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“Do. Or not do. There is no try.” This little koan from The Empire Strikes Back (the second of the Star Wars movies, or Episode V, depending on your age) has been bouncing around as a meme since 1980 on t-shirts, buttons and then online.
The scene was set in the swamps of Dagobah where a rather whiny Luke Skywalker was being schooled by his mentor, Master Yoda.
I like Yoda. I have read in multiple places that the special effects folks modeled Yoda’s old, wise face (especially the eyes) on photos of Albert Einstein. His voice always sounds like a bit of Kermit the Frog is mixed into it. (Although the puppet was voiced by the wonderful Frank Oz who was not Kermit but was Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Cookie Monster, Bert, and Grover, so perhaps I am hearing all of them.)
Yoda, at about age 900, is wise, but only as wise as his writers.
What did he actually mean to teach Luke with those words?
Some people interpret it to mean that since ultimately you will either accomplish a task or not, if you aren’t going to accomplish something, then there is no point in trying. That is quite unsatisfying as a philosophy. Since none of us can know if we will accomplish a task, how can we decide beforehand whether to try?
Since much of what we learn requires failing before we succeed, I don’t think he means don’t try unless you are going to succeed. That approach would leave many things left undone and many things never experienced.
I’ll give Yoda credit for not being that simplistic.
Let us give the quote a bit more context. Earlier in that movie scene, Luke tries to extract his X-wing ship from the swamp and fails. It actually sinks deeper into the water. Luke had been successful earlier with smaller objects, but this one was overwhelming because of its size.
LUKE: We’ll never get it out now.
YODA: So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?
LUKE: Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.
YODA: No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.
Master Yoda is able to use his mind and The Force to lift the ship from the swamp.
Amazed, Luke says “I don’t believe it!”and Yoda replies “That is why you fail.”
The key then must be in the believing that you can succeed.
It is not that we should not try, but you need to redefine “trying” to be something more than just any attempt. I don’t think Yoda believes that not doing something is an option.
The attempt is not an objective, and unlearning is a large part of learning.
Is it sad that some people have taken cultural references like those in Star Wars films as a kind of philosophy or even a substitute for religion? It is sad to those who have a religion or philosophy. I don’t think it is sad or bad for someone who has neither of those things and is starting on a path.
Can you believe in The Force without equating it to a God that connects and holds everything together? Yes, you can. You can also see it as a cultural reference to that God. I think it works both ways.
Films are like books in holding bits of wisdom. I’m sure that some readers or viewers of the Lord of the Rings, are attached to the line that Gandalf says to Frodo: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Good advice, and like almost all good advice, difficult to follow. Difficult to do. Unlikely to succeed; therefore, not to try?
I think not.
Yoda is a backwards-grammar speaking little philosopher who has 800 years worth of teaching experience and quotes in him that were gathered (by writers) from religion, philosophy and literature. When he says,”Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering,” you hear the Buddha. Or maybe Jesus Christ, or the Tao.
But the Buddha he is not.
I don’t think Yoda was exposed to any of Earth’s culture in his far away galaxy. It reminds me of when I first took religion courses in college. As I studied one religion after another that I had known little or nothing about before that time, the major realization was that more often than not we have arrived at the same places by different paths. I believe beings in another galaxy would do the same.
Yoda’s little koans are useful in the same way that the koans are useful.
If you read these quotes:
Any fool can know. The point is to understand.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.
The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.
and they resonate for you, how much does it matter who the speaker turns out to be?
Was it Yoda or a philosopher? Are they from scriptures or the dogma? If I reveal to you that it was Einstein, do you need to know that he was spiritual but not religious, a scientist and a believer, someone who sought a theory to explain it all even though he probably knew he would never find it, in order to appreciate his words?
A Zen monk returns to his room to find that the place has been robbed. Almost everything in the sparsely furnished place is gone. All that is left is a heavy cast iron pan.
He sees the thief outside running towards the road. He picks up the pan and the runs after him, yelling “Wait! You forgot this.”
Perhaps our lives are like that of the wise Chinese farmer whose horse ran off.
When his neighbor came to console him the farmer said, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
When his horse returned the next day with a herd of horses following her, the neighbor came to congratulate him on his good fortune.
“Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the farmer.
Then, when the farmer’s son broke his leg trying to ride one of the new horses, the neighbor came to console him again.
“Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the farmer.
When the army passed through, conscripting men for war, they passed over the farmer’s son because of his broken leg.
When the foolish neighbor came to congratulate the farmer that his son would be spared, again the farmer said, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
When do we expect the story to end?
adapted from Steve Hagen’s Buddhism Plain and Simple
There is a force that connects all things. That probably makes many modern Americans think of the Force in the Star Wars films, but it goes further back. It is the Tao.
When I first read the little teaching story below – many years before Star Wars or reading Joseph Campbell or studying Zen Buddhism – I thought of the George Harrison song, “Within You, Without You”
“We were talking-about the space between us all
… we’re all one, and life flows on within you and without you.”
There once lived a young, curious fish. He was inclined to ask his older and wiser friend many questions.
“I always hear of this thing called the ocean,” the young fish said. “What is it?”
“Why, the ocean is that which surrounds you on all sides,” replied the older and wiser fish.
“That cannot be,” protested the young fish. “If it truly surrounded me on all sides, I would be able to see it!”
“You cannot see it because the ocean is both within you and outside of you.”
“But how can I tell if it exists if I cannot see it,” asked the bemused young fish.
“You cannot see it, but you can feel it,” replied the older fish.
The Tao or Dao (pronounced dow) is a Chinese concept signifying ‘way’, ‘path’, ‘route’, or sometimes more loosely, ‘doctrine’ or ‘principle.’ The concept of Tao was shared with Confucianism, Chán and Zen Buddhism and more broadly throughout East Asian philosophy and religion in general.
Tao signifies the essence or fundamental nature of the universe. In the foundational text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, Laozi explains that Tao is not a ‘name’ for a ‘thing’ but the underlying natural order of the universe whose ultimate essence is difficult to circumscribe. Tao is thus “eternally nameless.”
I realize that the study of koans is correctly connected to the study of Buddhism and is serious study. I have been posting some of these small stories and aphorisms that are used to teach and explicate. I never meant them to be an introduction to the study of Buddhism or even meditation. But they might be the introduction to that study for some people.
I read online that Rubin was riding a city bus when she had an “epiphany.” “The days are long, but the years are short. Time is passing, and I’m not focusing enough on the things that really matter.”
She decided to give a year to a happiness project. the subtitle of her book gives you an idea of her approach: “Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.”
I first saw the book on the “New Books” shelf at my local library. I flipped through the book and then checked it out because I could tell that her project involved trying some of the wisdom from the past as well as current research, while not ignoring popular culture. It is not approach that will get you attention from “serious” seekers, but it is probably closer to where most people are in their lives.
Some of the things that she decides are worth pursuing are worth pursuing: a source of happiness can be the introducing more novelty and challenge into our lives. Some suggestions are already well know – money can help buy happiness – with a caveat, when that money is spent wisely.
I found ideas that I had already accepted myself. For example, the physical world and the peace and order of it contributes to your inner calm – or lack thereof.
She also came to believe that small changes often make the biggest differences. Like a little koan.
Rubin posted online that she has looked at some classic koans and some non-Buddhist aphorisms that can be used in your own koan project as small teaching moments.
Two monks were arguing about a flag.
One said, “The flag is moving.”
The other said, “The wind is moving.”
The sixth patriarch happened to pass by. He said, “Not the wind, not the flag. Mind is moving.
That is a classic koan. I have observed the shimmer of trees and realized that it was not the trees and not the wind. It was my mind.
What do I mean by that? I am not able to tell you.
I have collected some aphorisms myself, including some I think of as “American koans.” Here are some of the aphorisms Rubin found that might be part of your own happiness, or koan, project.
Robert Frost: “The best way out is always through.”
Francis Bacon and Heraclitus: “Dry light is ever the best.”
T. S. Eliot: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.”
Mark 4:25: “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.”
Diana Vreeland: “The eye has to travel.”
Gertrude Stein “I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it.”
G. K. Chesterton. ‘It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.’”
Hogen was a Chinese Zen teacher. He lived alone in a small temple in the country.
One day, four traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm themselves. He allowed them to do so.
While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and objectivity. He joined them and said, “Look over there. There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?”
One of the monks replied, “From the Buddhist viewpoint, everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind.”
“Your head must feel very heavy,” observed Hogen, “if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind.”