Unwitting Buddhists and How The Force Flows Through Oxford

When the 2001 United Kingdom Census was sent out by post to the homes of the 59,577,000 residents of the U.K., the Office of National Statistics was surprised to receive its highest response ever from the late teens and twenties age group, notoriously indifferent to the National Census, which is taken every decade. This was the first U.K. Census that had included a question on religion, which was also the only non-compulsory question on the form. Among the tick boxes to choose from for “Religion” were Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, none, and a blank space to write “any other religion”. Over 390,000 respondents wrote in their religion as “Jedi Knight”. What’s going on here? Has the Force descended on the British Isles? Will the Sith rise in New Zealand next? Has George Lucas become L. Ron Hubbard? Is the Smith & Wesson Skywalker Signature Series Plasma Sword in the early stages of development? Or is something else, perhaps non-religious in nature, afoot over the pond?

Upon even minor research, one can find a very simple explanation for this religious growth spurt amongst teens; throughout late 2000 and into 2001, there was an internet campaign that claimed, erroneously, that if enough people wrote “Jedi Knight” in the religion category, it would be included as a selectable choice on the 2011 Census, thereby making the U.K. way cooler than other countries with presumably lower midichlorian counts. Or something. But aren’t there rather important stipulations made in the major religions that the followers of each need to pick a side in the kickball game of the heavens? “Ye worship none but Him...” and “...no other gods before me” and so on? I suppose this simply states that Brits in their late teens and twenties don’t fear a vengeful, jealous God as much as they want to be cool and show their disobedience of the system to the members of the system, without risking jail time. Or something. Of course, that then leads us to a train of thought along the lines of what exactly young Brits think of religion in general, and why they have become apathetic towards the major organized religions, or at least they no longer fear defying them. What is the option to this train of thought? Perhaps the British Census is boring reading material, so God hasn’t gotten around to hearing this news yet? So let’s hand our tickets to the conductors, Captain Reason and Lieutenant Logic, and take this train of thought as far as it goes; I want to see where it ends.

George Lucas has made it very clear in numerous interviews that he was influenced in his writing of the Star Wars storyline as much by eastern religions as by Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and readily acknowledges the Buddhist contributions to his mythology of the Force and how it is used by the series' Jedi Knights. While he states he believes in God, he does not claim we know what that God is or what we think we know about it. He believes that religion is an important part of all cultures, but feels that one religion is as good as any other. Lucas states that he “would hate to find ourselves in a completely secular world where entertainment was passing for some kind of religious experience”, so he quite clearly wishes us to see his religious-themed messages, but not actually allow them to steer our beliefs. Or something.

Buddhist contributions? Eastern religions? What gives? If we watch a twelve-hour geek-a-thon Star Wars screening, are we really getting the George Lucas Crash Course in Jedi Zen? While on its surface Star Wars has lots of political commentary, swashbuckling adventure, romance, futuristic space battle, and to be sure, Campbell’s Hero monomyth, there are obvious roots of Buddhism in the Jedi Knights and their basic philosophy. Matthew Bortolin clarifies this further in his book The Dharma of Star Wars with an in-depth comparison between Star Wars and Buddhism, beginning with the Jedi Art of Mindfulness and Concentration, carrying through the Five Aggregates and a descriptive study on the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment.

Qui-Gon Jinn tells us in The Phantom Menace to be mindful of the living Force, and Buddhism teaches that only when we let go of our attachments can we live in the present and focus on the moment. The entire Star Wars saga is a lesson in attachment, and its contribution to the paving of Dark Side Road. Anakin’s attachment to his mother, Padme’s attachment to Anakin, Anakin’s reciprocation, Palpatine’s attachment to power, and to Anakin, Yoda’s attachment to the old ways, Luke’s myriad attachments, Leia’s fair number, Han Solo’s brotherly attachment, Chewbacca’s lifedebt, and numerous others. Attachment is a theme throughout, and even linguistically-challenged Yoda explains very clearly that attachment eventually leads to jealousy, greed and low resale value on your spaceship. Or something.

The Jedi hold no attachments, and therefore are more attuned to the living force. Or Living Force. It all gets a bit murky when we start involving science and midichlorians and such, but the gist of it is that when one can let go of attachments, he or she can truly focus on the moment and end suffering. And ending suffering is the very essence of enlightenment in Buddhism. So does all of this mean that teenage Brits can take one of two trains out of Little Whinging, one to Hogwarts and the other to the Jedi Academy? No, obviously not. But perhaps an even stranger conclusion may be drawn.

Buddhism drastically expanding as a worldview seems a bit of a stretch, considering there were 144,453 Buddhists in that same 2001 U.K. Census; it would be hard to imagine an additional 390,000 practicing Buddhists who would suddenly rather thumb their nose at the establishment than tick the box that is most like their religion out of sheer honesty (a bit more likely with the Buddhist crowd, anyway). However, the average teen nowadays is less likely to know anything about Buddhism than the belief system of the Jedi, so why couldn’t it be a bit of both? Why not teens who are apathetic towards the major religions, never exposed to the tenets of Buddhism, appreciating mindfulness, ending suffering, and being aware of the living force, i.e. living in the moment? Is it so hard to believe that today’s young people want some of the very soothing benefits offered by eastern philosophy, and not have to identify with some of the corporate-entity-sized religions with their stringent rules and horrible punishments? Or are there Jedi Masters secretly walking the halls at Cambridge University, cleverly disguised as philosophy professors?

Bill Slaviscek’s A Guide to the Star Wars Universe defines the Jedi as “guardians of justice and freedom... known for their uncanny abilities and supernatural skills with lightsabers, their real power came from the ability to tap into and manipulate the Force”. I doubt anyone would suggest those sorts of shenanigans go on in London pubs after a few too many pints, and anyone who’s had a pitcher of Guinness will tell you if lightsabers were being hidden in overcoats, your average pub would have a rule about them being as far from the bar as possible by now. Well, if Britain’s youth are not studying Jedi mind tricks and spacecraft levitation, and they’re not rebellious Buddhists, what does that leave us with?

With 58-80% (depending on region) of respondents adhering to Christianity, and less than 150,000 Buddhists responding, the answer is that religion isn’t the all-encompassing learning tool it once was, and teens will latch onto the mythology that seems to be a necessary element of the human condition, wherever they may find it. If Sunday church isn’t in vogue anymore, and Reform Judaism shows more growth than Orthodox Judaism, and Muslims, let’s face it, have been almost forced into hiding, where do kids go to get their myths? Why, to the mecca of mythology; the local movie theater. They buy their 64 oz. Coca-Cola Brand Quadruple Soda Bomb, a bucket of Corporate Corn coated in a thick layer of synthetic butter-flavored vegetable oil product, and kick their imported Asian-work-camp-fabricated Nike Air America shoes up while they revel in the disapproval of corporate authority and enjoy Joseph Campbell’s “new” movie. By George Lucas. Or something.

Works Cited

"UK Population Growth.” optimumpopulationgrowth.org. 2009. Optimum Population Trust, 21 Oct
 2009. < http://www.optimumpopulation.org/opt.more.ukpoptable.html>
"390,000 Jedis There Are.” jedichurch.org. 2003. Jedi Church, 13 Feb 2003.
"Jedi-Shinshu: The Buddhist Heart of Star Wars.” livingdharma.org. 1997-2010. Frederick Brenion,
 West Covina Buddhist Temple.
 < http://www.livingdharma.org/Real.World.Buddhism/StarWars-Brenion.html>
"Islam and Christianity: Similarities and Differences.” muslim-canada.org. 2010. James Abdul Rahim
 Gaudet, Rabia Mills, Syed Mumtaz Ali, 22 Nov 2010.
"The Theology of Star Wars.” next-wave.org. 1999. Rogier Bios, 26 Apr 1999.
"Census 2001- Ethnicity and Religion in England and Wales.” statistics.gov.uk. 2010. Office of
 National Statistics, 28 Nov 2010.
"Buddhism and Ethnicity in Britain: The 2001 Census Data.” globalbuddhism.org. 2003. Robert Bluck,
 Open University, 2003. <http://www.globalbuddhism.org/5/bluck04.htm>

Matthew Bortolin, The Dharma of Star Wars. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005.
Bill Slaviscek, A Guide to the Star Wars Universe, 3rd Ed. New York: Ballantine Publishing, 2000.
Lucas, George, dir, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Twentieth Century Fox, 1999. DVD.

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