A Transport to Beginner's Mind: The Zen of R2-D2 by Matthew Bortolin {Review}

If this is the very first time you learn the basics of Zen practice, what a delight. If it’s not, if you’ve sat zazen half your life and spent a lot of time studying the emptiness of form and the form of emptiness, this book is what you need. It will take you back to that beautiful chance to experience your beginner mind anew.

 

By Kellie Schorr

Everyone needs a chance to go back.

I was eleven years old when Star Wars IV: A New Hope hit theaters in the spring of 1977. I wasn’t new to science fiction. By then, I’d watched re-runs of every episode of Star Trek at least three times, knew half the dialogue from The Day the Earth Stood Still, and had seen every single Planet of the Apes that had been released. Still, Star Wars was something different.

It looked like I imagined space looked. It felt like I thought the future might feel (even though the very first sentence reminds us Star Wars is actually set in the past—“A long, long time ago…” to be precise). The movie made me cheer, and laugh, and fly through galaxies.

For six months every paper towel tube and ball point pen in our house was a lightsaber. Star Wars wasn’t just “something I watched.” It was part of my life.

In the spring of 1999, I bought tickets in advance, arrived at the theater two hours early, and shifted in my seat waiting for Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace to begin. I explained to my brand new girlfriend (now my wife—miraculously) everything about the movies, the books, the Jedi, and blue milk. Listening to the other die-hard fans, many in costume, she turned to me and said smiling, “I’m surrounded by super-excited nerds, and you’re the biggest one!” Then the music began and…

I hated it.

It was silly (looking at you, Jar-Jar), unfocused with little real conflict, and full of stereotypes and nonsense pseudo-science (midichlorians, what?). The biggest problem, however, wasn’t the movie or anything George Lucas could have fixed. I simply wasn’t eleven anymore. I was 34 and had lost my awe of hyperspace, my giggles at Chewie’s howls, and my wide-eyed view of the Force. I had lost what Zen would call my “beginner’s mind.”

The Zen of R2-D2 by Matthew Bortolin starts in another “long, long, time ago” with Bodhidharma in his cave explaining that the Chinese philosophers of their time had lost their beginner’s mind as well.

Through this short book—that moves like a speeder on Endor—Bortolin covers the basics of Zen through the stories and scenes of the Star Wars Universe. He hits all the important space ports: zazen, present mind, emptiness, Buddha-nature, non-duality, karma, and the Heart Sutra. It’s an ambitious and entertaining exploration of Zen 101.

Although he incorporates ideas and scenes ranging from A New Hope to The Last Jedi, the novels and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the vast majority of the book is centered around Luke and Rey on the sacred island of Ahch-To dealing with the personal conflicts over the value of the Jedi Order. It’s an apt analogy of the lessons of Bodhidharma and the enduring value of Zen.

Do you need to understand Star Wars to get something from this book? Yes, it’s full of references, vocabulary and world-specific markers. Do you need to understand Zen? No, not at all. It’s better if you don’t.

If this is the very first time you learn the basics of Zen practice, what a delight. If it’s not, if you’ve sat zazen half your life and spent a lot of time studying the emptiness of form and the form of emptiness, this book is what you need. It will take you back to that beautiful chance to experience your beginner mind anew.

From a narrative standpoint, the book is sort of a mess.

It is framed as a fictional conversation between the author and two cosplayers, Anthony and Kenny, in homage to Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) and Kenny Baker (R2-D2). However, sometimes it is written as the author speaking to Anthony and other times it is written as the author speaking to C-3P0 and R2-D2, and at other times the author breaks the fourth wall and seems to be talking directly to us (“Turn the page and learn more.”). Still the narrative flows smoothly from one topic to the next.

Interestingly, R2-D2 doesn’t really do much in this book. There are several examples of him being an agent of action (not thought or dogma) and saving the day, but the heavy lifting is really done by Luke’s inability to stay in the present, and Rey’s desperate search for self.

While this wasn’t the “love song to R2-D2” that I was expecting, in Zen-like grace it moved past my projection of what the book “should be” and brought me to what it actually is: a wonderful chance to see Zen with that eleven year old mind that loved exploring the universe and discovering it is within me.

After my horrible feeling watching Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, I spent a few weeks spewing about my disappointment when I noticed all of my friends were saying, “My kids loved it.” Then I knew what the problem was—Lucas hadn’t changed. He made the same movie as the first one 22 years before, a movie for kids who love space stories. It wasn’t him losing his imagination, it was me (and the bulk of his established fandom) who needed something different now.

The best Star Wars experience I had since that day in 1977 happened two years ago at the very end of The Last Jedi. A young boy, a nobody, shows a little sign of Jedi power. My heart sang, because it signaled that Star Wars was changing, finally growing beyond the canon.

That little scene affirmed that the Force isn’t about bloodline and destiny; it is no longer just a Skywalker story. It’s a story for anyone. That’s what this book is telling us about Zen. It’s not about scholarship and merit. Zen is for anyone, even if we learned about it “a long, long time ago.”

 

Photo: Simon and Schuster

Editor: John Lee Pendall

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