Black, White, and Jedi Over: Zen Themes in Star Wars

Reader warning: this is a long, unedited trash fire of tumbling thoughts. Spoilers for some Star Wars movies are unavoidable.

“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried,” a quote attributed to cartoonist Stephen McCranie, is one of my favorites.

On the surface, it’s a succinct, minimalist reminder that achieving mastery—be it as a creative artist, as a parent/friend, or as a telekinetic space wizard—is a long journey, not comprised of never failing, but of never failing to try again.

However, the importance of “trying,” or moreso, the explicit importance of “failing,” is not something implicit to generalized Western philosophy. And it’s certainly not something heavily implied in the original Star Wars trilogy, at least if you take Yoda’s “do or do not—there is no try” at face value.

I am, of course, referring to a particular bit of wisdom that comes through towards the end of The Last Jedi, which is new enough that I’m doing my best to avoid explicit quotes and spoilers. But the takeaway is that failure is outlined as an excellent teacher.

This is not unique to Star Wars, nor to the various philosophical or religious wisdoms I find myself reminded of during the movies—particularly The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. A major theme from the series as a whole is that the Force “balances” itself, or rather exists, like gravity or a politically centrist Twitter account, to create checks and balances against both excessive good and excessive bad.

Without exploring the implication that the Force is an engine ensuring infinite strife within the Universe, it is safe to return to the concept of “trying” as it relates to both success and failure. In looking at Yoda’s adage, “Do or do not—there is no try,” we can settle upon the zen concept of “potentiality,” which stems from “interconnectivity.”

But before diving too deeply into that, I’d like to step back and clear the air for a moment. I realize this writing is scattered and all over the place, but I am mostly sure it is going to come together by the end. If not, well, I tried.

I am fairly certain that when I use the term “zen,” I am causing some furrowing of brows. As modern parlance goes, “zen” is often thought of as something undefined, as “mindfulness” or as meditation, retreats meant to relax or de-stress people, pan flutes. Maybe you’re familiar with elements of the more strict Dharma, maybe you know about the lotus or half-lotus, or that there are zen koans and they don’t seem to make sense.

To go further onto this limb, that is not what I mean. However, my understanding of “zen” is one that exists outside of traditions like Soto or Rinzai, and is more in the vein of Chinese and Japanese zen poetry. These monks would write poetry about how much they loved to eat octopus, with the refrain of, “oh well, I’m a sinner.” One famous story involves a master simply writing the word “fart” on a piece of paper and sending it to a pupil across the river who had been distressed about a metaphor involving a powerful wind; the student comes rushing over to confront the master in a rage. The master’s point was, “but, a little fart took you all the way across the river; why worry about the wind?”

Other stories come to mind. “It is in my nature to save [the stinging scorpion].” “Why are you still ‘carrying’ [the woman from earlier]?”

I am fully aware that as a once practitioner of stricter zen practices who was led “astray” by the lax, unserious nature of many zen poets (Ryokan and Hanshan are favorites) and as a choice (not a choice) no longer consider myself a practitioner (because it’s my understanding that thinking of yourself as a zen buddhist muddies the waters of actually being one), my take on these things is so biased and individualized as to be incomprehensible and dense to other minds in the world. Yes, I am intending to riff on motifs and understandings of themes that perhaps only exist to a single audience member—myself—and I realize the inherent uselessness of that.

So, if you’ve even gotten this far, a small reward: the scattered presentation and unedited drivel approach to this writing is intentional, meant to “warm up” the reader’s mind by playing bits and pieces of “melodies” they know but without finishing any one phrase. I am hoping the wood of your mind is humming and in harmony now. I am hoping to loosen the shape it takes, ever so slightly, with an array of tangential ideas and unfinished sente

Let’s slow down now. I simply can’t write about zen without attempting to invoke it.

Potentiality means seeing an acorn as the tree it will be. Interconnectivity means understanding that “tree” does not exist separate from “earth” and “air” and “water” and “decay” and “lumberjack,” when time is removed from the equation.

I often think of the Photoshop command, “flatten image.” If we flattened our “image” of the Universe, it would be beginning and ending in a single instance. If it ever began or ended. I don’t remember, do you?

Yoda says, “Do or do not—there is no try.” What I think he means is that the act of “trying” is irrelevant without time, or cause/effect. You either are successful, or you fail. This is removing the act of “striving” from the equation, another Eastern concept.

Swerve. This concept is best captured by the Taoist “wei wu wei,” or “way of no-way/action of no action.” Wei wu wei cannot be sought; it “manifests as a result of cultivation.”

This corroborates Yoda’s “there is no try,” but in a different way. You are either “doing” or “not doing.” The modern concept flow comes into play here. Even “not doing” is “a doing.” The phrase “doing not doing” is confusing, but it is a kind of decision. Choosing “not to decide” is still making a decision.

The concept of “flow” is described as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”

What is failure, but one in a chain of the coin flip between “doing” or “not doing?” In attempting constant universal balance, The Force is always in a state of “do” versus “do not.” Balance, as a concept, creates the possibility (and likelihood) of imbalance.

There is another zen saying, that life and death are like water turning into ice, and ice returning to water—they are an endless circle, turning again to one and to the other. If this is The Force, then it could be easy to infer that The Force inevitably introduces imbalance when it introduces balance.

In The Last Jedi, we see balancing at work. Balancing with the understanding that is creation and destruction, both. The remote island where Luke lives is an expanse of life in action, just as things there die and pass away. This difference between peak and valley is dynamic.

There’s a lyric in one of my favorite songs: “life is all dynamics.” I’ve been pondering what it means not just for several months this year, but for several years of my life. Life in this instance contains death, just as each powerful Force user in the Star Wars universe contains or is drawn by darkness.

In the original trilogy, Luke struggles with the darkness. He sees that same darkness in Rey, and in Ben Solo. We see that darkness in Anakin, and deeper in the lore, even in Qui-Gon Jinn and the concept of “the Living Force.”

According to Wookieepedia, “The Living Force was viewed as having both the light and the dark side.”

What does that mean? Does Rey’s darkness mirror Ben Solo’s “hesitation”? Is anyone else thinking of the yin and yang concept?

From Wikipedia: “Yin and yang can be thought of as complementary (rather than opposing) forces that interact to form a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the assembled parts. Everything has both yin and yang aspects (for instance, shadow cannot exist without light). Either of the two major aspects may manifest more strongly in a particular object, depending on the criterion of the observation.”

If that isn’t a downright simple explanation of what Star Wars as a franchise is about, I’ll eat my hat.

However, it isn’t about that, because that isn’t a story, it’s a state of existence. It is the engine that drives almost each and every major plot point in any of the Star Wars movies, though you might have to hammer at some of the puzzle pieces to make them fit this extremely simplified frame.

But here’s where we dive into The Last Jedi a bit more.

What are Snoke and the Jedi Tree/Jedi Texts but symbols of empty monoliths being worshipped as Things That Have Meaning? When Yoda calls lightning down upon the “sacred” tree—and when Ben Solo finishes off Supreme Leader Snoke (even his name is almost Old-referential to the point of absurdity)—I see this as embodying the zen adage, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

What does that mean? It essentially means, you cannot use second-hand experience to come to “enlightenment.” But forget about enlightenment—let’s just say there’s a staircase and you want to go up it. Can Rey walk up the same staircase that Luke did, though their legs are not the same length? Will Ben Solo continue to strive to be and emulate his grandfather? Judging from that crushed helmet, I think not.

This is an important tonal shift that occurs in The Last Jedi, as compared to The Force Awakens. The first movie in the new trilogy was criticized by some for adhering too strongly to already established themes and tropes laid down in A New Hope. Almost in reaction, TLJ opts to laughably, almost gleefully (in case of Yoda) kill its darlings—in this case, burning the ancient Jedi texts, cutting down Snoke during his most “Sith” moment, throwing the Most Sacred Lightsaber over your shoulder off a cliff.

In terms of the whole franchise and its fandom, I see this as a “killing the Buddha” moment, given that the large, mind-occupying matters of the Star Wars universe are blown across the river by so little as a filmic fart.

We can return now to the concept of failure as the best teacher. If the main, core story of Star Wars is a “musical scale,” we are (doomed?) to continue playing it, slightly better but always imperfectly, across the stories of Luke and Vader, Rey and Ben Solo, the Rebels and the Empire, the Good Guys and Bad Guys, forever and ever and ever and ever in an endless shift between balance and imbalance.

Meanwhile, Benicio del Toro’s gray hacker imparts a valuable bit of neutral wisdom: in a world where profit trumps personal or spiritual power (sound familiar?), the endless ideological battle is simply profiting the folks who choose to not choose a side.

This endless back and forth would be called “striving” in Buddhist traditions. To transcend the endless cycle of life/death, birth/rebirth, Jedi/Sith—whatever you like to call it—would be to find or seek annihilation, or “nirvana” as it’s more commonly called.

Literally translated, nirvana means quenching or snuffing out. It’s not so much destruction as simply getting “out” of the chain of endless events. You could argue that the Force ghost characters have achieved a sort of nirvana.

Let’s summarize a little.

In the SW universe, the balancing Force acts as a yin/yang instigator, creating “good” to balance “bad” and, most likely, the other way around. To connect with the Force without striving (or without emotion)—a wei wu wei approach — is kind of the goal of the original Jedi order. While it’s primarily described as “dispassionate” and “without emotion” (because using emotions -> shortcut to power -> dark side), this fits right in with the concept of doing while “not doing.”

So, you have these mostly good but with some evil in them characters hoisting a dispassionate relationship with the Force in a struggle with the mostly evil but with some good in them characters hoisting an emotional relationship with the Force in an endless struggle — and according to quite a few zen precepts, both of them are “wrong.”

This, I think, is something that new Force users like Kylo Ren and Rey are implicitly aware of, even if it’s never explicitly stated in the film. Look at Snoke’s black/white take on Kylo Ren: he’s either completely useful and faithful, or not. The use of guilt and fear to control is nothing new to the Sith, but it’s something that Ben Solo overcomes when he needs to. He crushes his helmet, symbolic of the past, and uses apparent actions during his final scene with Snoke to mask his intentions, even as Snoke croaks arrogantly about his ability to see/feel exactly what is going on.

Likewise, Luke makes similar mistakes regarding Rey. His rampant anger/fear relating to the Dark Side — his recoil from Rey’s easy approach to the “dark side hole” beneath the island, his actions in the original trilogy regarding Vader, both imagined and real. His fear is what causes him to attack Ben Solo, who is by all accounts still very much an innocent boy at the time.

Here we come to some more valuable zen concepts. One of my favorites, “Beginner’s Mind,” describes the easy focus and joyful exploration we find ourselves partaking in when discovering something for the first time. Rey is discovering the Force, in its entirety. She does not think, “This aspect of the Force is Good; and this aspect, Evil,” but sees that both are “sides” of the same thing. The interconnected tension between everything, where honestly, black and white morality falls away from importance and even relevance.

Then, look at the trappings of the previous adherents to this information. The huge red room full of imposing guards surrounding a wrinkled, face-caved Snoke wearing a silky robe. The yellow-paged and leather-bound tomes stacked side by side in the sunlight inside a hollowed-out tree. Could these placeholders be any more pompous, on-the-nose, so rigidly full of themselves?

The koan about the zen master who pours tea into his student’s cup until it overflows comes to mind. The student, with tea spilling all over his hands and robe, cries, “Master, the cup is full! It won’t hold any more tea!” The master replies, “This is your mind. How can you know any zen, when your mind is already full of what zen is?”

This is, essentially, not only where many “legendary” characters in the new movies are regarding their ideas about the Force, the role of the Empire and Resistance, but also essentially is a great descriptor of Rey and her approach to the Force. She screams and runs into a flurry of attacks a lot. She’s not the dispassionate Jedi Master, but almost a force of nature.

She also doesn’t really hesitate to leap into the scary dark pit that freaks Luke out so much. She doesn’t have pre-existing ideas, rigorous training, lessons, or anything informing her of what the Force is — her “cup” is empty. Without concerns about “Light” or “Dark” sides, she is simply experiencing the full, present, living embodiment of the Force, as a beginner.

I think this idea is reinforced when Rey and Ben Solo team up to take down the room full of royal guards. The two of them, a mix of raw power with either more or less tendency towards “sides” of the force individually, work together seamlessly because they are inverse versions of one another.

If their splitting of the lightsaber at the end of that scene isn’t heavily symbolic of the destruction of the “old ways” (be they the old ways of the Jedi, or the old ways of the Sith), I’ll have second helpings of my hat.

To me, it seems, this new arc of Star Wars movies is establishing a very clear message: these are new heroes, and their relationship with the Force, their motivations, actions, and desires cannot and should not be couched within the past iterations of the Jedi and the Sith. The old guard failed over and over, and if failure is the best teacher, then these characters are failing to continue the same endless cycle of Peace and Not Peace iterated through the other six films. On the other hand, they are simultaneously succeeding — at something new.

With all of this in mind, what can we gather from “The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried”? Taken at face value, it means, you know, expertise takes 10,000 hours, etc.

But taken within the concept of “beginner” as a mindset that exists freshly in the present, looking upon each new moment rather than viewing existence through the lens of pre-established concepts regarding what the Force is, who is “good” or “bad,” it makes being a “master” a state of not-presentness, of looking outward in at what you “know,” rather than looking inward out at “what is.”

The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried, because the beginner doesn’t try. While these “legends” find themselves embroiled in a dysfunctional cycle of third-nen stage thinking, the “beginners” exist in a blissful first-nen encounter with The Force.

aside: zen concept of “three nens”:

  1. In a quick instant, the first nen — your attention — hears only the raw sound as pure sensation.
  2. In the next moment your mind interprets this sensation, and thinks, “Car horn.”
  3. In the moment after that you think, “Oh, I just heard a car horn.”

Let’s say Rey is not a Jedi, not an intiate into the whole black/white rigid moral mess established in the previous six films. Rey is Rey, drinking of both sides of the Force as her attention directs her, a self-driven anomaly.

Would such a being end the cycle of balance and imbalance within the Star Wars universe? Is this not Ben Solo’s intention when he propositions her to join him, however she might disagree with his methods and past actions? And would this free-flowing mushin connection to the Force give Rey an inherent power denied to both the mind-busy Jedi and Sith, embroiled as they are with dogmas, structures, and directives?

Beats me.