"The Last Jedi", the eighth installment in the Star Wars saga, is now out in theaters everywhere. The Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shinbun ran a special feature in which they asked people from different professions to talk about their own connection with the saga. One individual they spoke with was Masuno Shunmyou, a Zen priest. He described the connections he sees between Star Wars and Zen.
A few years back a representative from a publishing company contacted me and said, “I’ve heard there are Zen influences in the Star Wars saga. Is that true?” I remember how surprised I was when I watched the original trilogy and noticed elements of Zen thought clearly reflected in the films. They are filled with scenes in which we see people grapple with how to set their mind and face the world (galaxy) in which they live.
I believe the Star Wars saga can be succinctly described by the word in-en (因縁). The character 因 (in) represents the idea of “pretexts” that cause things to happen, while 縁 (en) refers to the connections and criteria by which we interact with others. In Buddhism we have the four character words 善因善果 (zen-in zen-ka) and 悪因悪果 (aku-in akka). Efforts to create good pretexts (善因) will ultimately lead to favorable outcomes (善果). On the other hand, sowing ill-intentioned pretexts (悪因) hasten your journey down the path of evil. The starting point is the same but the actions taken lead to different paths, as we see in Star Wars. There is Darth Vader, the embodiment of evil. We also have those who fight in order to bring peace to the galaxy. The Star Wars saga shows us why it matters how we choose to connect 因 (in, pretext) and 縁 (en, relationships).
There is definitely a close affinity between Zen and philosophy, for both explore the question of how people are supposed to lead their lives. The key difference is that Zen stresses reaching understanding through physical experience. In that regard, Zen is more synonymous with “action” rather than “learning”. This action is cultivated through ascetic practice. We can see a similarity with wielders of that mysterious power known as the Force who strive to become Jedi in Star Wars. Instead of study, they seek understanding through experience (action).
Today more people around the world are taking an active interest in Zen. Throughout history people have put stock in material wealth as the basis for affluence and happiness. However, they find that an abundance of possessions does not make them rich, and begin to realize that this material wealth will never be enough. Zen stresses that it is spiritual wealth, not material, that matters most. People in this day and age are starting to clue into that. I believe that the father of the saga George Lucas was trying to show people this alternative approach to life through his Star Wars films.