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The Dharma of Star Wars
Matthew Bortolin
Wisdom Publications, 210 pages

The Dharma of Star Wars
Matthew Bortolin
Matthew Bortolin has camped out for tickets to all the Star Wars movies, and a set of Jedi robes hangs in his closet. He is an ordained member of Thich Nhat Hanh's Order of Interbeing, and has lived in Buddhist monasteries both in the United States and abroad. He lives in Ventura, California.

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A review by Chris Przybyszewski

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Apparently there is going to be another Star Wars soon. No, really. It was in the news and everything. As George Lucas' theatrical saga draws to a cinematic close, book publishers everywhere scramble to take advantage of the media swirls that will surround Revenge of the Sith. Those with media savvy understand that a timely publication will equal a greater sales rank on amazon.com than otherwise possible.

The Dharma of Star Wars by Matthew Bortolin falls directly in the mold of the above publications. While the motives of the author and publisher are not necessarily monetary rather than idealistic, the product is a thinly disguised attempt to associate a popular form of entertainment with a popular form of spiritual enlightenment.

To be fair, there is nothing technically wrong with hitching one's idealistic star to the entertainment behemoth that is Star Wars. No doubt, Lucasilm, LTD will not feel the extra luggage. At the same time, Bortolin has taken onto his shoulders the responsibility to do justice to both the heady mythos of Star Wars and the substantial spiritual underpinnings of Buddhism. He doesn't achieve either.

It's important to note that The Dharma of Star Wars is not so much a treatise on how Star Wars is a reflection of Buddhist philosophy rather than that the movie sometimes fits with the general principles of Buddhism. Bortolin does not call George Lucas, et al., the next coming of the Awakened One (another term for Buddha). Instead, Bortolin points out the sometimes heavy influence Lucas most probably stole from the religion. Of course, Lucas borrowed from many world religions, including Christianity and Hinduism, so there are no pure Buddhist moments in the films.

For example, Bortolin points to a scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Jedi Master Yoda instructs young pupil Luke Skywalker. "If you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny," Yoda says. "Consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan's apprentice." According to Bortolin, this "teaching of karma demonstrates that our actions today stay with us and impact us tomorrow." Bortolin backtracks on this karmic reasoning by later saying "we must not adhere to a doctrine of determinism and believe that everything that happens is simply fate or that our past actions enmesh us into a specific pattern of behavior from which we can never escape."

It is adequate talk about karma, but the link between that talk and the movies is slim. Bortolin at this point offers no further examples from the movie, rather than to wax eloquently about the nature of karma and destiny. He does not return to the movies themselves until the next chapter. To be clear, Bortolin's motive is to preach Buddhism, not to explore a unique link between religion and contemporary culture. Readers should be aware that the book's marketing does not represent the actual materials in the book.

Using Star Wars as a vehicle to preach is not so bad, but Bortolin is not careful in his analysis, and at points undermines core Jedi principles. An outsider would say, "Who cares? Buddhism is more important that the Jedi Code." Fair enough, but fans who take seriously the philosophy of the Jedi will be misled by Bortolin's writings. For example, Bortolin presumes to create a "Padawan's Handbook." In this handbook, Bortolin reminds would-be Jedi "where there is anger, offer kindness/where there is selfishness, offer generosity/ where there is despair, offer hope."

These principles are decidedly not in the mode of Jedi teaching. In fact, Bortolin's code is a misrepresentation of the commonly acknowledged Jedi Code: "There is no emotion; there is peace. / There is no ignorance; there is knowledge. / There is no passion; there is serenity. / There is no death; there is the Force." Bortolin's code suggests that 'being good' is the key to wisdom. The Jedi code suggests that there is no such thing as 'good' and 'evil,' rather than a choice to ignore such human definitions in favor of a rigorously ascetic lifestyle. That code in itself is against the Buddhist principle of balance and the "Middle Way."

Bortolin's fervor for Buddhism and his enthusiasm for the movie series are evident throughout his writing. However, the combination of the two should have been left the purview of bar talks and nocturnal dorm room discussions. This formal analysis does little to enhance either religion or film.

Copyright © 2005 Chris Przybyszewski

Chris learned to read from books of fantasy and science fiction, in that order. And any time he can find a graphic novel that inspires, that's good too.


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