The Lord of the Rings as a modern Buddhist myth? Not very plausible on the face of it, given that it’s derived largely from the Nordic and Germanic sagas. Moreover, the story is built on an uncompromising and quite un-Buddhist 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 go on his adventures because he wants to go. 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 [his fellow hobbit] Sam expect to be destroyed soon after the Ring is cast into the fire, which nearly happens. The pair’s 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—just like the needs of our beleaguered earth today. The larger world has begun to impinge on Frodo’s Shire. If he were to decline the task and hide at home, he would not escape the impending dangers. (When we consider the ecological and social crises that have begun to impinge on our own world, is our situation today any different?)
You may ask, 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 realizes—makes real—his own nonduality with the world by doing everything he can to help it. And by doing so, 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 challenge and toughen him, giving him courage to be the Ringbearer. His strength of will and heart grows from these encounters, which teach him initiative, perseverance, and eventually self-reliance.
The Karma of the Rings
In the Tibetan mandala, known as the Wheel of Life, the six realms of samsara are depicted within a circle. At its core are a cock, a snake, and a pig, symbolizing the three poisons of greed, ill will, and delusion, which are the source of all suffering. Curling around them are two paths: on one side, the white upward path of virtue and spiritual development, on the other, the dark downward path of evil and its painful consequences. The Lord of the Rings illustrates both alternatives in the moral progress and deserved rewards of Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, and Gandalf, and in the utter failure and eventual destruction of Sauron, Gollum, Saruman, and Wormtongue.
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, to be destroyed along with the Ring.
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 is my character 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.
Consistent with this view of karma, the traditional “six realms” of samsara do not need to be distinct worlds or planes of existence through which we transmigrate after death, according to our karma. They can also be the different ways we experience this world as our character, and therefore our attitude toward the world, changes.
Adapted from The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons © 2004 David R. Loy and Linda Goodhew, The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., wisdompubs.org