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The Dharma of the Rings: A myth for engaged Buddhism?

By David Loy - posted Thursday, 16 September 2004


The Lord of the Rings as a modern Buddhist myth?

Middle-earth is derived from Nordic and Germanic sagas, and is built on a quite unBuddhist dualism between unredeemable evil (Sauron and Saruman) and uncompromising goodness (Gandalf, Frodo etc.). The only good orc is a dead orc.

And yet - despite its European origins - The Lord of the Rings resonates with Buddhist concerns and perspectives. Evil, for example, is much more nuanced than appears at first glance. Sauron is not intrinsically evil: he too was corrupted, long ago, by his craving for the Ring. And a repeated act of compassion is crucial to the plot.

More fundamentally, The Lord of the Rings can serve as a Buddhist fable because it is about a spiritual quest. Frodo leaves home not to slay a dragon or win a chest of jewels, but to let go of something. His renunciation of the Ring is not done for any selfish purpose, not even to gain enlightenment, but it nonetheless transforms him spiritually. The quest is to save the world, which makes him a bodhisattva. Frodo’s journey also implies something important about how to understand the “Buddhist Way” today.

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An Engaged Quest

Frodo does not have his adventures because he wants to have them. He embarks on the quest because it cannot be evaded. The Ring must be destroyed and he is the best one to carry it. There is nothing he hopes to gain from the journey. By the end, he and Sam expect to be destroyed soon after the Ring is cast into the Fire and that almost happens. Their total renunciation is a powerful metaphor. They let go of all personal ambition, although not the ambition to do what is necessary to help others.

Frodo’s quest is not an attempt to transcend Middle-earth, by realising some higher reality. He is simply responding to its needs, which because of historical circumstances (the growing power of Sauron) have become critical, as they have also become for us today, on our beleaguered earth. The larger world has begun to impinge on his (and our) shire. If Frodo were to decline the task and hide at home, he would not escape the dangers that threaten. Is our situation today any different?

So is Frodo’s journey a spiritual quest, or a struggle to help the world? In The Lord of the Rings they are the same thing. Frodo “real-ises” (makes real) his own non-duality with the world by doing everything he can to help it. And by doing what he can to transform it, Frodo 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. His early adventures on the road to Rivendell test and toughen him, giving him courage to be the Ringbearer. His own strength of will and heart grows from these encounters, teaching him self-reliance and developing into his unassuming heroic stature.

Gandalf cannot accompany Frodo and Sam all the way. The plot requires him to fall away, so that they can grow into the role they need to play. Gandalf sacrifices himself defending his colleagues and disappears to undergo his own psychic death and resurrection. Appropriately, that occurs deep in the mines of Moria. Is the same true for our own spiritual paths? No matter how wise and compassionate our teachers may be, they cannot walk the path for us. As our meditations take us down into the dark unconscious of our own minds, we disturb our own deepest fears and must face them ourselves.

The Karma of the Rings

Middle-earth is a Buddhist world because it is structured karmically: good intentions lead to good results, while evil intentions are self-defeating. This Buddhist-like principle of moral causation is one of the keys to the plot, recurring again and again.

It is easy enough to see how good intentions are rewarded, but the reverse consequences of bad intentions are just as important. The best example is of course, Gollum. He does not want to help Frodo and Sam. He wants to get his hands on the Ring and to gain the chance to do this, he must help them time and again. When they are lost he leads them to Mordor, when they become stuck, he shows them a mountain path. And at the end, when an exhausted Frodo is no longer able to renounce the Ring, Gollum appears once more to bite off Frodo’s finger - and fall into the fiery pit.

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In Middle-earth this karmic law works as inexorably as gravity, but, as we know all too well, karma does not work so neatly in our world. Evil often seems to succeed, at least in the short run; goodness has a harder time prevailing. “Here is perhaps the basic difference between the moral structures of Tolkien’s world and our own. We know that intention has nothing to do with result” (Helms, 75).

According to Buddhism, however, intention has a lot to do with results. But karma should not be understood as some inevitable calculus of moral cause and effect, because it is not primarily a teaching about how to control what the world does to us. It is about our own spiritual development: how our lives are transformed by transforming our motivations.

This was the Buddha’s great insight, in an Iron Age India that understood morality in more mechanical ways. Karma is not something I have, it is what I am, and what I am changes according to what I choose to do. This is implied by the Buddhist emphasis on non-self. “I” (re)construct myself by what I intentionally do. My sense of self is a precipitate of my habitual ways of thinking, feeling and acting. Just as my body is composed of the food I eat, so my character is constructed by my conscious choices. People are “punished” or “rewarded” not for what they have done but for what they have become, and what we intentionally do is what makes us what we are.

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This article is based on a talk - "The Dharma of the Rings? Tolkien's Buddhist Myth" - given by David Loy at the University of Sydney, September 9, 2004.



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About the Author

David Loy is a tenured professor in the Faculty of International Studies at Bunkyo University in Chagasaki , Japan.

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