Teacher Feature: Luke Skywalker

Hello, new readers and followers! Thank you for your support! One of the ways that I engage in pedagogical practice is to take notes on how other teachers use various strategies to engage their students. In the Primary World, that involves observing real teachers in real time. In my Secondary blog World, however, I like to examine teachers and mentors in the fantasy and science fiction world. While they may be fictional characters, we can still learn from observing their teaching methods and how they operate in the (fictional) classroom.

A while ago, I wrote a Teacher Feature on Master Yoda. This post is a continuation on that vein by examining The Last Jedi‘s incarnation of Luke Skywalker. I’ll admit, when I first watched TLJ, I was sorely disappointed in the Luke I was witnessing. His anger, frustration, and stubbornness was the complete opposite of the Luke that I had loved when I was growing up. I had been wooed by his optimism and his desire to do good in the face of darkness. However, after a couple of additional viewings and thinking about his character through different, additional lenses, I began to see why his journey took him to such a dark place.

My last post on Yoda examined his contributions through a Zen Buddhist lens. I continued that analysis with Luke Skywalker by examining his journey to understanding what it truly means to be a Jedi Master- that failure is not only an option, it is a necessity.

I must also add an important note that I did not address in my Yoda post. Bortolin discusses a Zen concept that he calls “the expert mind,” and the “beginner’s mind” (The Zen of R2D2 16–17). The expert mind believes it knows all and responds to challenges when confronted with different points of view. The beginner’s mind, however, “takes compassion to listen to another person’s pain — to sit in silence with an open mind and refrain from trying to fix their problems” (The Zen of R2D2 16).  This is a critical concept in Star Wars, particularly when examining the Master/Padawan relationship. Many of the Jedi Masters in the Star Wars universe are blinded by their “expert mind,” which creates tension in their relationships with the present, reality, and with their Padawan.

Luke’s experience as a trained Jedi is one of compassion, which is a fundamental trait both in Jediism and Zen Buddhism. Luke is able to have compassion for his father and help him turn his back on the Emperor and the Dark Side. Luke understood where Anakin Skywalker had lost his way and was able to guide him back by recognizing just how easy it is to follow the path to the Dark Side (Bortolin, The Dharma of Star Wars 108). He even rebukes Obi-Wan when he asserts that it is impossible to save Darth Vader. “There is still good in him,” he reminds his master, to which he can only respond that Vader is more machine than man, “twisted and evil” (Marquand, 47:01).  Obi-Wan has difficulty letting go of his past and trusting his Padawan to have his own experiences. Confronting Vader means killing him to Obi-Wan, but to Luke it means compassion, to “relieve [his] suffering, including [his] delusion, insecurity, and hatred” (Bortolin, The Dharma of Star Wars 104). Luke’s success in defeating the Empire and returning his father to the side of light leads him to the heavy task of training the next generation of Jedi and continuing on his own cycle on the path to Enlightenment.  

In The Last Jedi, Luke reveals that he has chosen to exile himself to Ahch-To to hide away from the world and reflect upon his failure to train Ben Solo in the ways of the Jedi. His once fresh, young, beginner’s mind has now been replaced with an expert’s mind, one that forgets how he came to be a Jedi in the first place. While training his nephew, Luke sees the darkness growing in Ben Solo, and rather than trusting himself to guide Ben through the darkness, he draws his lightsaber instead. In a brief moment of fear, he resolves to kill his nephew rather than let the darkness grow. Though compassion returns to him immediately after, it is too late and Ben attacks his master. Luke’s actions created Kylo Ren. This moment haunts Luke for years until he comes to terms with the past and meets the present head-on (Bortolin, “‘The Last Jedi’ Cranks Up Star Wars’ Buddhist Themes”). As a result, Luke, ashamed of his hubris, chooses to hide in Ahch-To and destroy any remnant left of the Jedi Order rather than face the consequences of his actions head-on. He chose, instead, to identify with the Jedi Council members in his father’s time who failed, in their “expert minds,” to see the Sith rising in power (Bortolin, The Zen of R2D2 55). In this hubris, however, he forgot the original lesson that he had taught himself, which was to choose compassion above all. He also forgot a core tenet that Yoda constantly reminded him not to forget; Luke forgot to focus on the present, on what is happening in front of him, instead of “looking to the horizon” at his past and future failures and fearing them (Johnson 01:23:05-01:23:14).

Though it was not Luke’s intention to set upon a spiritual journey to Enlightenment, his turn in the exile cycle continues as he is reminded of his true purpose as a Jedi, to “be mindful of the Living Force” and of the present (Bortolin, The Dharma of Star Wars 1), and to meet conflict with compassion instead of anger. His final confrontation with Kylo Ren is out of compassion and a desire to save his friends rather than an opportunity to kill an enemy, which is why he is able to harness the Force energy needed to create a projection of himself (The Zen of R2D2 59). 

Each trilogy in the Star Wars saga reflects the cyclical nature of the Living and Cosmic Force at work. Qui-Gon began the cycle by training himself to become one with the Living Force, and he trained Yoda and, presumably, Obi-Wan Kenobi to walk the same path. Yoda then guides Luke Skywalker to do the same during their conversation on Ahch-To. Luke, in a fit of self-despair, threatens to burn down the Force tree that contains (or so he believes) the sacred Jedi texts, but Yoda beats him to the punch by sending a bolt of lightning instead. To Luke, the texts were a symbol of the Jedi’s failure and that they had to die with him. Yoda, however, understood that the books, though sacred, did not matter in the present moment (Johnson 01:22:56). Luke was not supposed to teach Rey about the texts or the Jedi Order. He was supposed to teach her how to feel the presence of the Force within herself, and to grow where Luke failed. “We are what they grow beyond. That is the burden of all masters,” Yoda said (Johnson 01:24:00-01:24:10). He recognizes that with every failure there is a lesson to be learned and an opportunity to return to the “beginner’s mind,” to return to compassion. Yoda also recognizes that this cycle continues with each Jedi master who becomes one with the Living and Cosmic Force, that the path to Enlightenment is through failure, reflection, meditation, and finally, through compassion and acceptance that events will always occur as they are meant to happen, and that they will continue to allow the Force to work its will upon them.

Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Luke each continue the path of Enlightenment through the Living Force, even after death, by becoming what Zen Buddhists call boddhisatva. “A boddhisatva is a person who is dedicated to bringing every person … and sentient being in the universe to enlightenment” (Bortolin, The Zen of R2D2 51). Their task as Jedi masters that are one with the Living Force is to forgo the peace that one achieves in death and continue to live in the Force consciousness. They chose compassion for their Padawans and they chose to continue living as a “Force ghost” in order to help them achieve Enlightenment, in order to choose compassion over murder or choose to save their friends over killing their enemies (The Zen of R2D2 51). Obi-Wan guides Luke to Yoda, who trains him in the ways of the Jedi. Yoda guides Luke to face his fears head-on, and Luke guides Rey to face the Emperor and to love herself despite her name and family ties. 

Bortolin claims that by forgoing death and choosing to continue their guidance instead, Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Qui-Gon each choose to forgo enlightenment as well, which is part of the definition of boddhisatva (51). However, by choosing such a compassionate and selfless act they become one with the Living Force and have thus achieved Enlightenment. All of the Jedi masters became one with the Living Force and were enlightened when they chose to put their Padawans’ lives above their own and guide them in the ways of the Force during life and after death. Enlightenment is not a stop in the cycle. Rather, it is a continuous, cyclical path, as is the way of the Force as well.  

Text Sources:

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

—. “‘The Last Jedi’ Cranks Up Star Wars’ Buddhist Themes.” Lion’s Roar, 20 Dec. 2017. http://www.lionsroar.com, https://www.lionsroar.com/the-last-jedi-cranks-up-the-buddhist-themes/.

—. 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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