Oh, My Pop Culture Monks: The Jedi Order and Monasticism

Jedi Star WarsStar Wars’s next episode is almost here, you guys! Well, it’s a couple months away, but still, I’m excited, and I’m feeling all Star Wars-y today because of it.

So in order to celebrate, let’s talk about Jedi, monks, and monasticism. The Jedi are warrior monks, who spend their days either meditating or kicking Sith ass. They live minimalistic lives and belong to a spiritual order charged with keeping the peace. The Jedi and their way of life, like many other things in Star Wars, are based off Eastern cultures and religions, but the story is told from a Western lens. As such, the story, especially in the prequels, doesn’t really do all that well representing the way of life it borrows from.

Derived from the Greek word μόνος “monos”, meaning “alone”, monasticism is a way of life in which an individual person devotes him- or herself fully to spiritual or religious works. Most of us in the Western world are fairly familiar with Christian monasticism, specifically Catholic and Orthodox. Typically, we call monastic men monks and monastic women nuns. In order to immerse themselves fully in their spiritual or religious pursuits, many of them live secluded from other people in monasteries and renounce worldly possessions. In Christian monasticism, lives are cloistered and dedicated to worship. Monks and nuns also follow a strict set of rules based on both the Old and New Testaments. Originally, monks lived alone in the wilderness and only started residing together in monastic communities in the 3rd or 4th century. Christian monastic life is based on attempting to achieve perfection, as Jesus tells us: “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Star Wars Jedi with Yellow bladeWhile there are many different types of monasticism in the world, the other type most of us are familiar with is Buddhist monasticism. There are, of course, differences between Christian and Buddhist forms of monasticism, but they are very similar to each other. Buddhist monks live secluded lives in monasteries and also renounce worldly possessions. Many of them also take vows of celibacy, and they are charged with preserving the doctrines and disciplines of Buddhism. While they are not quite concerned with perfection and the divine in the same sense that Western monks are, Buddhist monks do seek Enlightenment, which they can achieve by discovering the truth about life and ceasing the cycle of reincarnation. And like the Jedi, some Buddhist monks do enter their orders as children, though normally not before the age of eight.

Stinekey wrote a post about monks a while back, and in it, she said that if she had to pick one word in order to describe them, she would say “disciplined”. I imagine she went with that word because she’s a better person than I am. The first word I think of when it comes to monastic life is “boring”. It’s probably because of people like me that geek culture has gone out of its way to turn monastic life into something more exciting. As Stinekey tells us:

There seem to be two major monk stereotypes in geek culture. The first is the Warrior Monk. These monks are totally badass killing machines, manifesting as either martial arts masters or sword-wielding crusaders. Sometimes the narrative tries to justify why the monk is a warrior. Martial arts is a great way to practice discipline and has roots in the real life Shaolin Monastery. Soldier monks find their roots in the papally-sanctioned holy wars of the Crusades, intended to defend the Holy Land against Islamic conquest. The crusader monk usually has a strong code of ethics to defend the innocent. It’s more or less the male ideal created by romantic notions of chivalry.

This is also a stereotype the Jedi suffer from. In the world of Star Wars, people with a natural affinity for the Force are often taken from their families and forced into a monastic lifestyle at a young age. Like many other forms of monasticism in our media, the Jedi take more after Eastern than Western practices, but they are written from a Western perspective on Eastern practices. To start, they are warrior monks who use the Force to guide them in battle. While the Jedi meditate and train in order to become one with the Force, the narrative glorifies their prowess in battle to such an extent that it’s hard to tell which is more important to them: their ability to fight or their spirituality.

Ahsoka Tano 2Jedi monks are also different from Buddhist monks in that they don’t perform the same roles in society. Buddhist monks are expected to set an example for the rest of us by preserving and upholding traditions and laws of the faith. They are supposed to show us how to live a moral life for the betterment of others. Buddhism is also sometimes referred to as the Middle Way, since it is about reconciling two opposing views. However, the Jedi lifestyle doesn’t quite allow for that, and the message of balance that the prequels leave us with is decidedly not in line with the original Buddhism it’s based on. I would theorize that this is because the Jedi were not designed to perfectly emulate real practices, but even then, the similarities between the Jedi and real monks are noticeable. Warrior monks were a thing. Buddhist monks built the first Shaolin monastery in the 5th century, and they became associated with the practice of Kung Fu. The Shaolin monastery existed for over 1,000 years, while the Jedi also existed for over 1,000 years or generations, depending on which canon you ascribe to. The Shaolin monks sought Enlightenment, the same as the Jedi sought balance, and both orders were charged with keeping the peace before being destroyed by an emperor.

But while the Jedi and warrior monks share a similar history, the role the Jedi play in the narrative either goes to show that the creators didn’t understand Eastern monastic lifestyles, or they didn’t care to accurately present it. To start, we never really find out what role the Jedi play in society and how the rest of the galaxy benefits from them. People don’t choose to become Jedi; they are indoctrinated into that lifestyle in infancy based on their individual biology. The Force is not a way of life anyone can follow. It’s only something Force-sensitive people can partake in, and therefore the Jedi cannot fulfill the roles Buddhist monks fulfill. The doctrine and practices the Jedi preserve can only be applied to themselves and not to others.

We do see the Jedi sent to mediate disagreements and act as councilors, but that role gets dropped once violence becomes a possibility. During The Clone Wars, we don’t just see Jedi fighting in the front lines; we see them conducting the war. We watch them take lives, sometimes in anger, while all the while they tell us that they are keepers of peace and not soldiers.

art by NoOne00

art by NoOne00

As a result, in both the prequels and in The Clone Wars, the Jedi are much more accurately warriors, not warrior monks. While it is implied that they do other works besides battle, we rarely see that happen. The prequel Jedi gained discipline in order to fight, as opposed to the other way around, which is a much more Western viewpoint than it is an Eastern one. As the Jedi seek balance, disapprove of anger, and wish for peace and the betterment of others, that also begs another question: how do they reconcile that with war and a need for violence? We see them kill, but we don’t see them have any kind of emotional reaction to killing. Their willingness to fight also tends to override their willingness to seek more peaceful solutions. The Jedi do not just fight and lead in the war; they commit what we consider war crimes, such as the use of child soldiers, to name one of many of the horrible things Jedi have done. Padawan learners are not adults, and Ahsoka Tano was a child soldier.

Furthermore, the Jedi may be spiritual, but in the prequels their spirituality exists more as a way to strengthen their physical abilities. This is in direct contrast to the original trilogy, where their way of life was called a “religion” and was not limited to a person’s biology. Luke’s training under Yoda was about discipline, but it was not about violence. There’s not a single moment in their time together that Yoda teaches Luke how to fight. Instead, he teaches Luke that the Force is beyond the physical—this is why someone as tiny and frail as Yoda could be such a powerful Jedi master. Later on, in Return of the Jedi, at one point Luke nearly kills Vader in anger. He stops at the last minute and is horrified at his own actions. He takes that moment to choose a path of non-violence, even at the potential cost of his own life.

We also see something similar between Vader and Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan allows Vader to kill him, because Obi-Wan has achieved the Jedi equivalent of Enlightenment. And knowing that, he chooses the path of non-violence, despite his impending death. Obi-Wan becomes one with the Force and returns to the living world as a ghost.

The original trilogy was much more in line with Eastern monasticism than the prequels, and for me, that’s one of the reasons why those movies are superior to the prequels. It’s arguable that the way the Jedi practice their beliefs in the prequels helped lead to their fall, and that they were purposefully written to be in the wrong. After all, their beliefs about balance and violence directly contradicts what Luke learns about balance and violence. However, like many other instances in the prequels, this is only a conclusion you can get to by reading between the lines, which is a problem since it’s such a large and important part of the story. Now that The Force Awakens is on its way, I eagerly look forward to how it and future installments will handle all of this.

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About MadameAce

I draw, I write, I paint, and I read. I used to be really into anime and manga until college, where I fell out of a lot of my fandoms to pursue my studies. College was also the time I discovered my asexuality, and I have been fascinated by different sexualities ever since. I grew up in various parts of the world, and I've met my fair share of experiences and cultures along the way. Sure, I'm a bit socially awkward and not the easiest person to get along with, but I do hold great passion for my interests, and I can only hope that the things I have to talk about interest you as well.

9 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Monks: The Jedi Order and Monasticism

  1. Taoism is an important influence on the actual “theology” (if one can call it that) of the Force itself…and also had great influence on almost all forms of Chinese Buddhism, including Ch’an, which in Japan became Zen, which is what the Samurai practiced (particularly Rinzai Zen, which is where the phrase “kill the Buddha” comes from).

    I suspect that the error of the Jedi’s ways in the prequels is what lead to and gives a greater impact to the actions and teaching of Yoda and Obi-Wan in the original trilogy, and we are meant to see that in contrast to the way things were in the prequels. The Jedi, being threatened with extinction, have to learn to adapt and become more balanced themselves if they are to have any hope.

    It still doesn’t quite explain why Grand Moff Tarkin, essentially working for the Emperor (who everyone should realize is a Sith?), said that Darth Vader was the only survivor left of his religion, but oh well…

    • There is that as well. I always got the impression that technically speaking the parents could say no, but that everyone’s socially conditioned otherwise. It’s also kind of creepy how if the Jedi find a child who’s older than like a toddler, then spontaneously that child is too old to train as well.

  2. That that Jedi are not what they were meant to be during the Prequels I intentional, but Prequels tend to bind themselves to that. We see an order that has become detached complacent and maybe even just a little corrupt in their waning years.

    People complain that they don’t feel ti fits what the OT described, but that’s intentional too, Obi-Won and Yoda was remembering things through rose colored glasses. And people forget even going off the OT alone they were WRONG about what needed to be done to defeat the Sith. Luke went against their advice in trying to redeem to his Father and succeeded. So if they can be wrong about the future, they can be wrong about the past.

    As I’m planing to devote a future post of my blog too, it was the Jedi’s destruction not the Sith’s that was needed to bring Balance to the Force.

  3. …Don’t kill me for this, but the only Star Wars movies I’ve seen in full are IV and VI. I’ve read all the books for the series, but never ended up seeing the movies- I admittedly don’t usually go out for movies, and just go for the books they’re based on.
    From what I can remember of the prequel books though, there was always an underlying growth of both Yoda and Obi-Wan as they came to realize that the ways of the “current” Jedi Order were inherently flawed, both due to Palpatine’s influence after episode 1 and their own warlike tendencies, which you covered here.

  4. George Lucas was inspired by, among other things, Kurosawa movies when coming up with Star Wars, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Sohei were an inspiration for the Jedi. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C5%8Dhei
    From what I’ve read, they seemed far more focused on kicking arse than on enlightenment.

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