Sunday, February 20, 2011

Deconstructing Vader

A Portrait of the Dark Side

“Do you think you can take over the world and improve it?

I do not think it can be done. The world is sacred.

It you try to change it, you will ruin it.

If you try to grasp it, you will lose it.”

- Lao Tzu

Tao Te Ching

On one of the most important days of his fateful life, young Anakin Skywalker has to decide whether to stay with his beloved mother on Tatooine or travel to the stars to a new life among the Jedi. Even though she must remain in the Outer Rim as a slave, his mother Shmi is willing to let him go. When Anakin protests that he doesn’t want things between them to change, she wisely replies that he cannot stop change, any more than he can “stop the suns from setting.”

Years later, Anakin chooses yet another path, one in which he is remade into a dark lord of the Sith. This path consumes him, as he sets himself the impossible task of stopping a sunset. The effort ruins him within and without, and his redemption only comes when he finally accepts his mother’s words as revealed through the actions of his son. Behind all the mythic drama underlies a basic struggle forever playing out in every human heart and mind. 

The whispers and promises of the dark side are far more ubiquitous than most realize. It feasts most thoroughly when unexamined hatreds and haunting fears rise up in response to life, intensifying anxieties until there seems to be no choice but to turn to the very dark source generating them and expect help. The dark side promises power over life but never admits the more power one has to control life the more power one needs, creating a vicious cycle so self-consuming and self-defeating it is reputed to forever dominate one’s destiny.

The rise and fall and ultimate redemption of Anakin Skywalker illustrates this perfectly, a path that is seen most clearly and vividly when viewed through the lens of the Buddhist philosophical tradition. The creation of the ego, the dangers of attachment, and the importance of compassion all center on this one character and play out across a grand galactic canvas. 

As a young boy on Tatooine, Anakin is as remarkable for his good nature as he is for his midichlorian count, especially considering the dark lord he eventually becomes. As his mother remarks, “he knows nothing of greed,” and as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn observes, “he gives without any thought of reward.” This is a being in touch with what is known in Zen as one’s “original nature,” a nature that is free and open and moves through life “like a ball in a mountain stream.” Anakin’s willingness to help others ends in him winning not only the Boonta Eve podrace, but also his own freedom. 

Ironically, a new kind of slavery begins to close around him almost immediately. Despite his mother Shmi’s warning not to “look back” when he leaves home, he continues to do so, his mind tentatively making its first attempts to grasp at life and hold it too closely. 

The One and The Many

On Coruscant, Yoda and the Jedi Council quickly sense this during their initial evaluation. As ironic as it may be given their Order’s own inability to change and adapt, the Jedi are correct in assessing the dilemma that will haunt Anakin the rest of his life. It is a dilemma that they do not fully understand or relate to. As perfectly innocent and natural as it may be to fear losing one’s only parent, those closely attuned to the ebb and flow of the Force embrace another perspective that does much to stifle such anxieties. 

For those deeply immersed in the energies of the Force, the galaxy must be experienced very differently than it is by most beings. Since the beginning, the Force is clearly interpreted as a field of energy created and sustained by life itself. Various individuals have the ability to channel this power and do astounding feats. Even more importantly, however, the Force exists within and without, both embracing the galaxy as well as uniting it. From this point of view, all of existence is fundamentally one, resulting in a wholeness that is as real as any of the particulars one may grow attached to. 

To use a favorite metaphor of Zen Buddhism, the sea may produce individual waves that constantly crest and trough, but the water composing the waves is the true field of existence which is constant. If one becomes too infatuated with a single wave rather than allowing its natural rising and falling, suffering inevitably follows. To ignore the oneness of things by fixating on a particular point is called avidya in Sanskrit, often translated simply as “delusion.” 

There is considerable evidence that the Jedi feel much the same way.

After years of being trained by Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin grows into a stubborn and headstrong adolescent. Raised outside the Jedi Order, the young learner constantly finds himself chafing under its traditions and dogma. While he understands that “attachment” and “possession” are “forbidden,” apparently no one on the Council ever takes the time to express why. Without the average padawan’s background in the Force since birth, Anakin struggles with his attachments again and again, particularly as they pertain to his mother and, later, the love of his life, Padme Amidala.

Haunted by dreams of his mother’s death, Anakin eventually seeks her out on Tatooine. After taking vengeance on the Tusken Raiders who abducted and finally killed her, he returns to the homestead where Padme is waiting for him. Before breaking down completely, he tinkers with a broken shifter, remarking, “Life seems so much simpler when you’re fixing things. I’m good at fixing things … always was.” This is one of his most telling statements, as it foreshadows an outlook that views life as something mechanical, a malfunctioning machine one can stand aside from and arbitrarily “fix” to one’s liking. 

As Cheri Huber, an American Zen teacher for over thirty years, once lectured, “We are taught to believe life should be a certain way. When it isn't and we aren't, we assume there's something wrong and something should be done to fix things. Suffering happens when we want life to be other than the way it is." And the dilemma of Anakin Skywalker is really no more complicated than that.

Interpreting his mother’s passing as a personal failure, Anakin begins to build up and harden his ego, proclaiming he will one day “learn to stop people from dying.” In Buddhism, life is seen as a flowing pattern, a flux of elements known as aggregates. At its root this pattern is understood to be impermanent, and all suffering arises from our refusal to accept this impermanence. Like Anakin, we develop an ego, a kind of fictional construct, to protect us from changes we don’t like. Particularly death. However, this false persona is a wrong move, creating yet another source of tension by strengthening the illusion that we are separate from life and can somehow control it. 

Throughout his life, Anakin’s other mentor, Chancellor Palpatine, plays a key role in the development of his ego. From childhood onward, Palpatine has crafted and shaped his protégé’s attitude, constantly whispering in his ear, telling him that life should indeed “be a certain way.” He points out that the Jedi don’t trust him, admonishes the Council when they don’t select him for special missions, and assures him he’s going to be greater and more powerful than all of them. He even positions Anakin on the Council knowing full well they will use him as bait to lure his true agenda into the open. As he sows the seeds of fear and paranoia, the Sith Lord perfectly acts the role of what is called “conditioned mind” in Zen.

This conditioning ripens when Anakin receives more dreams of an ominous future which ripple backwards in the Force. Now married to Padme in secret, he learns that not only is her life threatened, but the life of their unborn child as well. And in classic mythological fashion, he vows to save her “from [his] nightmares,” only to set in motion the karmic chain of events that ultimately ends in her death.

In his final attempt to reconcile with the Jedi Council, though, Anakin does seek out help from Yoda. The centuries-old sage fails to understand his student, vaguely instructing him not to “mourn” or “miss” those who die and “transform into the Force.” The reality of a unified energy field that lives and breathes a greater whole escapes Anakin, and an important opportunity is lost. Still, Yoda is philosophically correct when he states, “Fear of loss is a path to the dark side.”

Punk rocker, monster movie marketer, and Soto Zen priest, Brad Warner does a formidable Yoda impression as well. He also helpfully lays out the fundamental paradox of attachment in his colorfully titled Zen tome, Sit Down and Shut Up. Many have taken issue with the Jedi mandate forbidding attachment, arguing that one should be attached to the people they care about. From a Buddhist perspective, however, this conditioned impulse arises from a mistaken view of life and the universe. 

As Warner explains, “Love, or desire, leads to taking. You try and make that which is separate from yourself ‘yours’.” The problem with this position is that it is based on a dualistic idea where what is regarded as “self” and what is regarded as “other” are two forever opposite and disconnected realities with no relation whatsoever. Everything gets utterly confused, Warner says, when we “make those things we desire into our possessions” because “that which you desire to incorporate into yourself was never apart from you to begin with.” Again, it’s like a wave refusing to acknowledge its unity with the rest of the water, and then straining to make itself crest forever.

When Palpatine claims the Sith have mastered the power of life over death, Anakin cannot resist the temptation because at that point he sees himself as something cut off and divorced from life, and has no choice but to turn back on the galaxy and attempt to control it. Warner sums this up by saying, “I suspect that much, perhaps even all, of the ‘evil’ that is done in the world is a kind of test, as a way for the ‘evil-doer’ to try and prove to him- or herself that he or she really is separate from the rest of creation.” 

This is the basic schizophrenia of the dark side. All the Sith Lords suffer from a split psyche, so much so that they have to literally create a second dark side persona that begins with “darth.” Rarely has the impossible duality of the conditioned mind been more eloquently expressed than when Anakin is gazing across the Coruscant cityscape toward Padme and she towards him, trapped between the hellish choice of letting her die or turning to the dark side. 

Cause and Effect

When Anakin charges into the Chancellor’s office and is forced to (literally) disarm Council leader Mace Windu to save Palpatine, he sets in motion a horrible chain of cause-and-effect, his karmic destiny set by the events of that night.  Karma is often thought of as “action,” specifically the actions the ego takes in order to manipulate people and events to its liking. More often than not, it stirs up so much confusion one can no longer see, this action of running faster and faster yet staying in the same place. 

In the classic The Way of Zen, Alan Watts defines karma as a kind of action that always requires yet more action, eloquently outlining the path Anakin sets for himself:

Man is involved in karma when he interferes with the world in such a way that he is compelled to go on interfering, when the solution of a problem creates still more problems to be solved, when the control of one thing creates the need to control several others. Karma is thus the fate of everyone who “tries to be God.” He lays a trap for the world in which he himself eventually gets caught.

Anakin desperately needs to control Padme’s fate, which causes him to interfere with Mace Windu’s arrest of Palpatine. This subsequently sets in motion Order 66, where all the Jedi across the galaxy are slaughtered. In an attempt to gain more and more power, Anakin has to march into the Jedi Temple and kill even the younglings, which is symbolic of him killing off the good, innocent parts of himself. This requires still more action when Palpatine orders him to the lava-saturated planet of Mustafar to take care of the Separatist Council. 

After his murder of the Separatist leaders, Anakin pauses on a walkway to stare into a black sun, a single tear running down his face as his path is now set (George Lucas himself remarked in a commentary that after the death of Mace Windu, he has no choice but to continue his dark side journey, regardless of whether he wants to or not). Founder of the Buddhist Lodge in London, Christmas Humphries once noted that in Buddhism, “We are not punished because of what we do, but by it,” as Anakin’s tear clearly shows.

By the time Padme confronts Anakin about his actions, though his ego has already crystallized into Darth Vader, building itself up into the biggest and baddest thing in the galaxy, all in an attempt to mask the fears eating away at it. Horrified, Padme tries to get Anakin to leave the newly formed Empire behind, but now he is equally infatuated with power. He even admits he wants to overthrow Emperor Palpatine, saying, “And together, you and I can rule the galaxy. Make things the way we want them to be.” Again, the galaxy is broken, and he wants to fix it. 

Yet all of this was born from a desire to shield Padme from an imagined future. His attempt to become more powerful than any Jedi was for her, “to protect [her].” Unfortunately, he never listened to Brad Warner, who candidly wrote, “Ultimately, you can’t ever save anybody from anything but you.”

Anakin fails to see the basic paradox here, which is that the more protection one has, the more one needs. To be completely protected from life is to be completely isolated from life. The only way to insure Padme’s continued safety is to encase her in carbonite and lock her away in a vault somewhere, which would obviously defeat the purpose of keeping her alive. Life in its very essence is insecurity and impermanence, and that is precisely what gives it its rhythm, spontaneity, and joy.

When Obi-Wan arrives on that platform on Mustafar, Anakin’s conditioned ego has totally consumed him. Fearful and paranoid, he shouts to his former master, “You will not take her from me!” His ego can only see Padme as an object now, which is the only way an ego can see things. He angrily paces back and forth, proclaiming that I have a new Empire, and I have brought peace and security to it. Obi-Wan observes he has become the very thing he once fought against, which is a theme of Buddhism as well as Star Wars

One of the signature moves of the Sith is the Force choke, which is really symbolic of their need to grasp and hold on to life, as opposed to allowing it to flow freely and naturally. During a talk, Alan Watts once likened the ego to “an invisible hand grasping at smoke,” and the Force choke is a nice visual metaphor for those who take seriously the universe’s illusory permanence. Grabbing at one thing inevitably leads to grabbing at another, and it never stops until one is on a platform on Mustafar, choking the life out of the very person they love more than anyone in the galaxy. 

Realizing the threat his former padawan has become, Obi-Wan has no choice but to engage him in a ferocious lightsaber duel. The two battle across the structure built to mine the fiery landscape, even as the shields fail and it begins to disintegrate in the lava. Obi-Wan of course gets the upper hand and the higher ground, leaving his limbless opponent burning beside a river of fire. Finally, Vader’s body is wrecked, reflecting the tortured psyche within.

The Self in the Castle

Pieced back together by machines, Vader endures a gruesome resurrection at the hands of Palpatine. Now encased in a menacing black suit, he has literally become the fictional armored ego, the fearsome persona, which he adopted earlier. Imprisoned in this making of himself, he is protected by his life support systems but entombed by them as well. 

Breath is of great importance to Buddhist philosophy and practice, as it is our most basic unity with the rest of life. When we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, we are engaged in reciprocity with the organic world, a kind of giving and receiving that forms the simplest of all symbiotic circles. That Vader’s breathing is mechanical and artificial demonstrates how utterly corrupted and disconnected he has become. 

This begins Vader’s time of exile from his original nature. As a young man, his home had once been wherever his mom was and, later, wherever his wife was. With both of them dead, Vader is literally and figuratively homeless, spending decades on Star Destroyers which wander space imposing Imperial law on the citizens of the galaxy. 

In his first book, The Spirit of Zen, Alan Watts describes what Vader has become and why he has become it with almost uncanny accuracy:

Briefly, [the Buddha’s] doctrine is that man suffers because of his craving to possess and keep forever things which are essentially impermanent. Chief among these things is his own person, for this is his means of isolating himself from the rest of life, his castle into which he can retreat and from which he can assert himself against external forces. He believes that this fortified and isolated position is the best means of obtaining happiness; it enables him to fight against change, to strive to keep pleasing things for himself, to shut out suffering and to shape circumstances as he wills.

Darth Vader is the perfect visual metaphor of the “self” in the “castle.” 

Yet when he transforms his “self” into a fortified castle, there is an enormous price to be paid. It goes beyond never being able to see the world with his own eyes, hear it with his own ears, and touch it with his own skin. It is a walling off of himself, a refusal to be hurt again, that results in a total disconnection from life, light, and love. 

Great significance is often attached to facing hard facts, and as he strides about the galaxy in an armored shell, choking Rebel officers during the Empire’s reign of terror, Darth Vader could be said to be the ultimate hard fact. This toughened attitude may work, but with every increase in hardness comes a subsequent loss of sensitivity. Being sensitive does open one up to pain, but it also opens one up to experience in general. As protected as Vader may be in his black armor, it would be impossible for him to enjoy a simple kiss from Padme, or enjoy the feel of the warm sun and cool breezes of Naboo’s Lake Country. His younger self reveled in the “soft” and “smooth” green world, his stilted dialogue nonetheless telling and ironic. 

The Taoist sage Lao-Tzu eloquently sums this paradox up nicely, “When people are born they are gentle and soft. At death they are hard and stiff. Suppleness and tenderness are therefore the characteristics of life. Rigidity and hardness are the characteristics of death.” 

And death is certainly what Vader deals out, even to his own subordinates. To him, the Imperial officers are merely cogs in the machine that is the Empire. If one malfunctions, it is discarded and replaced much like a broken part. Ironically, he often dispatches his officers by Force choking them, as if karma dooms him to continually enact Padme's demise. Likewise, it could be argued that when he freezes Han Solo in carbonite in Cloud City, he is also acting out what he has done to himself. 

After all, until the realization that Luke Skywalker is his son, Vader is spiritually and emotionally frozen too. After Luke’s destruction of the Death Star, he becomes obsessed with finding him, no doubt anxious to turn him into another possession. There are many parallels here that demonstrate Vader is still bound in the chains of karma he forged for himself. He tortures Han Solo and Leia Organa, sending ripples in the Force of Luke’s attachments being threatened, as well as again extending the offer to overthrow the Emperor and rule the galaxy with someone.

Letting Go

After their first lightsaber duel, Luke is battered and broken as well. Learning from Yoda that Vader is his father, he quickly echoes Padme’s last insight that “There is still good in him.” Armed with this faith, he allows himself to be captured on Endor. When Luke confronts Vader, he tells the dark lord he has accepted that he was once Anakin Skywalker, his father. When Vader dismisses the name, Luke tells him, “It’s the name of your true self. You’ve only forgotten.” This “true self” that he speaks of is not the ego, of course, but rather the enlightened buddha consciousness which everyone is originally born into. 

Even when Vader presents him to the Emperor as a prize ripe for conversion, Luke still does not give up hope, sensing the “good” in him, the “conflict.” The importance of karuna, or compassion, is central to the Buddhist insight that all life is connected and interdependent. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell translates com-passion as “suffering with,” citing the bodhisattva as one who attains enlightenment but comes back to the world of suffering for all beings anyway. 

Very much like a bodhisattva, Luke somehow understands that while his father may be an evil that needs to be destroyed, he is also a person suffering terribly who needs compassion. Thanks to his experience in the cave on Dagobah, he also understands his father is - on some level - himself. Campbell points out that the mythic theme of “atonement with the father” also means at-one-ment with the father. Contrary to his father, though, Luke is so open to life that he realizes he must also accept the possibility of death. It is only by surrendering to the vicious lightning attack of the Emperor that he fittingly finds the cracks in the armor of his long lost father. 

Finally opening his heart to someone else again and taking his pain as his own, Vader spectacularly lifts the Emperor up into the air and mightily hurls him down a deep reactor shaft (best moment ever). This act is a totally focused example of one-pointed meditation, an understanding of what needs to be done, and a doing of it. 

As Warner describes it in Sit Down and Shut Up, “He isn’t concerned with some future state of enlightenment. He isn’t concerned with addressing whatever wrongs we may have committed in the past. We cannot act in the past or future. We can only act right now.” No longer trapped in the past or attempting to control the future, Vader opens himself to the present moment, and rids the galaxy of the monster ego that wants to rule it forever. 

Afterwards, even in the hangar of a Death Star that’s under attack, all Vader cares about is seeing his son “with [his] own eyes.” When Luke protests that he’ll die without the life support of his mask and armor, he calmly replies, “Nothing can stop that now.” Finally, Anakin has made peace with impermanence. He realizes that just as one can only breathe properly by letting go of the breath as opposed to simply holding it in, he can only live again by dying. 

Luke carefully takes off his mask, revealing an older, surprisingly frail man. Deathly pale, Anakin nonetheless manages a faint smile for his son. When Luke tells him he has to save him, Anakin assures him he already has. Freed from his armored shell at last, he finally surrenders his ego, lets the suns set, and dies.

His body consumed in a ceremonial pyre, Anakin appears to Luke one final time during the celebration on Endor. No longer imprisoned as Vader, he is a young Jedi knight once more. As his shimmering blue apparition stands beside Yoda and Obi-Wan, it is very difficult not to recall  the timeless words of William Blake –

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

* Now available at TheForceCast