Dharma and Star Wars: Matthew Bortolin
I tend to be a little high-strung (shocking, I know!). But ever since 2005’s publication of Matthew Bortolin’sThe Dharma of Star Wars I have kept my well-worn copy nearby. Even just reading a few passages, linked as they are to my favorite subject, can often help me block out whatever the dark side of my nature has in mind. The book speaks about the saga and its philosophical underpinnings as they relate to Buddhism and mindfulness. With the backdrop of 2015’s updated second edition, MakingStarWars.net spoke to Bortolin about his love of the franchise, Rogue One, The Force Awakens, and Buddhist thought.
Q & A with Author: Matthew Bortolin
John Bishop: So, what is your earliest memory of Star Wars?
Matthew Bortolin: My earliest memory of Star Wars is my earliest memory of life. It was 1977, or the re-release a year later, and I was in a darkened theater. Suddenly the Star Wars logo erupted on the screen and John Williams’ fanfare blasted my ears. I immediately bent knee and pledged myself to George Lucas’ teachings.
JB: What do you think drew you and kept you interested in the franchise?
MB: When I was young: lightsabers, X-wings, and Artoo. Also, I couldn’t get over how awesome Ben’s Krayt Dragon call was. Seriously, I want the power to banish looters with my voice. The toys didn’t hurt either. Beyond that, I had a sense of something more profound under the surface that I didn’t begin to understand until I was older. The mythology spoke to me in a way I couldn’t articulate, but I somehow understood—or at least internalized. Luke’s brilliance and compassion defined for me a new kind of hero. And, of course, Vader. The idea of a messiah-like figure who turned evil along the way to saving the galaxy was bleeping astounding.
JB: In what ways did the saga open up your imagination for other things you’ve encountered professionally (and personally)?
MB: Telekinetic typing? “Mind-tricking” my boss into giving me a raise? Force jumping my way into the NBA? I guess I haven’t done any of those things, but it’s always fun opening automatic doors with a wave of my hand.
JB: Can you speak to why Buddhist teachings mesh so well with the Jedi?
MB: The reason they mesh is because George Lucas borrowed heavily from Buddhism and put its teachings directly in the mouths of his characters. It’s no accident that Irvin Kirshner called Yoda a Zen master or that Qui-Gon spoke of mindfulness or Luke saved the day with compassion. The Jedi— when they aren’t blinded by the dark side —sound very much like Buddhist teachers speaking of our “symbiont” connection with everything in the universe; the tree, the rock, the land, the ship. They taught that selflessness was the path to freedom, that truth can only be known in the here and now, that there is no try—only do or do not. They talked about suffering, letting go, and meditation. And, ultimately, they showed that nonviolence and love can transform fear and hatred.
JB: As a practicing Buddhist, do you use Star Wars in your daily discussions or practice?
MB: Star Wars is a fantastic framing device for understanding Buddhist philosophy and it’s always a part of me, but I don’t meditate on it or anything. I do wonder what happened to Ahsoka on Malachor and what Rian Johnson has in store for Episode VIII, but that’s different…
JB: I read the first edition of your book and enjoyed it very much. What new items can I look forward to in the most recent edition?
MB: Thanks for reading! The new one is more fun, I think. Cleaner and easier to read. There’s a new intro, an expanded afterword, and lots of new discussion on The Clone Wars and Revenge of the Sith (which wasn’t out at the time of the first publication). Also, I added a new section on Jar Jar that I feel is an original take, and maybe redeems the goofy guy a bit.
JB: Which is your favorite film? Character? Scene?
MB: The Empire Strikes Back. Vader. Funeral pyre scene in ROTJ.
JB: What did you think of Episode VII and Rogue One? Did either film move the canon closer to Buddhist thought?
MB: I liked VII a lot, but missed George Lucas’ touch. Rogue One was brilliant. Loved it. The two films added a few new Buddhist pages to the official annals, like Chirrut and the Zen meditation bench on Ahch-To. But the main takeaway for me was the theme of awakening in VII. Awakening is the meaning of bodhi (which is a form of the word buddha and, I might add, an Imperial defector in Rogue One—loved that guy). In Buddhism, awakening is when you realize your true nature and see reality as it truly is. Rey had this type of awakening. It empowered her to drop her fear and use the Force to best Kylo. But in a fourth-wall-breaking sense, I think Rey’s awakening was sending a message to us as well.
JB: How so?
MB: For years, some fans were upset because the introduction of midichlorians seemed to remove the possibility of Force potential from the saga. That is the potential for any character to become a Jedi, regardless of their blood content. I think on some level this troubled a few people because it seemed to undercut the possibility of potential in their own lives. Not the potential of becoming a Jedi and use the Force, obviously, but of achieving their own goals and aspirations. The saga seemed to be shutting down potential in the same way being born on the margins of society shuts down so many opportunities for individuals in our world.
But with Rey, the Force awakens—signifying that you don’t need a pedigree to be a Jedi, that everyone has potential for power (and if she turns out to be Luke’s daughter, I’ll eat these words). This message was telegraphed in the second TFA teaser trailer when Luke says, “The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it. My sister has it. You have that power too.” I believe the “you” Luke is referencing is us—the audience, reminding us of our own power and potential to be heroes, saints; our own version of Jedi.
Like Rey awakening to her potential in the Force, we can awaken to our own potential to be our best selves. In Buddhism, this potential is awakening—it is our true nature and our birthright.
JB: Finally, “mindfulness” has become a bit of a trendy concept? You were on the leading edge of that wave–is its proliferation a good thing?
MB: I’m not sure the trendy, New Age version of mindfulness popular now is Buddhist mindfulness—or Jedi mindfulness, for that matter. Without Buddhism’s ethical foundation, “mindfulness” can become a hollow self-help exercise that actually deepens people’s discontent instead of transforming it, as the Buddhist path is designed to do. On the other hand, it can be a doorway to a beneficial practice that truly helps people. I’m all in favor of that!
JB: Will you write about Star Wars again in the future?
MB: Until my dying day!
The Dharma of Star Wars is published by Wisdom Publications.