Teacher Feature: Master Yoda

Today’s Teacher Feature veers away from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, onward to a Galaxy Far, Far Away… Lucas’ exploration of the wise, old mentor archetype (as described by Campbell’s Hero’s Journey Cycle) has brought us a few role models and figures that Star Wars enthusiasts have respected, debated, and compared for the past forty years. This teacher feature examines Yoda as a teacher who is meant to embody the tenets of Zen Buddhism (Lucas himself has explained that he had Zen Buddhism and other Eastern religions in mind when he created concepts of the Force and Jedi teachings). Through this lens, we can examine Yoda’s strengths, and failures, and reflective process as a teacher. While we teachers certainly hope that events don’t go to the extreme that the Star Wars universe takes (I don’t believe ANY of us need an imperial takeover right now…), we can still learn from Master Yoda and his quiet patience.

In The Zen of R2D2: Ancient Wisdom from a Galaxy Far, Far Away, Matthew Bortolin tells the story of the Bodhidharma, a Zen monk who was upset with early Chinese Buddhist monks because they had forgotten the centrality of meditation to the Buddha’s most sacred teachings, namely that meditation was the true path to Enlightenment. Instead of meditating, the monks would squabble over scriptures and documents. To them, Buddhism had become a performance of rituals and an excuse to smugly debate over which argument or passage proved their definitions and interpretations to be correct. Bodhidharma then meditated in a silent cave for nine years in order to reconnect with the Buddha’s early teachings and respond to the monk’s squabbling (8). “It was as though he was telling them You talk and debate and intellectualize — but the true meaning of Buddhism is not found in your words or ideas. It is found in the silence one experiences when the thinking and the talking have stopped” (Bortolin, The Zen of R2D2 8). 

It is here that the similarities begin between Bodhidharma’s experiences with the Chinese Buddhist monks and the Jedi Masters’ path to Enlightenment. During the Prequel trilogy, Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the Jedi Council are all so focused on fighting the war and finding the Sith that they cannot see that the answers are directly in front of them. They, like the monks, were asking the wrong questions about the Force and Anakin Skywalker’s training. Their concept of love and attachment was very dualistic and simplistic, and therefore an ideal that Anakin Skywalker, rebellious as he was, could never hope to meet as he fell in love with Padmé. Yoda had an opportunity to help Anakin calm his fears and quiet his mind in Revenge of the Sith (hereafter RotS), but his advice was too cold and harsh for Anakin to stomach (Lucas, Star Wars, Episode III: RotS 34:24-34:41). Yoda lacked an understanding of how mindfulness and attachment truly work. He believed as many of the Jedi did, that any attachment (romantic, filial, or friendly) must be banished in order to be one with the Force.  However, letting go of attachment simply means accepting events as they are and letting go of the fear of loss (Bortolin, The Dharma of Star Wars 51). It is that harsh lesson that leads Yoda to his exile. 

Yoda’s exile is twofold: it is an exile of self-punishment and one out of a desire to reconnect with the Force and the core of the Jedi teachings. “Into exile, I must go,” he says amidst the massacre of his fellow Jedi. “Failed, I have” (Lucas, 01:56:42-01:56:52). On the outset, it appears that Yoda’s purpose in going into exile is purely out of a desire to self-flagellate and punish himself for his mistakes, just as Luke Skywalker does on Ahch-To. However, in season six of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Qui-Gon Jinn’s Living Force embodiment (colloquially known as a “Force Ghost”) guides him to Dagobah and teaches him about the differences between the Living and the Cosmic Force. 

Master Yoda and the Jedi Council in Dave Filoni’s “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”

Living beings generate the Living Force, which in turn powers the wellspring that is the Cosmic Force. … All energy from the Living Force, from all things that have ever lived, feeds into the Cosmic Force, binding everything and communicating to us through the midichlorians… You will learn to preserve your Life Force, and so manifest a consciousness which will allow you to commune with the living after death. (Keller and Filoni, 16:16-16:56, 20:38-20:47)

Yoda’s connection to Dagobah, once simply thought of as an isolated planet, turns out to be his “cave,” to use a Bodhidharma analogy. It is there that Yoda first learns to be a part of the Living and the Cosmic Force, and it is there that he must reconnect with the Force. His exile then is not merely a punishment, but an opportunity for him to forget everything he thinks he knows about the Force and reconnect with the roots of the Jedi teachings. It is here that reflects on the Living Force, and learns to remain focused on the present rather than becoming preoccupied with the events around him (Bortolin, The Zen of R2D2 9). Dagobah is a planet that is so rich with life and Force energy that Yoda’s journey is far more productive and purposeful than one might originally presume. It is not merely a place for him to hide, but a place for him to understand where he went wrong in his hubris and what he needs to do for the future.

“[Yoda] could have concluded that his isolation was deserved … but the outcome of the Clone Wars was the result of the karma of far more than a single individual. Alone on Dagobah Yoda … knew his actions in the present mattered most. He … prepared for the day that he would teach Luke Skywalker to bring an end to the tyranny of the Sith” (Bortolin, The Dharma of Star Wars 71–72).

It is because of this meditative journey that Yoda is able to pass on what he has learned about the Cosmic and Living Force to Obi-Wan Kenobi and to Luke Skywalker. 

Text Sources:

Bortolin, Matthew. The Dharma of Star Wars. A Revised Expanded Edition, Wisdom Publications, 2015.

—. The Zen of R2D2: Ancient Wisdom from a Galaxy Far, Far Away. Wisdom Publications, 2019.

Author: Elise TC

Fantasy Literature Scholar and Literacy Educator MA: Teachers College Columbia University and Signum University

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