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The Last Jedi dared to put the philosophy of Star Wars in the foreground

How Luke’s final act made the Skywalker Saga’s Buddhist themes more explicit

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Two hours and eighteen minutes into The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) projects his avatar from across the galaxy to confront Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and save the Resistance. Both times I saw the film theatrically, once in Mumbai, and then in New Delhi a thousand miles away, the image of Luke floating cross-legged, deep in meditation, was met with thunderous applause. This wasn’t just a clever twist for fans of Force magic; for many eastern audiences, the image of the Jedi levitating cross-legged above a mound evokes depictions of Siddhārtha Gautama, the first Buddha, in sculptures and paintings across the centuries.

The climactic reveal of Luke, lost in deep meditation on Ahch-To (the site of his self-imposed exile, where he lives a similarly material-free life), takes the place of the typical “cowboy shot,” where a subject is framed from the thigh-up as they grab their weapon from its holster — a technique Star Wars has used in the past. Instinctively, most audiences in the west know what this image means whenever it appears, especially if it’s accompanied by the camera pushing closer for emphasis (as it does on Rey when she first wields her weapon in The Force Awakens). It’s a precursor to heroic action scenes; a familiar visual shorthand that tickles the senses, as all genre tropes do. But in The Last Jedi, as the camera pushes in on Luke, the shorthand of the climax is an image more familiar to viewers in South and Southeast Asia. For me, the image recalled an enormous statue of the Buddha in the Ajanta Caves, a series of rock-cut Buddhist monasteries built as far back as the 2nd century BCE.

Cross-legged depictions of the meditating Buddha are most often depictions of the revered monk achieving nirvana, a form of deep spiritual understanding in South Asian religions like Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. The latter, now the world’s fourth-largest religion, is believed to have been founded in the 5th century BCE by Siddhārtha Gautama, who most historians agree renounced the material world before embarking upon a journey of learning and teaching until his eventual death; more specific details are harder to verify, though most biographies cite his birthplace as Lumbini — modern-day Nepal. In Buddhist traditions that arose in subsequent centuries, nirvana (or “the great quenching”) became one of Buddhism’s central tenets, an escape from cycles of death and rebirth, achieved through deep concentration, helping others, and a state of peaceful, desireless living.

luke skywalker sits crosslegged hovering over the rocks of ach-to in last jedi Lucasfilm Ltd.

Despite its political and aesthetic touchstones, the Star Wars series’ philosophy has historically been a hodgepodge of eastern ideas, mixing Taoism, Buddhism and Zen. In the first film in the series, the Jedi’s belief in the Force and its “light” and “dark” sides mirrored the Taoist concepts of Qi (or Ch’i; a “life force”) and the yin-and-yang. Shortly thereafter, The Empire Strikes Back re-enforced, through characters like Master Yoda (Frank Oz), the idea that using the Force was akin to Zen — or at least, the simplified version of Zen Buddhism that captured the attention of Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and leaked into the western zeitgeist of the ’50s and ’60s. In the west, the word “Zen” has since come to mean “a state of calm attentiveness in which one’s actions are guided by intuition,” not unlike Luke’s education on the Force. “How will I know the good side from the bad?” Luke asks, to which Yoda replies, “You will know when you are calm. At peace. Passive.”

However, the contradictory behavior of the Jedi would come to light in Return of the Jedi, when Obi-Wan insists that, in order to defeat the Emperor, Luke must vanquish Darth Vader in an act of physical dominance. This course of action would require Luke to detach himself emotionally from his own father, but it also contradicted the very things Yoda had taught him. “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense,” Yoda said, “never attack.” By the end of the film, Luke rejects both extremes of the Force equation, neither buying into the visceral hatred of the Dark Side nor following the dispassionate Jedi dogma that would’ve also lead him to violence. After pummeling Vader in a fit of rage, Luke tosses his own lightsaber aside, and offers him a path to redemption.

By The Last Jedi, Luke has cut himself off from the Force, having failed to exorcise the darkness in his nephew Ben Solo. In flashback, we see Luke momentarily tempted by both sides of the equation once more: the violent potential within him that the Dark Side could draw out, and the Jedi’s dogmatic call to ascetic detachment in order to vanquish evil. In this moment, as in the moment Luke nearly took Vader’s life, the Dark Side and the ways of the Jedi are one and the same. Luke thinks about (and nearly acts on) killing Ben. He doesn’t follow through, but it’s too late: The betrayed Ben, denied the road to redemption by his own uncle, is set down on a dark path of his own. A second Skywalker villain is created by Jedi zealotry.

kylo ren holds his red cross saber opposite luke skywalker holding a blue lightsaber on the salt planet crait Lucasfilm Ltd.

“The greatest teacher, failure is,” Yoda tells Luke, setting him on a path of amends. While simply appearing in person at the battle of Crait would have fulfilled the same plot function, the mechanics by which Luke appears, battles Ben (now Kylo Ren), and subsequently dies, serve to complete his story thematically. Luke uses the Force not to “walk out with a laser sword and face down the whole First Order,” as he jokes earlier in the film, but as means of spiritual communion, the way it manifests elsewhere between Kylo and Luke’s new protégé, Rey (Daisy Ridley). While Rian Johnson got the idea for “force projection” from the Star Wars reference book The Jedi Path: A Manual for Students of the Force, astral projection as a spiritual concept takes hold in Buddhist scripture. In the Samaññaphala Sutta, or “The Fruit of Contemplative Life,” the Buddha says:

With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, the monk directs and inclines it to creating a mind-made body ... He appears. He vanishes. He goes unimpeded through walls, ramparts, and mountains as if through space. He dives in and out of the earth as if it were water. He walks on water without sinking as if it were dry land. Sitting cross-legged he flies through the air like a winged bird.

The Last Jedi’s cut away from the duel to Luke’s cross-legged meditation signals the achievement of a greater, clear-minded understanding. The concept of nirvana ties back to the central Buddhist idea of escaping cycles of life and death, or attaining moksha, i.e. salvation from pain; what pains Luke, it would seem, is the guilt of his failure. In Buddhism, in order to attain this moksha, one must ascend — as Luke does — from ceto-vimutti, a state of simple, desireless living, to pañña-vimutti, the escape from physical suffering through vipassana, or meditation. The term nirvana, when literally translated, means “blowing out,” as in a candle. As Luke fades from physical existence, backed by the sun-drenched horizon, his life ends like a fading flame.

Fittingly, Luke’s enlightenment, and his rejection of Jedi dogma, mirrors the rift between two major sects of Buddhism: Theravada, or the School of the Elders, and Mahayana, or the Great Vehicle. Theravada, the oldest and most orthodox form of Buddhism, teaches the path to nirvana as a strict endeavour embarked upon only by chosen monks living according to a rigid monastic code, whose enlightenment takes precedence over helping others. In response, Mahayana, which arose cir. the 1st century BCE, introduced newer, more lenient teachings considered inauthentic by many Theravadins. It allowed laypeople the chance to walk the path to enlightenment, and placed a greater emphasis on helping struggling humans, even if it meant delaying one’s own nirvana in order to do so (Mahayana, as it happens, was also the origin of Zen Buddhism).

This divide also echoes the paradigm of the new Star Wars films, which dramatizes the tensions between the rigidity of bloodline legacy — from Vader to Kylo Ren — and the arrival of an outsider Rey, who uses the Force and upsets the established order.

Rey is also a key fixture in the film’s use of Buddhist imagery. Her own moment of enlightenment, while searching for her parents’ identity in the cave on Ahch-To, comes in the form of gazing into infinite mirrors. In some sects of Buddhism, the mirror is considered a point of spiritual reflection; seventeenth century Zen master Hakuin Ekaku considered the mirror a false or illusory reflection of reality. Similarly, the “truth” Rey seeks in these mirrors presents itself first as illusion — two silhouetted figures, perhaps her parents, walking towards her — before finally reflecting the reality of the world as it truly is. In seeing these two shadows merge into her own reflection, Rey, the girl who raised herself on Jakku, begins to accept that it’s neither the phantom parents she clings to, nor idols like Luke or Han to whom she runs, nor Kylo Ren by whom she’s tempted, that will show her her path. It’s something she must forge herself.

Rey isn’t the only important outsider in The Last Jedi either. Rose (Trần Loan) and Finn (John Boyega) help a young stable boy (Temirlan Blaev) on Canto Bight, the Casino city frequented by the galaxy’s war profiteers. The capital is a nexus of violence and materialism, in contrast with the Buddhist tenets of ending suffering (dukkha) and detaching oneself from the material desires that cause it (samudaya). At the end of the film, a young slave boy who finds inspiration in a Rebel ring given to him by Rose, as well as in the legends of Luke Skywalker, appears to use the Force. In an immediate sense, this child is a symbol of the continuing rebellion, the birth of a new generation of Jedi, and like Rey, a spiritual successor in the Skywalker story.

twin suns set on ach-to, the light backlighting luke skywalker Lucasfilm Ltd.

But where does the Force go from here, after Luke’s ultimate rejection of violence and the Jedi dogma? With few answers from The Rise of Skywalker, the answer may partially lie with the new live-action Star Wars shows planned for Disney Plus. We’ve gotten a little from The Mandalorian and Grogu. This mute infant, of the same species as the Yoda we know, exhibits sensitivity to the Force, and in his innocent moments, tries to use the Force to heal the Mandalorian’s wounds. The Force as a means of physical healing is a concept yet unexplored by Star Wars, though it feels tethered to Luke’s use of the Force as a great vehicle for spiritual healing in The Last Jedi.

When the film begins, Luke has taken a dark path akin to Yoda’s didactic prophecy many years ago: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. And hate leads to suffering.” But by the end, Luke breaks this painful cycle by finding an alternative to Yoda’s three-pronged mantra, one that echoes the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, the core of the Buddha’s teachings: Suffering exists. It has a cause. It has an end. And there is a noble path to ending it. The future of the Force, it would seem, lies in the ending of suffering, rather than in answering the call to violence; or, as Rose puts it, “Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.”

The saga thus far has woven a harmonious fabric, in which Luke Skywalker, the young farm boy from Tatooine who just wanted to be part of something greater, fulfills his destiny by becoming one with the Force. He’s helped along his path by none other than Master Yoda, whose own enlightenment has seen him become one with nature; “We are what they grow beyond,” Yoda tells him, of their Jedi students. “That is the true burden of all masters.” As the saga leans further into Mahayana tradition, the goals of its wise Jedi, and its older generations, are to guide these new heroes — and outsiders — toward their own forms of spiritual understanding.

Luke does not appear in front of Kylo Ren to fight, but to guide others to safety. When his astonishing new abilities are revealed, they are a path to salvation — for Kylo, for the entrapped Rebels, and for the Jedi master himself — instead of bloodshed. When Luke is revealed floating on the mound, the awesome power audiences applauded was not violent fantasy, but a path to peace.