- Hobbits as Buddhists and an Eye for an "I"
When a medieval scholar friend of mine1 (knowing that I am a longstanding student of Zen), asked me if I would read J. R. R. Tolkien's famous fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings to see what Buddhism, if any, could be culled from it, I was not enthusiastic, especially after watching the movie (yes, I watched the movie before I embarked on the text), so full of heroes, their passionate violence, monster-like foes, and fantastic scenarios.2 Hardly the compassion of the Buddha, I thought. The trilogy is as well replete with Christian references and Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and much has been written on these and that, but I decided that that literature would not b e germane to this short and singular investigation. At any rate, I was not encouraged about the project, and yet, a certain character did happen to exhibit one intriguing feature that caught my Buddhist attention from the beginning. And as I began to read deeper into the text, a larger—implausible, some would say—thesis began to form in my mind around this character's one particular attribute. And I thought that at least I might cultivate one's imagination and jar one's thinking in productive ways. So I confess that the inferences I make and conclusions I draw here may be a bit fantastic (perhaps to match the material). But, to answer the question: Is there any Buddhism in The Lord of the Rings? Please keep an open mind, and in the spirit of fantasy, indulge my commentary on this quest.
Sauron's Eye can be associated with at least two considered forms of consciousness: will and omnipresence. It is "The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, and to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable."3 Also, we find that "The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him [Frodo], the Eye piercing all shadows . . . Its wrath blazed like a sudden flame and its fear was like a great black smoke, for it knew its deadly peril, the thread upon which hung its doom . . . [I]ts thought was now bent with all its overwhelming force upon the Mountain."4 But will (we will return [End Page 31] to "omnipresence" some other time) is a neutral force. And clearly, Sauron's will is not neutral; it is a profoundly malevolent will. For we can also read that Sauron is a "dreadful menace of power . . . brooding in deep thought and dreadful malice."5 He is full of "policies and webs of fear and treachery . . . stratagems and wars."6
An Eye For An I?
Buddhism is a practice which reveals the true nature of things: self, reality, suffering. So let's more deeply consider the nature of Sauron's corruption. It seems unlikely, from a Buddhist view, that the Oxford scholar's central villain is a simple stand-in for brute evil (as might appear upon a first reading), for if evil is ontological then the only reasonable response to it is to strategize how best to cope with its encounter. This, in fact, is the Christian response to evil. Evil is: it exists a priori as a supernatural force outside of human intervention and its temptations may be successfully resisted through self-discipline and moral strength, and possibly an appeal to the supernatural, but never defeated absolutely by a stratagem of human will. It is true that Frodo struggles to resist the Ring's power, but mere coping is not the Fellowship's strategy. The fact that Tolkien's Fellowship actually undertakes to destroy the Ring through stratagem admits that Sauron's corruption is an emergent property of an underlying and vulnerable source rather than a supernatural, a priori property outside of human intervention.
Instructively, and like the Fellowship, Buddhists as well understand that human suffering possesses an underlying and vulnerable source that can be overcome in human terms, and this vulnerable source of suffering is the human I. The Buddha...