"May the Force be with you."
Those six words sum up a multi-billion dollar franchise, connect millions of devoted fans and set the entire foundation for one of the most beloved stories of all time: #StarWars. In the vast cosmic landscape of George Lucas's sci-fi epic, #theForce is the universal glue holding everything together.
Aside from a literary device acting as the catalyst for the unexplainable, there's more to the Force than meets the third eye. Although camping in the territory of the unknown, the religion, or energy, or metaphysical "higher power" has more in common with widely recognized religions than one might imagine.
The impact has been significant and far reaching, so much so that 176,632 people in the UK identified themselves as Jedi in the 2011 census. The world over, people are seeing meaning in Lucas's creation, not so much as a hierarchical set of structures, but an inspiring and morally invigorating philosophy. But where did the inspiration come from? And is there real value in a Jedi way of life?
The Evolution Of The Force In The Star Wars Story
The context of society at the time Lucas scripted the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope (1977), goes some way to explaining how the Force came into fruition. Written during the counterculture of the early 1960s and mid-1970s, Lucas was heavily influenced by the revolutionary movement of the time.
The changing attitude toward religion reflected the subversive nature of those transitional years; people were looking outside of organized religion, instead crafting their own bespoke view of the intangible. Lucas himself has said that he intended A New Hope to "awaken a certain kind of spirituality" without endorsing a specific religion.
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Arguably, without the infusion of the Force, Star Wars wouldn't have been such a success. As well as framing binary opposites of good and evil without much grey between — a device that served the story well — the mystical power also provided a powerful sense of hope. Hence the title.
Throughout the original trilogy, the Force is depicted as an unknown and mystical entity. Obi-Wan tells Luke of the power it holds, of the "light side" and the "dark side," and encourages him to embrace good, not evil. Furthermore, the original trilogy introduced both sides of the spectrum; the Jedi Order and the Sith. Obi-Wan describes the Force as:
"What gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together."
The prequels deviated from the metaphysical, and attempted to provide a biological framework for the Force in the form of midi-chlorians, which are microscopic life forms that live within the cells of all beings. However, attempting to describe the Force from this perspective only served to frustrate audiences, proving that sometimes, things are best left unexplained.
A Tale Of Good And Evil
Two of the franchise's biggest characters personify the Force in different ways. The first, Anakin Skywalker, begins his life by being labelled the "Chosen One." He has exceptional power, but falls victim to the dark side through fear, later becoming the iconic Sith Lord, Darth Vader. Anakin's timeline illustrates the thin line between powerful master and evil genius.
However it is Yoda who aptly warns Anakin in their first meeting of the perils and consequences of fear, predicting the character's own journey before it happens. He says:
"Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."
That in itself is very similar to the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, which are:
- The truth of suffering (Dukkha).
- The truth of the origin of suffering (Samudāya).
- The truth of the cessation of suffering (Nirodha).
- The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering (Magga).
Buddhism: An Inspiration For The Force?
Although Lucas intended on tapping into the common essence of all religions, those core beliefs binding different branches together, the Force and its surrounding belief system has by far has the most striking resemblance to Buddhism. Lucas himself identifies as a "Buddhist methodist," and the roots in Eastern philosophy are evident.
There are remnants of Taoism (similarities between light and dark and yin and yang), Zoroastrianism (the fight between good and evil forces) as well as some links to Western Christianity (the "may the Force be with you" is similar to the greeting "the Lord be with you") and Stoicism. But it is Buddhism that has most of an impact on events in Star Wars.
The biggest link lies with two aspects of the Jedi religion; mindfulness (the act of being present) and meditation. These are the two cornerstones of Buddhism, a faith which is built on the principals of looking within at the True Self, that introversion is the key to enlightenment, and that the practice of mindfulness opens the heart and mind.
While many Jedi have the attributes of Buddhist monks, Yoda directly takes on a role of spiritual master (he's even reported to be based on Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche). His teachings, to Luke in particular, align with Eastern philosophy. He focuses of clearing the mind to focus, on non-attachment to things and one memorable quote — "Try not! Do, or do not. There is no try" — reflects the Zen style of teaching to a tee.
The Jedi Consensus Phenomenon
Having an ethos based on real life spirituality is all well in good, but did Lucas succeed in inspiring a generation? The answer is a resounding yes. As mentioned earlier, in the 2011 census, almost 180,000 people voted Jedi as their religion. But the story goes much deeper.
10 years earlier, a number of English speaking countries joined in the movement to register themselves as Jedi. As well as being one of the earliest indications of a "viral" movement instigated by the Internet, a number of countries had significant results. In England and Wales, the 2001 census recorded 390,127 Jedi. In New Zealand, more people even voted Jedi over Buddhism (1.5% and 1.2% accordingly).
Although initially started as a tongue-in-cheek, anarchic way of refusing to share such information, there are those who see a deeper meaning in the Force and its surrounding ethos. The Church of Jediism, for example, has 200,000 members worldwide.
The Force Is Strong With These Films
The allure of the Force has remained strong; even the title of last year's The Force Awakens illustrates its continued importance in the franchise. Rogue One will tackle the Force from a different angle, set in a time when people didn't believe in its existence. Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), though not Force sensitive, is a big believer in the Jedi ethos — something that helped him overcome his blindness and become a formidable warrior.
Although little is known about the plot of Star Wars 8, it is expected that the Force will play a big role. There have been rumors that Luke Skywalker will reveal the origin of the Jedi Order and the Force, as well as training Rey in all things Jedi. Furthermore, due to Rey's uncanny Force-sensitivity, there has been speculation that Rey may in turn train Finn (there have been allusions to his Force-sensitivity, too).
Whether viewed as a gimmick, pseduo-religion or a genuine inspiration, Lucas's creation has had a significant impact on popular culture. From the late '70s to present day, the way of the Jedi has inspired generation after generation.
Can it continue to do so with Star Wars 8 and beyond? Well, as a masked Sith Lord once said: "Don't underestimate the Force."
Is the Force a narrative gimmick? Or a real life inspiration?