The Past Must Die

Hello Dear Readers,

By now, you’ve probably seen the movie Star Wars: the Last Jedi. If you haven’t, you may want to skip this post.

(Warning: spoilers below)

I watched the movie recently with the family (courtesy of the company, thank you!), and enjoyed it more than I expected. My wife, who is not a Star Wars fan at all and never watched any of the movies, enjoyed it and now is curious to see other movies. My daughter, who is a Star Wars fan, really liked Rey’s growth into a Jedi.

That said, a lot of other Star Wars fans didn’t like the movie, and so it has become a  divided opinion.

This article does a nice job of reviewing the movie and why the disappointment was necessary to keep the franchise alive. I agree with the article a lot, so I won’t belabor it here.

The point of this article was the recurring theme in the movie: the past must die. It was frequently mentioned in the movie by multiple characters, and refers to the need for the fragile Jedi Order to finally die off.  For Kylo Ren, a new order would be built under his guidance and obviously inclined toward the Dark Side of the Force. For Luke Skywalker, the Jedi Order had simply become stale with tradition and hubris and wasn’t worth salvaging.

The really defining moment, for me though, was when Yoda appears to encourage Luke to destroy the first Jedi temple. Yoda’s point was that the living Force is all around and that’s what mattered, and while the ancient Jedi texts contained much wisdom, it wasn’t worth getting attached to them either.

This has obvious Buddhist themes.

First of course is the famous Buddhist sutra, the Kalama Sutta (AN 3.65), where the Buddha says:

“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.”

(trans. Soma Thera)

But I think a better example is in the Vakkali Sutta (SN 22.87):

Vakkali: “For a long time, Lord, I have wanted to come and set eyes on the Blessed One, but I had not the strength in this body to come and see the Blessed One.”

The Buddha: “Enough, Vakkali! What is there to see in this vile body? He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.”

(trans. Maurice O’Connell Walshe)

And finally in the later Mahayana Buddhist text, the Diamond Sutra:

The Buddha: “What do you think, Subhuti? Is it possible to grasp the Tathagata by means of bodily signs?”

Subhuti: “No, World-Honored One. When the Tathagata speaks of bodily signs, there are no signs being talked about.”

The Buddha said to Subhuti, “In a place where there is something that can be distinguished by signs, in that place there is deception. If you can see the signless nature of signs, you can see the Tathagata.”

All of these teachings are not denigrating tradition or the past, but at the same time they’re a warning to disciples not to get hung up on them either. The real Dharma is all around you. No, you can levitate objects and shoot lightning like the Force, but like the Force you can find it everywhere if you calm your mind down a little and pay attention.

This is important because in medieval times, Buddhist institutions became very concerned with the notion of Dharma Decline, and it still deeply influences certain kinds of Buddhism, particularly Pure Land Buddhism (including Jodo Shinshu Buddhism) and Nichiren Buddhism. I used to strongly believe in it myself.  But I also think that Buddhism sometimes gets held hostage by this obsession with Dharma Decline to the point that people become paralyzed with doubt and fail to get started on the path even if they could.

And yet, I am reminded of a passage from the Lotus Sutra, chapter sixteen:

When beings see the eon ending
And ravaged by the great fire,
My land is peaceful and secure,
Always filled with gods and humans,
Gardens and groves, halls and pavilions,
And various precious adornments.

And:

All who have cultivated merit and virtue,
Who are compliant, agreeable, and honest
They all see me
Here, speaking the Dharma.

Where people see traditions dying and Buddhist institutions failing, a person who sincerely puts Buddhist teachings into practice will see the Living Dharma all around them even if they practice alone. The Lotus Sutra assures us that a person who sincerely follows the path will eventually “see” the Buddha, and his teachings.  After many years of trial-and-error, I am beginning to appreciate this in my own life.

The teachings of Buddhism are never truly gone, nor do they ever really “arise”. Only the mind makes it so.

May the Force be with you!

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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