The Power of Karma in “Middle-Earth”

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei 曦 肯

Listen to This:  “I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days — quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice.  If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapor, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens!  And the products of it all will be mainly evil — historically considered.  But the historic version is, of course, not the only one.  All things and deeds have a value in themselves, apart from their “cause” and “effect”.  No man can estimate what is really happening at the moment.  All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is the evil labors with vast power and perpetual success — in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.  So it is in general, and so it is in our own lives.”  Now I ask you, who wrote that?  It was J. R. R. Tolkien to his son Christopher in April 1944.

We may not consideration reading as a form of meditation, but it can be.   Reading as meditation is going beyond the words to find meaning.  It is about contemplating what we read in order to find new useful and productive lessons to support our practice and understanding of the dharma.  Nothing is off limits (well almost nothing).  Finding the subjects of Buddhist thought does not need to come from Buddhist texts.

Can we ever consider The Lord of the Rings as a modern Buddhist myth, or a story that can teach dharma?  That may not be very plausible, on the face of it.  As is well known, Middle-earth is derived largely from the Nordic and Germanic sagas that Tolkien knew so well.  Although god is never mentioned, the tale also expresses some Christian influence, according to Tolkien’s own admission.  There is no hint, either in the story or in the sources, of any Buddhist influences.

Tolkien’s fantasy world is built on a radical and quite un-Buddhist dualism between unredeemable evil (Sauron, Saruman) and uncompromising goodness (Gandalf, Frodo).  The good as well as the bad use violence in pursuit of their goals, and we are entertained with plenty of it.  Stupid and cruel as they may be, orcs remain sentient beings.  From a Buddhist perspective, they must have the same Buddha-nature as all other living beings, with the potential to “wake up” from their greed, ill will, and delusion.  The Bodhisattva vow to “save” all sentient beings, in the sense of helping them to realize their true nature, can apply here too.   In Middle-earth, no one has any interest in helping orcs awaken.  The only good orc is a dead orc.

And yet … Tolkien’s masterpiece achieves what he intended, which was to create a modern myth; and myths as we also know have a way of growing beyond their creator’s intentions.  The Lord of the Rings is much more than an endearing fantasy about little hobbits, gruff dwarves, and light-footed elves.  What is it about the tale that makes it so compelling, so “mythic”?  For those of you that have read the saga, have you stopped to consider its potential in teaching the dharma?  One answer, is that despite its European origins it resonates with Buddhist concerns and perspectives.  So, indulge me if you will and let me take you through this mythic story with my Buddhist perspective.  An example of reading as meditation.

Let’s start with the notion of evil.  Evil, for example, is much more nuanced than it appears at first glance.  As Gandalf reminds the Fellowship, “Nothing is evil in the beginning.  Even Sauron was not so.”  Sauron too was corrupted, long ago, by his craving for the Ring.  It is no coincidence that, as the foremost expression of evil, he is never seen.  Sauron is more effective as an abstract image, so powerful that he could not be depicted as a believable person.  The implication, in Buddhist terms, is that evil, too, has no permanent self.  Like everything else, it is a result of causes and conditions that we allow to infect and corrupt our minds.

There is also an essential, Buddhist-like thread of nonviolence that runs throughout the tale.  Despite all the bloodshed, a repeated act of compassion, sparing Gollum’s life for example, is crucial to the plot.  Early in the story, when Frodo comments that it was a pity Bilbo did not stab Gollum when he had a chance, Gandalf contradicts him by saying: “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand.  Pity; and Mercy: not to strike without need.  And he has been well rewarded, Frodo.  Be sure that he took so little result from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so.  With Pity.”  It is important for Frodo’s quest that he learns this important lesson.

There is virtually no role for religion in Middle-earth, because the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.  Nevertheless, The Lord of the Rings can serve as a Buddhist fable in my mind because it is about a spiritual quest readily understandable in terms of the teachings of Buddhism.  I think the story provides a lesson about spiritual engagement for modern Buddhists.  Frodo leaves home not to slay a dragon or win a chest full of jewels, but to LET GO of something, which is what one learns to do when following the Buddhist path.  His renunciation of the Ring is not done to gain enlightenment, yet it nonetheless transforms him spiritually.  The suffering he experiences on the way to Mount Doom deepens him, making him stronger and more compassionate.  As it does for all members of the FELLOWSHIP.

From a socially engaged Buddhist perspective concerned to bring Buddhist teachings to bear on contemporary social issues, one of the sticking aspect of the plot is that Frodo does not WANT to have the adventures he has.  He embarks on the quest because it cannot be evaded.  At the beginning Sam is excited about going to “see elves and all,” but Frodo is more apprehensive, and for good reason.  The Ring must be destroyed, and he is the best one to carry it in some mysterious, inexplicable way as the task has been appointed to him.  There is nothing he hopes to gain from the journey.  By the end, he and Sam expect to be destroyed themselves soon after the Ring is cast into the Chamber of Fire, and indeed they nearly are.  Their total renunciation is a powerful metaphor for Buddhist practice.  As practitioners, we are sometimes willing to give up everything for awakening — but that is the catch.  It is the SELF that seeks to be enlightened, that still wants to be around to enjoy being enlightened.  The self remains the problem.  Frodo and Sam show us something deeper.  They let go of all personal ambition, although not the ambition to do what is necessary to help others.  In Buddhist terms, don’t they become Bodhisattva, even if it is only by definition?

Frodo’s quest is not an attempt to transcend Middle-earth by realizing some higher reality or dimension.  He is simply responding to its needs, which because of historical circumstances have become critical, as are the needs of our troubled planet today.  The larger world beyond what he knows has begun to impinge on his Shire (and ours for that matter).  If Frodo were to decline the task and hide at home, he would not escape the dangers that threaten.  The Dark Lord would soon discover him and his Ring, and the Shire along with the rest of Middle-earth would fall under his control.  When we consider the ecological and social crises that have begun to impinge on our own world in this very moment, is our situation much different?

So is Frodo’s journey a spiritual quest or a struggle to help the world?  In this “Ring Cycle” these two are the same.  Frodo realizes his own non-duality with the world by doing everything he can to help it.  His world needs to be saved, not denied or escaped.  The goal is not another world but another way of living in this one, even as the notion of nirvana is not another place but a liberated way of experiencing this one.  It is interesting to me when I consider that Frodo learns that his world is very different from what he thought it was.  And by discovering that he can transform it, Frodo also transforms HIMSELF.  That is how his selflessness is developed.  Frodo does not change because he destroys the Ring.  He changes because of his tireless “efforts” to destroy the Ring.  The intent of his actions is very clear.  His early adventures on the road to Rivendell challenge and toughen him, giving him the courage to be the Ringbearer.  Consider how his own strength of will develops, and in the process he becomes a heroic character.

Frodo’s journey does more than illustrate the Buddhist path.  It teaches us how karma works and even helps us to understand Buddhism from a contemporary perspective.  Middle-earth is a morally balanced world.  The law of Tolkien’s story is that good intentions lead to good results, while evil intentions end up being self-defeating.  In Buddhist terms, we could say that Middle-earth is structured with karma in mind: the way the main characters act becomes the way Middle-earth responds to them.  What they put out comes back to help or haunt them.  This Buddhist like principle of moral causation is one of the keys to the plot, recurring throughout the saga.

It is easy enough to see how good intentions are rewarded, but the negative consequences of bad intentions are just as important to the positive ending. Positive being a relative thought.   The best example is Gollum.  He does not want to help Frodo and Sam.  He wants to get his hands on the Ring.  To do so, however, he must help them again and again.  When they are lost, he leads them to Mordor.  When they become stuck he shows them a mountain path that leads toward Mount Doom.  At the end, when an exhausted Frodo can no longer resist the lure of the Ring, Gollum appears one last time to bite off Frodo’s finger, and fall into the fiery pit, to be destroyed along with the Ring.  Yet this can happen only because of the compassion toward Gollum repeatedly shown by Frodo and eventually by Sam too.   This is a very important lesson.  Take some time to contemplate it.  Negative consequences of bad intentions can also produce positive results.  The paradox of karma is not easy to see sometimes.

What is the Ring?  Its magnetic attraction is a profound symbol for the karma of power.  We think we use the Ring, but when we use it, it is actually using us, it CHANGES US, this is the essential karmic insight.  Power corrupts, and the absolute power of the Ring corrupts absolutely.  At the end even Frodo can not resist it, as he stands exhausted before the Crack of Doom.  Power wants to be used, as Gandalf realizes and says, “A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo.  It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it.”  The ring has a will of its own.  It gets heavier.  It wants Frodo to slip it on his finger.  If he were to do this, though, it would corrupt him, as it corrupted Sauron and Gollum long ago.  I see Gollum as Frodo’s alter ego, a constant reminder to Frodo of what he could become.  Another notion I ask you to meditate on.

Buddhism has not had much to say about power.  I have spent some time this week researching the subject in the Pali Cannon, and found almost nothing relative to modern-day usage of the subject.  Traditional teachings warn more about sex and other physical cravings, which play almost no role in The Lord of the Rings.  Today one challenge for socially engaged Buddhism is the individual and collective craving for power and influence that can devalue any cultural advancement, which can weaken whatever it encounters.  Sauron and Saruman, like Gollum, no longer have any goal but power itself, the power that is the Ring.  With them Tolkien shows the suffering that results from a quest for power lacking any moral dimension.

In contrast, the strength that Gandalf, Frodo and others demonstrate is shown not by accumulating or exercising power but in their willingness to give it up.  Gandalf has no selfish craving for mastery.  He wishes only to serve.   He is an example of good stewardship.  Gandalf gives us the definition and the model of a modern Bodhisattva.  Is recognizing the Gandalf’s in our world so rare, or is it that the Saurons and Sarumans are so much more visible?  And so much more powerful, in the conventional sense, because in our world it is not so much physical craving as lust for power that motivates the greed, ill will, and willful ignorance now endangering our world.  People have always craved power, but because of modern technologies there is now so much more power to crave and use; and because of modern institutions, such power tends  to function in impersonal ways that assume a life of their own.  If Buddhist teachings cannot help us understand this, perhaps there is something wrong with the way we teach Buddhism.

We need to recover such community and such an ecological sensibility if we are to make it through the dark times that threaten our world today.  We also need new types of Bodhisattva, inspired perhaps by the fresh models that Tolkien’s myth provides for socially engaged Buddhism.  As with Frodo on his improbable quest, it is easy to become discouraged.  There is, however, something to remember at such times.  Frodo’s task was appointed to him in a mysterious way that he did not understand, because it cannot be understood.  The implication is that the mission he and others undertook was successful in the end, because they were a part of something greater than themselves.  For us, too, to be spiritual means opening up to a transformative power that works in us and through us when we do the best we can.  Is that also true for the world that we are non-dual with?  Who knows what is possible, or even what is actually happening today?  Who, for example, anticipated the worldwide collapse of communism in 1989, or the sudden end of South African apartheid in 1994?  The task of socially engaged Bodhisattva is not to unravel the mystery that is our world, but to do what we can to elevate its unsatisfactoriness in the short time we have, especially in times of crisis.  Frodo and Sam discovered many unexpected helpers along their way, and so may we.  But we must first, take the step toward engaging the dharma just as we are.  If we wait to get the knock on our door, we may just miss the opportunity that can change our lives forever, and the unknown reward of such a spiritual journey.

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