To end the year, I want to dedicate a post to analyze religion in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Be warned that it is full of spoilers, so read ahead at your own peril… and may the force be with you in 2018.
A week after the premiere of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, there are plenty of reviews and analyses of the movie from a variety of perspectives (there is a good discussion of the film here and this video discusses some of the easter eggs in the movie). Here, though, I want to focus on the film’s presentation of the Jedi religion which, as I will argue, has many similarities with the Zen tradition and, in particular with some of the ideas presented in one of its most famous texts, The Platform Sūtra.
Yoda, Bodhidharma, and the Unmediated Religious Experience
The Last Jedi portrays Luke Skywalker as (wait for it…) the last Jedi, a broken man living the last days of his life in a remote island/planet in an unknown corner of the galaxy. Luke has renounced the Jedi life after his failure to stop his nephew, Ben Solo, from turning to the dark side and becoming Kylo Ren. Ben/Kylo also destroyed Luke’s Jedi Academy, killing many of the young padowans in it (in a callback to the destruction of the earlier Jedi Temple and the assassination of the young padowans by Darth Vader in Revenge of the Sith). So when Rey shows up in the island at the beginning of the movie, Luke is not really excited about the possibility of training. In fact, according to Luke, “the time has come for the Jedi to end.”
Luke is so determined to stop Rey from becoming a Jedi that, in a key moment of the film, he decides to burn the last remaining scriptures of the Jedi, preserved inside a sacred tree in the island. He has held onto them as a relic of the past, but maybe if he burns them and if he doesn’t train Rey, the Jedi lineage will finally die with him.
Before he is able to do it, though, Master Yoda appears to him and confronts him about what he is about to do. Yoda, in a pretty funny exchange, even questions Luke if he has read those scriptures saying that “page turners are not!” and after Luke hesitates, Yoda himself burns the tree with the scriptures inside (although towards the end of the film we find out that Rey may have saved them and brought them with her in the Millennium Falcon). After Luke realizes the consequences of it, Yoda reinforces the teaching that the Force is not confined to books, traditions or institutions. The Force is ever present. You would think that Luke has already learned this, since he even mentions a similar idea to Rey at the beginning of the film, but maybe he has not fully internalized it, and is still attached to the idea that scriptures, institutions, and even the Jedi as an order hold some sort of ownership over the Force. But as Han Solo said in The Force Awakens:
This moment, and the lesson that conveys recalls the attitude, at least rhetorically, of the early Zen tradition. Bodhidharma, considered the founder of Zen in China, is supposed to have said that what made Zen different from other Buddhist traditions is that it was:
A special tradition outside the scriptures
With no dependence upon words and letters
A direct pointing into the mind
Seeing there one’s own nature, and attaining Buddhahood
We have a tendency to think of foundational religious experiences (the life and teachings of Jesus, the enlightened experience of the Buddha under the Bodhi tree, etc.) as something that happened a long time ago and that was recorded in scriptures for later generations to remember. What Yoda and the Zen tradition argue is that the ultimate religious experience is ever present, it is always accessible to us if we are willing to engage and to be present, and it does not have to be mediated by anyone or anything, including sacred scriptures, priests, or institutions.
Rey’s Parents, The Platform Sūtra, and the Dangers of Lineages
Another aspect of the movie that reminds me of the Zen tradition is the controversial revelation that Rey’s parents are actually not important, in fact, Kylo Ren tells Rey that her parents:
KYLO REN: You know the truth. Say it.
REY: They were nobody.
KYLO REN: They were filthy junk traders who sold you off for drinking money. They’re dead, in a paupers’ grave in the Jakku desert.
This moment has sparked some controversy among the fans of Star Wars since The Force Awakens made a big deal about the possible identity of Rey’s parents (you can read some of those theories here). The fact that it is revealed that her parents are not important to the story comes not only as a surprise, but it also undermines the importance that the Star Wars saga has placed on lineage, and in particular the Skywalker lineage, to the survival of the Jedi tradition. The two early trilogies explored the possibility of a Skywalker (Darth Vader and then Luke) as possible saviors of the galaxy. This movie moves away from that notion, and inserts the possibility of someone else besides a Skywalker as holder of the lineage of the Jedi tradition.
The revelation that a ‘nobody’ could be a powerful Jedi also reminds me of the story at the heart of the Platform Sūtra, one of the most important texts in the Zen tradition. In the Platform Sūtra, we learn about the tension surrounding the succession of the 5th Patriarch of Zen, Hongren between two candidates, Shenxiu and Huineng. Shenxiu was supposed to be the heir to the lineage. He was a dear member of the monastic community and a learned scholar. But a challenger emerged in the figure of Huineng, an illiterate and uneducated individual who became enlightened by simply listening to the Diamond Sūtra. In order to sort out who would become the 6th patriarch a challenge of sorts was set up in which the two candidates had to write a poem expressing their understanding of enlightenment. The Platform Sūtra, surprisingly, presents Huineng as the winner, making an illiterate nobody the holder of the Zen tradition.
Although the story is much more complicated (and probably apocryphal), what the Platform Sutra reveals is a challenge to the superiority of intellectual knowledge and the importance of tradition. The idea that an illiterate person could become the main patriarch of the Zen tradition would seem preposterous in many religious traditions, but not to Zen. This very similar point is made in The Last Jedi, where we have Kylo Ren, whose real name is Ben Solo, son of Leia and Han, nephew of Luke Skywalker, and grandson of Darth Vader. He is part of a powerful lineage within the Force. And then we have Rey, the daughter of scavengers who gambled her away for drinking money. While the rest of the Star Wars movies have argued for the importance of the Skywalker blood line (or mydiclorians if we are to follow the unfortunate explanation of George Lucas in The Phantom Menace) as central to the survival of the Jedi tradition, The Last Jedi switches the focus to those ‘nobodies’, represented by Rey, it democratizes the Force. This is reinforced with the last image of the film, in which we see a poor kid who grabs a broom using the force and yields it as if it was a light saber looking at the sky with hope for a better future for the galaxy.
So what do you think, is it The Last Jedi the Platform Sūtra of Star Wars?