nearly half (46%) joined other religious communities, including other Christian ones.

So is organized religion really the issue here?

It's no secret that we're living during a time of seismic shifts, from technology to politics to spirituality. It's not so much an "era of changes," Pope Francis has said, as "a change of eras."

So what's the leader of a 2,000-year-old church to do?

The answer is not resurrecting "obsolete practices and forms," Francis says. Some Catholic customs, while beautiful, "no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel."

But the Pope is no iconoclast, eager to discard sacred traditions. In fact, he wants Catholics to go back to the roots of their religion, the Gospel.

Francis has repeatedly implored Christians, particularly priests, to put Jesus' words into action by caring for the sick, the lame and the poor. He wants shepherds who smell like their sheep, not bookkeepers who smell like sheepskin.

Which brings us back to the spiritual message encoded in "The Last Jedi."

As Luke prepares to torch the tree containing the sacred Jedi texts, Yoda appears out of nowhere and giggles as he does the deed himself.

"Time it is," Yoda says, "for you to look past a pile of old books."

Some were aghast that Yoda would commit sacrilege against the Jedi tradition. But when you look at the scene from a Buddhist lens, the meaning shifts.

Zen is full of stories about ancient masters trying to jolt their apprentices from mental ruts. In one ancient monastery, the students paid too much attention to Buddhist images, so the head monk torched them. ("If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha," says a famous koan.)

These edicts are not meant to be permanent prescriptions for all Buddhists for all time. If you walk into a Zendo and burn their statues today, Buddhists will not be happy with you.

Koans and other Buddhist lessons are highly particular. They're often meant to be transmitted from master to apprentice, from one mind to another.

In that light, Yoda's apparent willingness to burn the "old pile of books" isn't really about texts, which Yoda already knows are safely in Rey's possession. It isn't even about religion. It's about Luke.

Yoda is trying to shock Luke out of his obsession with the past. His mind is always on the horizon, Yoda says. "Never here, now, hmm? The need in front of your nose."

So maybe the spiritual message of "Star Wars" isn't about the end or beginning of organized religion. Maybe, like a good Zen teacher, it's a mirror showing us our own minds: How we argue endlessly about sacred traditions and the future of faith, while ignoring the reality right in front of us.

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