Non-Attachment Theory: The Function of Attachment in Buddhism & Jedi Philosophy
When I was a pre-teen, I was introduced to Star Wars. And the film saga alone was not enough for me, for I immediately dove into the Expanded Universe – collections of books written before, during, and after the films. Although I loved the excitement that this universe provided, from lightsaber battles to political maneuvers, the thing that fascinated me the most was of a spiritual nature: Jedi Philosophy.
Jedi Philosophy draws heavily from Eastern religious practices, Buddhism in particular. The Old Jedi Order, at their peak during the prequel trilogy, has a lot to say about attachment and suffering. Much of which I’m sure would make Buddhist monks sigh, and rightly so. For the concepts that Star Wars took from Buddhism were given an all too Western spin, and created a Philosophy that was self-destructive in many ways. In contrast, the New Jedi Order that Luke Skywalker established after Return of the Jedi, rejected much of these unhealthy ideals. The Philosophy of attachment that we see in book series’ such as Legacy of the Force is a much more functional framework – in addition to coming much closer to the Buddhist principles.
Master Yoda establishes himself as the foremost voice in Jedi Philosophy during the Prequel Trilogy, giving us recognizable quotes such as “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” We see in the Old Jedi Order that attachment itself is forbidden, in an effort to reduce the chances of fear taking root in a Jedi and leading them down the path to the Dark Side. Buddha, too, recognized that attachment is a problem; in the Third Noble Truth, he identifies it as the root cause of humanity’s suffering. However, the Sanskrit word that we’ve translated to mean “attachment” doesn’t quite mean what the Jedi thought. We do not avoid attachment by renouncing all earthly pleasures, or by refusing to engage in close relationships – but rather by holding all that we love with a loose hand. Not so tightly that we fear loosing said thing or person, because such a grip would certainly lead to anger, hate, and the rest.
It’s a thin line, a grey area, the place where we can love without reservation, yet not fear the loss of what we love. To quote Yoda once more, “the fear of loss is a path to the Dark Side…train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” A more comprehensive interpretation of this line than the film provides would define “letting go” as releasing the illusion that we have control over life and the world at large. Instead of Anakin just walking away from his mother, from Padmé, he could have been taught to view his love for them as a gift, not something to attempt controlling out of fear. And what more instills fear than a demand to denounce everything that makes life worth living?
Despite the failings of Anakin and the Jedi who instructed him, Luke Skywalker was able to establish a much healthier Jedi Philosophy as he began rebuilding the Order. He himself publicly marries, and has a son. The theory surrounding attachment takes center stage in the novel Legacy of the Force: Fury by Aaron Allston. At this point in the Expanded Universe timeline, Luke’s wife Mara has been killed, and his son Ben comes to him in the midst of their grief. The following exchange takes place:
“Ever since Mom was killed, you’ve been like someone with a landspeeder resting on his back. Crushed flat, hardly able to move because of the pain. I mean, me too. But for me, over time, that landspeeder has slipped off, mostly. I kind of expected that when we learned that the one who’d killed her was captured or dead, the landspeeder would be gone from your back, too. That you’d be able to move again.”
“I can move.”
“I’m not so sure. And I’m trying to figure out why.”
“Let’s do some lightsaber training. You’ll see more of me moving than you want to.”
“You’re still not you. People are asking questions. Things like, ‘When is Luke Skywalker going to find his center and make things better again?’ Nobody knows what to tell them.”
The landspeeder analogy that Ben provides exemplifies the New Jedi Order’s view of attachment. Whenever suffering inevitably comes, it’s incapacitating. But a healthy attachment is able to let that landspeeder slide off, and allow you to continue living your life. And after this heart to heart with his son, Luke is able to do just that.
Ben Skywalker sums everything up beautifully later in Fury:
“That’s what attachment is, isn’t it? It’s not loving somebody. It’s not marrying somebody. It’s not having kids. It’s being where, if something goes wrong, there’s nothing left of you.”
This profoundly simple sentiment is exactly what Buddhism is trying to teach, and what the Prequels missed. When you look at the core of this Philosophy, non-attachment is passion without dependency. Passion in all its forms, be it love for a person or a place or an activity, is healthy. It makes the world a better place, and eases suffering. But when you add dependency to that passion, it equals attachment. And creates suffering. And leads to the Dark Side.