A version of this essay was originally submitted as a midterm paper for Religions of China and Japan at West Virginia University, by yours truly.
My understanding of Daoism is based upon, of all things, the Star Wars mythos. In particular, I can cite the New Jedi Order novel Traitor as being the key to my understanding of Daoist teachings; the author has a much more thorough grasp of the Force’s philosophical roots than George Lucas himself could ever dream of. The novel follows Jacen Solo’s journey of self-discovery while in captivity. For those who have not read the New Jedi Order, Jacen Solo is the oldest son of Han Solo and Leia Organa Solo, and twin brother to Jaina Solo. For those readers who haven’t read the New Jedi Order (and are likely unaware of the fan debates surrounding it), In the novel Traitor, Jacen Solo is held captive by the invading Yuuzhan Vong in the aftermath of the Jedi Strike Team’s assault on a Vong bioweapon facility, and the resulting death of Anakin Solo. Jacen is taught by the enigmatic Jedi known as Vergere, an unorthodox figure who has since been smeared as a “Sith”. But the epithet “Sith” cannot be further from the truth of Vergere—who herself does not exactly consider the spoken word, the name, or indeed language itself, to contain more than a glimmer of the truth. Like a good Daoist, Vergere recognizes that any truth which can simply be described, quantified, or categorized by words isn’t really a truth at all. Rather than being a product of Sith teachings, Jacen’s revelations teach him to love the universe for all of its faults, find his inner strengths, and use these to further the cause of “Tian”—the process of heaven on earth.
Describing knowledge is antithetical to Daoist beliefs, for knowledge itself is in a constant state of change. To describe a truth is to imply certain static qualities concerning such truth, which runs fundamentally against the concept of “anicca”- impermanence. One cannot find the truth of the Dao in these illusory teachings, because truth itself is not permanent. In the words of the Jedi Vergere, “Everything I tell you is a lie. Every question I ask is a trick. You will find no truth in me.” In Daoism, there IS no truth that a teacher can simply impart to a student. ANYTHING that a teacher simply “teaches” to a student is a lie. The truth of the Dao is beyond any words that society has created to describe it. This VERY ESSAY will inevitably fall short of the truth of the Dao, because to write this essay, I must utilize words—words with a static, incomplete meaning, which obscures the truth behind them.
“All answers fall short of the truth.”
Traitor provides an excellent example of the idea that so-called “facts” hide the truth behind them. Throughout the novel, Vergere teases the primary antagonist, Nom Anor, with the idea that “everything she tells him is the truth”. Vergere constantly makes predictions as to what Jacen will do next; Anor alternately ignores them or fails to see the real implications of her predictions. When Vergere predicts that Jacen will attempt to free the slaves during the Tizo’pil Yun’tchilat, Anor initially ignores Vergere, giving Jacen the time he requires to initiate his plan. In the weeks leading up to this moment, Vergere had continued to feed Nom Anor “the truth”, and allowed his mind to take these truths to precisely the wrong conclusion. This culminates in Vergere letting Anor know that Jacen has “converted” the the “True Way” of his species, the Yuuzhan Vong. When Jacen uses this trust to hijack a ceremony for a near-suicide mission to destroy a Vong worldbrain, Anor panics and leads Vergere to his escape craft, for Vergere has informed him that Jacen will escape. Vergere then holds Anor at saberpoint and hijacks his ship, escaping with her apprentice.
The understanding must be on an individual level, as must be the self-realization. When Vergere cryptically informs Jacen that he can find no truth in her, what she means is that only he can discover his inner truths, his inner strength, his inner nature—all that Vergere can do is guide him, and place him in a context free of the biases of his society. Jacen comes to understand his ultimate truth—that the universe is a dark and scary place, yet that one should meet it with love—through his own choices and actions. Pooh is the hero of the story in The Tao of Pooh because of his ability to act upon his own strengths and weaknesses. While Rabbit frets and Eeyore glumly watches the world go by, Pooh simply acts upon his inner nature and as a result makes his world a better place because of it.
Another relevant Daoist tenet is the principle of following one’s Li lines. Traitor contains a mythic example of the idea of following the role one was always meant to play. In the last third of the novel, a Jedi Knight named Ganner Rhysode is captured by the Vong while searching for clues to Jacen’s continued existence. Ganner is carted off to Coruscant to be sacrificed by Jacen as a test of Jacen’s devotion to the True Way. Jacen lets Ganner in on his plan to destroy the World Brain, for which he needs Ganner’s help. Now, up to this point in the novels, Ganner has been a consistently egotistical Jedi with dreams of heroism and grandeur. The closest he had ever come to living up to these delusions of grandeur was when he had served as the decoy leader of a Jedi strike team. At this point in the story, Ganner is scared shitless. It doesn’t help that Jacen has already explained to Ganner that they have, for all intents and purposes, been dead since the moment of their respective captures. Ganner could make easily make an escape attempt, which would naturally end in his death. Or, he can work with Jacen—which could still potentially lead to his death, but the circumstances and ramifications would be entirely different. And this is the path that he and Jacen choose. The path that they were born to walk. In Jacen’s own words, “The only power I have—the only power any of us have—is to be who we are. That’s what I’m going to do here. Be who I am.”
Ganner comments that he always found Jacen to be a bleeding heart; Jacen replies that he always found Ganner to be a grandstander. And rather than fight these innate qualities, they live up to them beautifully. Jacen descends into the Well of the World Brain, and instead of killing it converts it to his cause with the trueness of his heart, with the application of his ultimate revelation that one must love the universe. And Ganner—Ganner plays the hero. Ganner puts Gandalf to shame with his last stand. As Jacen converts the World Brain, Ganner becomes the hero he was born to be by holding off well over a thousand Vong Warriors at the threshold of the Well. The Vong, a warrior people themselves, will for the rest of eternity revere Ganner as the gatekeeper of the lands of the dead. After he has converted the World Brain, Jacen intends to join Ganner in his last stand—when Vergere points out that while Jacen has that choice open to him, it is not the path that he is supposed to walk. It runs contrary to the Li lines of his life. Vergere and Jacen escape to the New Republic, where Jacen is eventually able to apply the understanding he gained in The Lands of the Dead to finding a resolution to the Vong War which does not involve genocide. Jacen teaches the Yuuzhan Vong, a species characterized by fanaticism, the lesson of compromise. And in true Daoist form, he does not deliver this lesson through a lecture; no, Jacen forces the Yuuzhan Vong to experience compromise, to teach them that fanaticism is self-defeating.
One interpretation of Daoism is that it is utterly passive, and that Daoists should make no effort to change the world. This interpretation is indeed a technically valid interpretation; the founder of Daoism, Lao-tzu, advocated severing oneself from society and becoming a hermit. However, when one considers the idea of Tian—namely, that heaven is on Earth and that it is inherently a process rather than a state—a completely opposing interpretation emerges. If heaven is a process, then it is a process that mankind must contribute to. In other words, man must take the understanding of the universe which it has gathered from the Dao and utilize this to make the world a better place—to create heaven on earth. Following one’s Li lines means applying the principle of Wei Wu Wei—active non-action—in a decidedly pro-active form. When Ganner sacrifices himself in Traitor, he is following his Li line to its fullest extent. His action—playing Horatio at the Gates in a manner that puts Gandalf the Gray to shame—allows Jacen to escape and follow his own Li lines, which culminate in his finding a peaceful resolution to the bloodiest war in galactic history.
Essentially, in Daoism we all have the choice of whether or not to follow our own personal Li lines, but the universe benefits far more from us choosing to follow the line instead of diverging from it. The point of attaining an understanding of the Dao is not to go and guard it in a cave like Gollum and the Ring; no, the entire point of this enlightenment is to take what one has learned of the universe and use that understanding to change the universe for the better. Luke Skywalker does not take his understanding of familial love and hide in a cave on Dagobah—he goes to Endor to redeem his father, even if it costs him his life. So the “non-action” part of Wei Wu-Wei can be reinterpreted as “not taking action against the stream of one’s life”. When combined with the “active” part of “active non-action”, the meaning is entirely altered. Rather than sitting on a mountaintop far away from society, Wei Wu-Wei becomes the process of actively following the stream of one’s life carefully and constantly.
Following the string of one’s Li lines can be complemented by understanding how Li lines interconnect, and how to manipulate those connections. Stover wrote another Star Wars novel, entitled Shatterpoint, in which the titular concept is used to describe the intersections of Li lines. By striking at the right place, and at the right moment, one can alter the course of history. Now, does acting upon the understanding of a shatterpoint follow the principle of Wei Wu-Wei or does it oppose it? I would argue that in many cases, the Li lines themselves lead one to this shatterpoint. If we are all interconnected, if the universe itself is entirely interconnected, then every action we take has an equal reaction—hence the Hindu law of karma. So to create our better world, to create and maintain Tian, then from a Daoist perspective we must learn to see how the Li lines of the universe interact, to see the shatterpoints of reality and manipulate them in order to create Tian. To use an example from Traitor, Jacen may have realized that his life or death was a shatterpoint for the war effort, and indeed the fate of the galaxy, causing him to go with Vergere and escape from Coruscant, rather than die with Ganner.
So I suppose that it might be more accurate to say that Jedi philosophy, or at least the radical school espoused by Vergere, is the practical application of Daoist principles in a concerted manner to bring about a happier, more peaceful world. The Jedi principles of non-attachment echo similar Daoist principles; even death itself is seen as simply being part of the cycle of life, a journey which we must all take in the end. Death is the natural termination of a Li line, and unnatural attempts to extend one’s life (such as feeding on souls or possession) are considered to be extremely reprehensible to the Jedi. One could even argue that death itself is the true finish line of a Daoist’s search for eternity. In the end, the Dao, the Force, or whatever term one applies… these terms are only shades of the truth. These terms mask the truths behind them.
Postscript: Dawn of the Jedi Issues 00-05, and Je’daii Concepts of Balance
In the past, I have contended that Vergere is a back-to-basics Jedi, suggesting that her philosophy is a throwback to both the real-world inspirations for the Jedi and the theoretical early Jedi philosophy. With that in mind, it’s interesting to look at how Dawn of the Jedi (bearing in mind that I’ve only read the first arc) interprets the beliefs and codes of the proto-Jedi. The Je’daii of Dawn of the Jedi (which takes place over 25,000 years ago, delving into the origins of the Jedi prior to the formation of the Galactic Republic) do seem to buy into a less biased version of ‘balance’ than the Jedi of the Prequel era—or indeed, the Jedi of KotOR. Their very code enshrines a commitment to truly balancing light and dark, rather than annihilating one in favor of the other as the later Jedi Order would prefer.
“There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.
There is no fear, there is power.
I am the heart of the Force.
I am the revealing fire of light.
I am the mystery of darkness
In balance with chaos and harmony
Immortal in the Force.”
The concept of dark and light being equivalent to evil and good is set aside in favor of a worldview where both are seen as essential elements of a balanced life—we see the Je’daii exiling individuals for falling too far into the dark, as well as succumbing too thoroughly to the light (well, the second one is alluded to, at least). It’s not as well-developed a set of ideas as that espoused by Vergere- but then again, Traitor can be interpreted as an extended Daoist parable on the Uncarved Block in a certain light—but the basic concepts of Je’daii philosophy to roughly line up in a broad-strokes manner with what Vergere was trying to teach Jacen. Vergere takes the ideas farther and with more nuance—dark and light fundamentally being internal concepts, rather than external god-substitutes—but the fundamental concept is still there, and acted upon in the comics. In short, there is some substance to the idea that Vergere is drawing on the earliest concepts of Jedi philosophy.