From "The Dharma of Star Wars." Copyright 2005 by Matthew Bortolin. Reprinted by permission of Wisdom Publications.

In Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader makes a decision that changes everything. He chooses to forsake his loyalty to the dark side and to destroy his evil master, Emperor Palpatine, thereby saving his son even as he brings about his own death. Yet Vader's decision is not solely his to make. In part, Vader is carried to that decision by life itself. Vader was born Anakin Skywalker, a slave on a remote world, who by chance met Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. Qui-Gon began Anakin's Jedi training, an education that put him in a position to be tempted by the dark side and later, in the wake of the Clone Wars, led him to become Darth Vader. But something else happened when he met Qui-Gon; he fell in love with a girl named Padmé. He married Padmé, and they had two children, Luke and Leia. Years later it is Luke whose insight and compassion help awaken Anakin. And when he realizes the truth of things, Anakin acts for the good of others. He seizes Emperor Palpatine and saves his son's life.

Through Anakin's experience we can see that life is a vast web of cause and effect, conditioning all aspects of the universe. When we look at where we are right now we cannot say we got here all by ourselves. Whether in a prison or a penthouse, our upbringing, our education, even our nationality, all helped create our present location, status, personality, and state of mind. We cannot stand outside the network of cause and effect that is life. Rather, we are part of and conditioned by the perpetual movement of life.

Without the Emperor and his entire Sith legacy there would have been no threat to the Republic. There would have been no trade embargo of Naboo, no crisis in the Senate, no secession movement, no Clone Wars, and no destruction of the Jedi Order. Without the trade embargo of Naboo it is unlikely Anakin Skywalker would have ever found his way to the Jedi Temple, met Palpatine, and turned to the dark side. He had never turned to the dark side he would not have battled his son. His son, in fact, would have never been born had he not met Padmé. And their meeting was contingent on the trade embargo of Naboo. Anakin needed the trade embargo, needed the Clone Wars, and needed his son to put him in the position to save the galaxy. Had conditions not come together in such a way for Anakin he may never have destroyed the Emperor in Return of the Jedi.

Seen from this perspective, Vader's act of killing the Emperor began long before Luke was born. It began before Anakin was born and even before Palpatine was born. Each of their lives and actions played a crucial role in setting up Anakin's heroic act, but were all conditioned by their interaction with the world-and here conditioned by means nothing more than "influencing and becoming part of." All actions, all thoughts are conditioned by what has come before them and what is occurring simultaneously with them. I have described this as cause and effect-but that is not entirely accurate.

"Cause and effect" suggests a beginning and an end, with one thing clearly the cause and another clearly the effect, but the movement of life is continuous, without start and stop. The phrase cause and effect is also inadequate to describe life's intricate nexus of conditionality because it indicates only a single chain of events. Life, however, is not a two-dimensional line; it is multi-dimensional and conditioned from all directions. Everything has an impact on everything else. Consequently, life is, in a sense, guided by the interaction of conditions. Yet this gives only a partial, and overmechanized, picture of life, for there is another fact we need to consider: human will and action.

. . .

Let us recall Luke's first training session aboard the Millennium Falcon in A New Hope. Obi-Wan instructs Luke, "Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him."

"You mean it controls your actions?" Luke asks.

"Partially, but it also obeys your commands."

We know from looking at Darth Vader's experience with the Emperor that life conditions us. When Obi-Wan says the Force "partially" controls our actions, it is like saying life conditions us. We are, of course, active participants in our lives. We are conditioned by the universe, but conversely, we condition it. Ideas, beliefs, salient issues flow through us from our friends, neighbors, world events, and the media. They become part of us, alter our thoughts and our actions, but we also add a bit of ourselves to them. Thoughts, feelings, and world opinion are both collective and individual. The collective contributes to our individual thoughts, feelings, and opinions; our individual thoughts, feelings, and opinions help make up the collective. The collective influences the individual, and the individual influences the collective. The two interpenetrate one another.

While life partially controls or conditions our actions, it is also influenced or "commanded" by those same actions; the Force obeys our commands. Luke's destiny in the original Star Wars Trilogy appeared to have only two possible conclusions. Either he would do as Obi-Wan and Yoda had instructed him to do and destroy his father, or he would turn to the dark side. Everything in his life propels him to this fork in the road. Yet when he reaches it he chooses neither. Instead he casts his lightsaber aside; he does not kill, and he does not fall to the dark side. He makes a choice that was not controlled by destiny.

With all the talk of interdependence, interpenetration, emptiness, and conditionality we may be tempted to conclude that our existence itself is just an illusion. That is not so. We are really here. It would be no "illusion" if you were punched in the nose, it would be painful!

. . .

Yoda tells Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, "If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan's apprentice." The teaching of karma demonstrates that our actions today stay with us and impact us tomorrow. Obi-Wan's apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, becomes Darth Vader-in that action he makes certain his journey down the dark path, and once he starts it consumes him, dominating future actions. Vader becomes trapped by the dark side; every evil act he commits takes him deeper into the dark side and makes it harder and harder for him to break the karmic chain of his malefactions until evil seemed his only choice.

It we take Yoda's words above as absolute truth we may think that, like Vader seems to be, we too are dominated by our choices and actions, that they entirely consume us, but recall the following from Return of the Jedi.

"You cannot escape your destiny," Obi-Wan tells Luke. "You must face Darth Vader again."

"I can't kill my own father," Luke says, almost pleading.

"Then the Emperor has already won."

Later, as Luke stands over his fallen father prepared to destroy him the Emperor is ecstatic. He gleefully says, "Good! Your hate has made you powerful. Now, fulfill your destiny and take your father's place at my side!"

By this point, Luke is a Jedi, a Jedi that sees through the shroud of the dark side and perceives life with right view. To kill Vader, as Obi-Wan wants, will place Luke exactly where the Emperor desires him-at the Sith Lord's side. Either choice will produce the same result. But Luke is not controlled by destiny. He is free to choose, and his choice saves the galaxy.

While our present state of mind is in large part based on our past karma, we must not adhere to a doctrine of determinism and believe that everything that happens is simply fate or that our past actions enmesh us into a specific pattern of behavior from which we can never escape. Yoda claims Vader's destiny is forever dominated by the dark side, but we know that is not true. There is no doubt that Vader's karma leads to the dark side and keeps him there for decades, but his will allows him to choose a different path, a path of compassion. That new choice saves his son and frees Anakin from the dark-side prison he had constructed. Our karma can set us down paths that consume us, but those paths need not "forever dominate our destiny." We have will, and we can choose our actions for good or ill. If we pay attention to the teaching of karma, we see that it actually emphasizes rather than ignores the importance of human will. And despite its often-mentioned "destiny," the Star Wars saga as a whole portrays agreement with this view.

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