I was raised in a hippy household. We started our meals with a reading from the Tao Te Ching, the founding text of Taoism. I also had the more conventional experience of growing up obsessed with Star Wars. I loved the original film trilogy, and though I watched Return of the Jedi until the VHS tape broke, it’s the scenes with Yoda in Empire Strikes Back that ultimately resonated with me the most.
Yoda was the first experience I ever had with a taoist sage. He managed both the irreverence and wisdom that goes with living in harmony with the Tao. As an adult, I’ve sadly realized that the Jedi are pretty terrible, primarily because they really don’t understand the philosophy they’re aping. Here’s what Star Wars gets wrong about Taoism and some suggestions to improve the Jedi, and by extension the Star Wars universe. Disney, I hope you’re taking notes.
So what is this Taoism that the Jedi get so wrong? Most folks are probably aware that Taoism is a Chinese wisdom tradition and religion, similar in many ways to Buddhism. In Taoism, there’s a unifying energy or substance called the Tao that makes up and flows through everything. Within the Tao, there are two forces, yin and yang, and the interaction between them is what gives rise to “the 10,000 things” that we experience as the universe of separate entities.
On the Taoist view, the reality of separate entities is impermanent and not the ultimate reality, so attachment to it is the root of suffering. Through practices that cultivate non-attachment, the Taoist can balance yin and yang within themselves and learn to live in keeping with the flow of the Tao.
Essentially, the Taoists see the Tao like a great river, and we’re all just bobbing along in it (as well as being made up of it). We can either resist the current to the point of exhaustion, or we can learn to go with the flow. Any of this sounding familiar?
It’s no secret that George Lucas borrowed liberally from a lot of non-western sources to create Star Wars. Unfortunately, his adaptation of Taoism suffers from decidedly Manichean influences. Manicheanism describes the universe as a struggle between good and evil, light and dark, and is often invoked when discussing the tendency to see dualities as morally black and white.
However, in Taoism, yang and yin energy are not good or bad, because they’re both essential for existence. Yang energy is the aggressive creative force, while yin is the passive receptive force that makes room for creation. In fact, Taoism recommends that humans cultivate more yin energy as a corrective for the fact that humans are typically overly yang.
These nuances are largely absent from the Jedi’s understanding of the Force. You get some of it in the calming influence of Yoda and more of it in the Extended Universe material about the grey Jedi and Anakin Solo, but for most people, the Force is divided into the light side good guys and the dark side baddies. The Jedi are passionless, well-meaning bureaucrats, while the Sith are bipolar sociopaths. The Jedi talk a lot about bringing balance to the Force, but they seem to have little clue what that means, beyond killing off all the Sith.
From what we see in the movies, the Jedi don’t even teach their young padawans to integrate their own pathos (personal dark side) in a healthy way. Rather than telling them to functionally engage with their desires, young Jedi are taught repression. Such a path seems unlikely to lead to true non-attachment, as the repressed parts of the self will inevitably rebel and lash out in harmful ways. Throughout much of the movies, the Jedi seem as baffled by the basics of human psychology as they are by Sith machinations. The subtleties of Taoist metaphysics aren’t even on the table.
The worst of the terrible Jedi behavior shows up in the painfully written prequels, especially from master Yoda. Gone is the whimsy and wisdom of Empire Strikes Back Yoda. In its place, we have the uncanny valley version — hyperrealistic looking but with zero depth. Maybe that’s deliberate. Maybe Yoda really needed to see everything blow up in his face to achieve the kind of Taoist wisdom he possesses on Dagoba.
That would at least make sense. Chapter 29 of the Tao Te Ching asks, “Do you believe you can take the universe into your hand and improve it?” before responding, “I do not believe it can be done.” You can almost hear it in Yoda’s voice, with a lovable “HARMPF” in the middle. Yoda learned the hard way that the common desire to control everything can result in even more harm.
Which brings me to my favorite moment in the whole canon. The scene where Star Wars finally gets Taoism right actually comes towards the end of The Last Jedi when, in a moment of anger, Luke goes to burn down the tree that contains the ancient Jedi texts, while Yoda looks on as a force ghost. Luke hesitates, perhaps fearing that anger is clouding his judgment. Recognizing this, Yoda does what Luke cannot and truly lets go of the need to control, offering up a friendly lightening bolt.
The playful Yoda of Empire is back, cracking jokes about how boring the Jedi texts were and rapping young master Skywalker on the head for being such a grump. Yoda sees that the traditions are part of what destroyed the Jedi, by replacing flexibility with rigid seriousness. Attachment to the past is what has prevented balance in the Force.
Unfortunately, the meta commentary of Last Jedi was not well-received by some fans, and early reports suggest director J.J. Abrams will not be taking The Rise of Skywalker in that sort of direction. There was hope we could do as master Yoda says and unlearn what we have learned, but maybe that’s not what people want from their space operas. I do hope, though, there will be some fun mixed with wisdom in Skywalker, and that we can all find a little more balance.