“Pop Buddhism”: How Star Wars Commercializes Buddhism

There are varied manifestations of “Pop Buddhism”, in the contemporary scenario, be it in spheres spheres of music, films or literature. A few years back, a recording of the chanting of the Mahakala verses by the chosen head of Tibetan Buddhism, the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, was made and commercially sold, with great success. Yet another album by him, called the “Sacred Buddha,” was released, to the same effect. The latter had accompanying instruments like guitars and organs, to enhance the “mystical effect,” of the chanting. These products are an expression of a very little known and relatively obscure side of Buddhism. However, this very obscurity has been used as an advantage for commercial pursuits. Obscure tantric chants have become part of a popular culture thriving on exoticism. Well known music composer Karunesh has released an album called Nirvana Café, which was extremely successful. This album is one example where Buddhist metaphysics has been converted into popular tag lines designed to seduce music lovers. As is obvious, the exoticism which attracts customers is all that is vital. In the aforementioned ‘Nirvana Café,’ Karunesh mentions Taoist sage Chuang Tzu who could not distinguish whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or whether he was a butterfly dreaming it is a man. This coincides with the Buddhist concept of ‘lucid dreaming’, where the subject is conscious while he is dreaming. Thus here, two very distinct paths are combined, that of a Taoist sage, in tune with a Buddhist concept.

The question becomes: is this increased accessibility a positive sign heralding great awareness or is it dilution of ancient thought in the name of the former? In an article called “The Death of Buddhism,” Waylon Lewis fears that it is in fact the latter which seems to be true, “At my local cafe, I can drink a Green Buddha, At my climbing gym, one of the rock holds that folks step on is a fat jolly Chinese Buddha. I wonder if this is why Buddhism tends to be practiced as more of a casual, yet practical psychological tool in the West, rather than as a religion?” (Lewis, URL: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2008/11/the-death-of buddhism-the-first-draft-of-an-essay-in-the-current-issue-of-othe-shambhala-sun-by-elephant-journal-founding-editor-waylon-lewis) The question to be posed at this critical juncture is, whether a complex philosophy is in danger of being watered down to the status of a popular pseudo-oriental’ism’? Using a politically loaded term like ‘Oriental’ has its dangers, but here I choose to use it in the context of how, an Eastern philosophy is being used to keep the myth of the exotic Orient alive, that too, for commercial reasons.
Cinema is another sphere where Buddhist concepts have made much headway. There are numerous examples to be cited, like The Matrix trilogy, Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun, etc. However, I choose to look at the epic Star Wars saga which has created cinematic history. In the films, the Jedi are a group of warrior monks whose job is to keep the peace in the galaxy. George Lucas, the director has created a concept of the Force, which in the words of a Jedi Master called Obi-wan-Kenobi “is what gives a Jedi his power. It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together”(Lucas, George (written/directed). Star Wars/episode IV A Lucas film Ltd.Production. 1977.). Another Jedi master, called Yoda, says, “My ally is the Force, moreover, a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it flow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us, luminous beings we are……not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you…me…the tree…the rock…everywhere!” (Lucas, George (written/directed). Star Wars/episode IV A Lucas film Ltd.Production. 1977.). The description of the Force is extremely similar to the Buddhist ideas of perception, where there is only absolute truth and no dichotomy between subject and object. In appearance, the Jedi resemble Buddhist monks with their long flowing robes. They only use their weapons for defense, as well as practice renunciation and celibacy. Jedi are asked not to trust in their perceptions and are asked to see into the illusory nature of things. Realization of this ultimate illusion will open them up to the Force. Similarly, in Buddhist thought, all reality is broken down in terms of five processes or Skandhas, which expose the illusory and dualistic nature of reality. Realization of this is a step to Nirvana, the level of  perfect absoluteness.
The names of certain characters are telling as well. One of the heroines is called Padme Amidala. “Padme,” is part of the famous Buddhist prayer, “Om Mani Padme Hum,” while ‘Amida’ is another name for Lord Buddha. Other than this there are numerous other instances of such principles making their way into the main plots of the films. What is important to note, is the fact that the Jedi have become a cult. George Lucas has often admitted that he has borrowed from numerous religions to give his film a degree of depth and stability. However, it is strange that Lucas chooses to identify his Jedi philosophy with Buddhism, since his concept of an omniscient Force is more consistent with Taoism. The Force in Star Wars is actually Tao in Taoist philosophy. Both are eternal processes within which followers try to immerse themselves. “To become one with the Force,” is an oft repeated dialogue in the series. According to Taoist sage Lao Tzu in the Te Tao Ching, Tao is “the Way” which one must achieve. It is a force which has existed before creation. The Times Magazine had published an interview of George Lucas, taken by Bill Moyer, where the former is questioned about whether he is trying to create a new myth using themes like the Jedi philosophy, which is self-admittedly borrowed heavily from Buddhism. Lucas answers that he is trying to narrate an old myth in a new way. His answer leads to the crux of my argument here. As with Lucas and his Force, a modern myth is being constructed around Buddhism. Every time an old tale is told, the very act of narration lends a different definition. Similarly, the popular light in which Buddhist concepts are being re-marketed leads to a different interpretation within the narrative space. With Buddhism, the narrative space and context have changed, time and again, leading to the creation of myths, which are relevant within that given context.
Given that the Star Wars saga boasts some of the highest grossing films in history, the commercialization of Buddhism in the West can truly be exemplified in a consumerist and capitalist light. Whether or not the West’s reception of Buddhism is a positive contribution to the culture and religion of Buddhism remains to be seen. I will continue to explore the iconography, imagery, and various logos that play host to Buddhist symbols and philosophies.


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