Jedi Master, Daoist Sage
by Joshua Whitson
I previously outlined how the Force is influenced by Chinese philosophy here. For this post, I will continue to examine Daoism’s influence on Star Wars through the idea of the Sage.
Laozi describes the Sage as embracing “humility…. free from self-display… from self-assertion… from boasting.” This sense of humility is reflected in the way Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda live – simple robes, small huts for homes, and no display of wealth or fame. It is by embracing what is considered low that one gains strength. According to Laozi, “There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, and yet for attacking things … there is nothing better, for there is nothing so hard that water will not wear it down.” This theme of the humble and meek overcoming the powerful is repeated throughout the films; a small child is capable of defying the odds and winning a race, a farm boy is capable of destroying the Death Star.
Further paralleling Yoda and Obi-Wan, early Daoist writings recommend a reclusive lifestyle. Laozi writes, “The best leaders go unnoticed by the people,” one should “Shut the door, close the gates … dim the brightness, bring yourself into obscurity.” These writings emphasize an anti-technology, back-to-nature lifestyle. Laozi describes ideal society as “small, with few people…. though they have armor and sharp weapons, they would have no occasion to use them.” So peaceful are they that, “There may be a neighbouring village within sight, and the voices of its … dogs may be heard, but the people will grow old and die without knowing it [(They have no reason to go and bother others.)] …They will think their coarse food sweet; their plain clothes beautiful; their poor dwellings places of rest; their common simple ways sources of enjoyment.” Living in hermeticism allows a peaceful life. This theme of nature and simplicity over technology can be seen beyond the Jedi; Gungans with spears and slings defeat a droid army, Ewoks fight the Empire’s technological superiority with rocks and logs, and Luke destroys the Death Star by turning off his targeting computer and trusting the Force.
Zhuangzi writes that the goal of following the Dao is to become a Zhenren, literally a “real person,” becoming an immortal. Later texts outline ways to meditate and exercise to balance yin and yang, eventually shedding off the body like “the shell of a cicada or the cast-off skin of a snake” revealing a true, immortal body. To do this is to grasp the Dao, what Laozi describes as “formless, standing alone, and undergoing no change, reaching everywhere without exhaustion.”
Understanding the emphasis on humility, nature, an all present Dao, and an immortal true self, reveals a parallel with Yoda’s understanding of the Force. He instructs: “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.”
Throughout the saga we see four Jedi, Qui-Gon Jin, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Anakin Skywalker, obtain a state beyond death. This is something that was discovered by Qui-Gon and passed to Yoda as seen in the sixth season of The Clone Wars, and mentioned by Yoda to Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith. But Jedi following this humble, reclusive, back-to-nature lifestyle resulting in becoming a Force ghost is something only seen in the original trilogy. What are we to make of the Jedi of the prequels?
The Jedi Order is headquartered at the opulent Temple on Coruscant, the most populous planet in the galaxy. Examining the Order through a Daoist lens shows an inevitable fall. As Laozi writes, “It is better to leave a vessel unfilled, than to have it overturn when full…. When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honours lead to arrogance, this brings evil on itself.” In other words, when you amass riches, prosperity, and fame, rather than living an isolated, humble existence, it is inevitable that it will be taken away.
The Jedi also made the mistake of becoming involved in governance, working with the Republic’s politicians. As Laozi warns, “The multiplication of prohibitions increases the poverty of the people…. The more legislation there is, the more thieves and robbers there are.” By adding themselves to the political process, the Jedi created more discordance rather than peace through complicating society.
Eventually, this resulted in the Jedi becoming the military leaders of the Clone Wars, violating their peacekeeping role. It’s not that the Sage, or the Jedi, can never resort to violence for purposes of defense. Indeed, Laozi explains “when swords are crossed, he who deplores the situation will win.” It is the one trying to avoid violence that succeeds. However, “When the Dao prevails in the world, swift horses work in the fields. When the Dao is disregarded, war horses breed on the borders.” While many Jedi were trying to save lives and felt that their role in the War was justified, going on the offensive started to erode away the core beliefs of the Jedi and a more aggressive Order developed. This is exemplified through characters like General Krell, who disregarded the lives of his troops, and Anakin, who asserted that murder and violence were justified for the “peace, freedom, justice, and security to my new Empire.” None summed up the fall of the Jedi better than Barriss Offee: “I've come to realize … that the Jedi are the ones responsible for this War. That we've so lost our way that we have become villains in this conflict…. an army fighting for the dark side, fallen from the light that we once held so dear. This Republic is failing!” How might the war have proceeded differently if the Jedi focused on maintaining peace as a neutral faction, rather than defeating an enemy?Powered by Sidelines