Zen and ‘The Last Jedi’

In The Last Jedi, the viewer witnesses the simultaneous death and re-birth of the Jedi order. What is Luke Skywalker struggling with in The Last Jedi? What causes him such turmoil that he refuses to train Rey? We discover that Luke has realized how vain and deceptive the current understanding of the Force is in the galaxy. When he asks Rey what the Force is, she responds that it’s something that the Jedi have and that you can move rocks with. Luke retorts that every word in that reply was wrong. Every word in that reply is wrong not because the words themselves are wrong, but because Rey believes that the Force is not also for her. There are the Jedi who have the Force and then there is everyone else. She wants to become a Jedi so she can “have” the Force. But, as Han Solo said in The Force Awakens, “That’s now how the Force works!”

In the film, Luke seeks to re-orient Rey’s understanding of the Force by showing that it is not a superpower possessed by an elite group, but rather that the Force is the balance and energy in and between all things. This means that the Force already is. Rey already “has” the Force because she subsists in the Force moment by moment. The Force has always acted as the connection between all things so that every thing might be present with every other thing. This is why Snoke is able to “make” Rey and Kylo Ren present together. Though, in a deeper sense, this is precisely what he cannot do. They already are present with each other through the ever moving pathways of the Force. Snoke, through the manipulation of the Force, can open Rey and Kylo’s senses to be aware of the fact that they are already connected. Their presence interpenetrates each other and every other thing at every moment. In this we see a vivid depiction of the metaphysics of Zen Buddhism.

In Zen, all things are nothingness. By this, the sage intends to say that all things are exactly what they are. No thing is in competition with any other thing, rather all things are connected and pour themselves out into every other. This pouring ourselves out constitutes our being, which means that we are ourselves precisely in our being nothing. Zen emphasizes this “already” state of enlightenment due to its Japanese origins. Japanese Buddhism has historically held a view called hangaku which maintains that all things already are Buddha-nature (enlightened, nothing, emptied). However, the other prominent strain of Buddhism tends to argue for the view that Buddha-nature must be attained (usually through specific practices). This Buddhist theological debate seems to mirror the conflict in Luke’s own heart. Historically, the Jedi have been seen as an elite group of those who have been trained and disciplined themselves in order to attain a special state of “having the Force.” Being a Jedi seems, in this analogy, to equate to being enlightened. The Jedi understands the nature of all things as interconnected, flowing through one another, and constantly surging through the ever-moving cycle of death and re-birth. They have come to see their own place within the Force and thus may “use” the Force. This is precisely how Rey sees the Force, but Luke has grown disgusted with this view. His understanding much more mirrors the consciousness of Zen which sees us as already being Buddha-nature and simply needing to realize the way things are. No one becomes a Jedi. Everyone already is a Jedi. They must simply be awakened to this fact.

Why then do not all people realize they are Jedi? In Zen, the culprit for why humans struggle with anxiety about ourselves is self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is presenting the self to the self as an object. Plants, rivers, and mountains do not struggle with self-consciousness. They simply are. They are Buddha-nature already. So too are we, but we have the constant tendency to objectify ourselves and others, thereby preventing us from truly emptying ourselves. If I cling to myself as an object, how can I ever give myself away? I must become utterly nothing and find my home in my own nothingness, for there I will discover my true self: the no-self. Rey provides an example of this crushing anxiety and the siren-song of self-consciousness. When Rey first begins to perceive the Force, she is immediately drawn towards “the dark side.” She experiences a pull towards the dark hole at the bottom of the island and this worries Luke. What is this pull? I believe this pull is the human desire to become self-attached. What does this mean? When Rey finally does go down into the cave, she discovers a mirror. From this mirror, she feels a beckoning which seems to promise answers. As she desperately pleads with the mirror to provide answers for her, she sees a moving figure begin to coalesce in the mirror and we feel a growing sense of expectation that there may truly be answers waiting for her. But, when the figure finally becomes clear, we are disappointed. Rey finds only her own face staring back at her. This is the deception of self-consciousness. We endlessly mirror ourselves back towards ourselves and thus we are stuck within ourselves. Self-consciousness purports to offer answers and makes grandiose claims of knowledge, but ultimately, we discover those promises are empty. In the end, we find only our own face staring back at us. Self-consciousness can never get outside of itself to get at the nature of all things as nothingness eternally emptying itself out.

However, Rey does not remain in this state of confusion. Rey leaves the island precisely because she comes to understand the true nature of the Force. Yoda confirms this for us when he says that there is nothing written in the Jedi texts that Rey does not already understand. We get a glimpse of Rey’s true understanding when, at the end of the movie, in order to save her friends who are trapped in the mine, she moves a pile of rocks. This hearkens back to her previous line about the Force allowing one to move rocks, a reply which Luke promptly and rightly mocked. He said that every word in that sentence was untrue. They were untrue then, but they’re entirely true now. They’re true now because Rey can see things as they really are. She can move the rocks because she can see her interconnection with all things and has found her place in the flow of the balance of the universe. Her old conception has passed away, and in its place, reality has come to full presentation. She can finally see things just as they have always been.

So, what does the future hold for the Force in upcoming Star Wars movies? Where is this going? If Rey has realized the nature of the Force, if Luke has come to terms with the Force’s next development, if Yoda has destroyed the last great texts of the Jedi order, what comes next for the galaxy? I believe that the Force must be seeking to overcome even the dichotomy between the light and the dark sides. This notion has shocking Hegelian resonances. The next step in the development of the Force (perhaps analogous to Hegel’s Geist) would be to move beyond the thesis and antithesis of the light and the dark in order to move into a phase of synthesis. We see this synthesis at the end of the movie in the little boy who uses the Force to grab his broom. We get a glimpse there into a world where there are no Jedi and no Sith, but simply the Force in all and through all. This is why I believe that Rey’s lack of lineage speaks so loudly in this trilogy. If it were revealed that Rey somehow were Luke’s long lost daughter or that she had a Jedi parent, we would still be trapped in the framework of the Jedi being special and having some sort of unique connection with the Force. Rather, the facts that Rey has no lineage to speak of, grew up on a remote desert planet, and discovers of her own accord how to manipulate the Force, only serves to break open our previous conceptions of what it meant to be a Jedi and how the galaxy is “supposed to be.” Instead, she comes to realize the nature of the Force of her own accord, surpassing even the ancient Jedi texts in a matter of a few weeks. This speaks to the true reality of the Force, not as an esoteric teaching, but as the dynamic reality of being.

The question does still remain though. What is the Dark Side? Why does it exist? What gives it its draw? Is the Dark Side necessary to the Force? What will the synthesis of the two look like? These questions remain to be answered and I’m curious to see how episode 9 will fit into this interpretation. I don’t know if the writers have consciously employed these elements in the way that I have offered them, but Star Wars has always had Eastern philosophy in its genes. I take this line of reading to be interesting at least, and possibly even fruitful, if only for understanding Buddhism itself better. I have more thoughts, particularly about Kylo Ren, but I will forego those comments for now. If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend that you employ this Zen lens and see if you can uncover new insights. If you’ve already seen it, consider employing this interpretive lens and re-watching it in order to see new depths. I won’t go so far as to say that “The Last Jedi” is a “good” movie (I think it has some problems with its structure and character development), but I will say that I’m fascinated with what’s happening with the Force. In fact, I think its necessary.

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