THE BLOG
12/20/2013 11:02 am ET | Updated Feb 19, 2014

The Dharma of the Rings

Can The Lord of the Rings be understood as a new Buddhist myth - a spiritual teaching that speaks to our situation today?

Tolkien's Middle-earth may not seem very susceptible to a Buddhist reading, given its uncompromising dualism between good and evil, and apparent endorsement of violence against evil. It's clear that the only good orc is a dead orc.

Nevertheless, The Lord of the Rings resonates with Buddhist concerns and perspectives, because it is about a special kind of quest. Frodo leaves home not to slay a dragon or win a chest of jewels, but to let go of something. He renounces the Ring not for any selfish purpose, not even to gain enlightenment, yet it nevertheless transforms him profoundly. His journey implies something important about the Buddhist path today.

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 the world.

Frodo's quest is not an attempt to transcend Middle-earth and attain 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-izes -- makes real -- his own nonduality with the world by doing everything he can to help it. And by doing what he can to transform it, Frodo transforms himself. He becomes selfless. Frodo does not change because he destroys the Ring. He changes because of his determined 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 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, yet the unsuccessful consequences of bad intentions are just as important. The best example is Gollum. He does not want to help Frodo and Sam. He wants to get his hands on the Ring, and to gain the opportunity 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 relinquish the Ring, Gollum appears once more to bite off Frodo's finger - and fall into the fiery pit.

In Middle-earth this karmic law seems to work 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. This reminds us that 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.

That was one of the Buddha's great insights: 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. My sense of self is a product of 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. To become a different kind of person is to experience the world in a different way. When your mind changes, the world changes. And when you respond differently to the world, the world usually responds differently to you.

The Karma of Power

What is the Ring? Its magnetic-like 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, and transforming us. Power corrupts, and the absolute power of the Ring corrupts absolutely.

Power wants to be used. The Ring has a will of its own. It gets heavier. It wants Frodo to slip it on his finger. If he did this, though, it would corrupt him, as it corrupted Sauron and Gollum. Gollum is Frodo's alter ego, a constant reminder to Frodo of what he could become.

In The Lord of the Rings lust for power motivates the greed, ill will and delusions that drive the plot. Sauron rules a totalitarian and imperialistic state. Saruman transforms his domain into a fearsome military machine. Defeated, he slinks off to the shire, where he introduces an ecologically destructive industrial revolution. These are the three enemies that are fought and defeated. But are they the same thing: different expressions of the will to power over Middle-earth and its creatures?

In our world, too, it is not so much physical craving as lust for power that motivates the greed, ill will and delusion now endangering the earth and our societies. People have always craved power, but our situation has become grave today because, due to new technologies, there is so much more power to crave and use. And, due to modern institutions, that power tends to function in impersonal ways that assume a life of their own.

Our collective attempt to dominate the earth technologically is related to the disappearance of the sacred. If we can no longer rely on God to take care of us, we must secure ourselves, by subduing nature until it meets all our needs and satisfies all of our purposes - which is, of course, never. Because our efforts to exploit the earth's resources are damaging it so much, the fatal irony is that our efforts to secure ourselves may destroy us. Is there a better example of collective karma? We are one with the earth. When the biosphere becomes sick, we become sick. If the biosphere dies, so do we. A technological Ring of Power is not the solution to these problems.