The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
Among the exciting things that Star Wars: The Last Jedi does for the larger Star Wars universe is that it expands and deepens the mythology of The Force in a way that we haven’t seen since The Empire Strikes Back. And it does so in a way that has learned a lesson from the fiasco of Midichlorians – The Last Jedi returns The Force to its status as a mysterious and truly powerful concept that is far beyond silly tricks like picking up rocks. In fact, it returns it to a concept that is far beyond such silly tricks like violence and physical force in general.
The Last Jedi also returns The Force to its Eastern origins, tying it quite closely to Taoism. That’s visually explicit in the mosaic of the Prime Jedi just below Luke’s meditation rock; it’s a scifi version of the Yin and Yang. But it’s philosophically explicit in the way that Luke discusses The Force itself, as Rey keeps asking for a concrete explanation of what The Force actually IS.
I am not a Taoist so this won’t be a deep dive into Taoist thought or belief; what’s more The Last Jedi isn’t a Taoist text (I think there’s a lot of Buddhism to be found in the film as well. At any rate the chen and zen schools of Buddhism were deeply influenced by the Tao). But I think that there are basic Taoist concepts that illuminate what The Last Jedi has done with The Force, and why many of the people who are upset about this new perspective on The Force of Others are, for want of a better word, wrong. At the very least they’re trapped in a kind of Western thought that the Jedi wouldn’t fully understand.
The quote at the top of this is the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching, and it’s the riddle that lies at the heart of all spiritual matters. Anyone who has had a spiritual experience will know that the moment you try to talk about it with someone else it gets deflated, the words become dead in your mouth. Even talking about vital spiritual principles is hard to do well – any time I try to discuss the power of gratitude everything I say comes out sounding like a platitude, like a child’s smeared watercolor painting of the Grand Canyon. The vastness of the truth cannot be captured in words – and thus it is with the Tao (and The Force)!
Tao literally means “the way” or “the path,” but when we talk about the Tao that cannot be explained in language we’re talking about something way deeper than that – we’re talking about the very flow of the Universe itself, the underlying and unknowable something that keeps the Universe in order and balance. Or, to put it in Star Wars terms:
“It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”
The Force IS the Tao. The Force that can be told is not the true Force.
We see this on Ach-To, where Rey stands in for the audience, whose understanding of The Force has been largely perverted and confused. She keeps wanting Luke to TELL her what The Force is, and it leads to him playing a very Zen master trick on her, tickling her hand with a leaf and then smacking her. She’s asking the wrong questions, and she cannot be told what The Force is, she can only experience it. And she does.
But her demands to know what The Force IS, and her idea that it is about lifting rocks and controlling minds, is reflected in the thoughts of fandom. We live in a fan culture that is directly descended from The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, a comic that laid out, in detail, the exact power levels and abilities of every super character in Marvel Comics. We live in a fandom that wants things explained, and to be explained in scientific terms, and as such they want The Force to have rules. They want to know what its limits and exact abilities are, and they want some numerical component attached to it. They want to know what level of Force user you must be to move a rock of what size.
That is not how The Force works. It never has, despite what video games may tell you.
The Last Jedi is only part of a redefinition of The Force in the wake of The Prequel Trilogy. It all started in Star Wars Rebels, which features a couple of Force-wielding characters having adventures in the years leading up to the original Star Wars. But where the original Star Wars was fairly Manichean – its discussion of the Light and Dark Sides of The Force saw them as separate entities, not the flowing paradoxical mono-duality of the Yin and Yang – Rebels gets downright nuanced with it all. The show introduced a Force-wielding creature named the Bendu (referencing George Lucas’ original idea of the Jedi-Bendu) who scoffs at the way the Jedi and the Sith have divided The Force up into halves. This ancient and powerful being sees no difference in the “sides” of The Force, only in how it is used. This concept underlies the way Buddhists think about karma – it is not only your action that matters, it is your intention. A doctor may use a knife to cut flesh the same way a killer does, but their intentions are vastly different and thus different karma is created by each. The knife and the incision is not bad or good – the intention of the hand on the knife and the purpose of the incision is where ‘bad’ or ‘good’ comes into existence.
The next step in reorienting The Force was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first Star Wars film without a Jedi. But even without a Force user the film managed to expand Force mythology tremendously; it introduced the Guardians of the Whills (a reference to The Journal of the Whills, the original framing device of the Star Wars saga) as “muggle” monks who served the Force. Chirrut Imwe is not a Jedi, but he has access to The Force because The Force is for everyone, not just those with a blood connection to Midichlorians (which have been quietly removed from the discussion, if not the canon).
That was a big step towards returning The Force to its rightful place as a mystical concept that is not bound by Western ideas of ‘reason.’ Chirrut actually using The Force – to sense the Khyber crystal around Jynn’s neck, to walk through the battlefield to push the button that needed to be pushed – were huge moments. We had never seen The Force be available to regular people… but of course it must be. All are connected to it. None exist separate from it.
So it is with the Tao. You’re just in it, whether you like it (or believe it) or not. ROGUE ONE explicitly takes The Force away from the elites and returns it to what it’s supposed to be – the thing that lies under all of the Universe, within and between every living thing, not just those in brown robes.
It’s interesting that The Force has turned, in the minds of fans, into a video game power. It was never meant to be that way. Think of this line from Vader in Star Wars:
“Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”
He means it. This is what Luke is saying when he tells Rey that The Force isn’t about lifting rocks – it CAN do that (and The Force could, conceptually, blow up a planet. I’m sure it has in some Expanded Universe lore), but that’s not what it IS. It’s like defining your car as the place you keep cups; yeah, you may have some cups sitting in the cup holders, but your car does so much more than that.
With The Force being redefined (or perhaps returned to its roots) in Rebels and Rogue One, The Last Jedi takes it to the next level. Rey’s tour of The Force on Ach-To is probably the most explicit way that the binding of all things has been explained so far. It’s the real world example of the Yin and Yang in action – the way that life and death and life are a process, complementary forces as opposed to competing ones.
Side note: that Rian Johnson goes here, getting to the heart of the concept of the Yin and Yang, makes the end of the throne room scene all the more disappointing. The film has the opportunity to throw off the shackles of a flawed black and white morality that goes back to Zoroastrianism and embrace the nuanced and true view of the Eastern philosophies, but instead has Rey and Kylo Ren leave as foes. Bringing these two together – to form a Force user Yin and Yang – would have not only wildly redefined the Star Wars universe, it would have opened up profound conversations in the popular culture that would question most of the basis of Western thought and morality.
Oh well. Perhaps Episode IX will go there. In the meantime, let’s take comfort in the way that The Last Jedi moves The Force away from its more traditional martial applications. We do get some kick-ass Force-aided violence (the throne room scene, starting with the bisection of Snoke and leading up to the battle with the Praetorian Guard, is possibly the single greatest lightsaber sequence in the history of the franchise), but mostly The Force is used in other, more subtle ways. Ways that prove that the power to blow up a planet is, essentially, meaningless.
In Taoism there is the concept of wu wei, or effortless action. At its core wu wei means to go with the flow – paddle with the current of the river, not against it. Taoism is all about harmony with what is, and so the idea of wu wei is to lean into what is, not to fight against it. It can sometimes seem like non-action, but it is not.
One of the most controversial scenes in The Last Jedi is the moment when Leia, blown out into space, floats back into the ship and to safety. This scene, and the way that Leia moves effortlessly, is an illustration of wu wei in action. Compare, if you will, Leia’s gliding to Luke’s attempts to bring his saber to himself in the Wampa cave in EMPIRE. Luke strains and pulls, attempting to circumvent the forces of gravity and nature to have the saber fly to his hands. Perhaps a wiser move for Luke would have been to focus his Force powers on directly removing himself from the ceiling, to lean into the force of gravity and allow it to remove him from the trap. This is, functionally, what Leia does (even though there is no gravity in space). The equivalent – and what would have probably made fanboys happy to see – would be Leia forcing the ship to come to her, wrenching this massive thing from its path and proving her mastery over it. But that isn’t what she does; rather she exists in harmony with it and effortlessly floats towards it. She doesn’t need to move or master the ship, and she doesn’t even need to master herself (she isn’t propelled like a character in flight would be). She moves with impossible grace; her journey is like water in a river, all flow, no resistance.
The purpose of this essay isn’t to fill in what are perceived as plot holes (I could very easily No-Prize my way through an explanation for Leia’s powers) but rather to show that what are perceived as plot holes are actually vital spiritual moments. Johnson is continuing the work of Gareth Edwards and Dave Filoni in removing the hierarchy of The Force, and Leia’s feat is a major part of that reclamation of The Force of Others for the rest of us.
The violence of The Force has been well-established – we have seen people and droids flung about by Jedi and Sith, we have seen significant havoc wreaked by the Force-sensitive behind the triggers of guns. It is, frankly, boring. It’s a hypermasculinized, super-martial application of a concept that at its core is not about blowing people apart but bringing them together. Johnson clearly wants to explore this (while also giving us the aforementioned cool throne room scene), and so we come to the end of the film and the Luke/Kylo confrontation.
This scene, to me, is a high water mark in the history of Star Wars and is a major step forward in the cinematic depiction of conflict. The mundane fact is that conflict is sometimes unavoidable; no matter how far away you run, no matter how much you have cut yourself off from The Force, no matter how much you want to be left alone, no matter how spiritually pure you are, eventually somebody is going to get in your face. Or worse, they’re going to get in the face of others. What do you do?
In our cinema we see again and again the trope of the reluctant gunslinger, the guy who has sworn off violence, returning for one last bloodbath because he cannot let the bad guys win. We love this trope, but it also reinforces a fatalistic view that only violence can solve conflict. There’s no point in running away, this trope tells us, the violence will find you and force your hand.
Which is why Luke’s solution is so brilliant – and proves Vader’s assertion about the power of The Force. Luke is able to confront Kylo Ren and save his friends without landing a single blow. Without leaving Ach-To he is able to take action; without moving he is able to be of use. Luke’s Force projection reflects a long mystical history of translocation (a miracle very often practiced by the Catholic saints), but it also exemplifies the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching:
Without going outside, you may know the whole world.
Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.
Thus the sage knows without travelling;
He sees without looking;
He works without doing.
That’s what Luke is doing on that meditation rock – working without doing. (If those words are weirdly familiar to you it’s because George Harrison repurposed them for the Beatles song “The Inner Light.”) He is opposing without violence. It’s one of the most remarkable moments in not only the annals of Star Wars – a series predicated on the superiority of martial forces – but in American blockbusters as well. That the enemy can be pacified or outsmarted without violence… well, that’s a lesson Poe Dameron is learning in his own way as well.
By the way, what is the other Force user doing during that scene? Intriguingly Rey is doing… nothing. She’s in the turret of the Millenium Falcon, but her plan is to have Chewie fly the ship AWAY from the battle, taking the Tie Fighters with them. When the ship flies into the crystal caves the gun is destroyed, leaving Rey unable to fire at the pursuing fighters. Chewie must maneuver in a way that makes the Tie Fighters destroy themselves; it’s like a spaceship version of jiu jitsu, a martial art that flowered in Japan using very Tao-ish concepts. Jiu (ju) is a Japanese word meaning “soft, supple, flexible, pliable, or yielding.” Jiu jitsu uses the enemy’s energy against him, letting the defender flow like water around the attack. He can work without doing, on some levels. And that’s what Rey and Chewie are doing.
The Last Jedi’s depiction of The Force is the most inspiring in the series to date. It offers an unbounded concept of an energy system that isn’t divisive but rather connective. It offers a view of conflict that doesn’t require violence as a solution. It offers a vision of The Force as an understandable, grokkable bit of natural law. It removes The Force from the world of video games and power levels and instead returns it to a mystical thing that is not controlled but rather rolled with. The Force isn’t dominated, it is gracefully surrendered to. It is beautiful, not militant. It is meaningful, not dogmatic. It clearer than ever, but it is also harder than ever to explain. After all, The Force that can be told is not the true Force.