Note: In what follows it is not intended to make the claim that Tolkien, a devout Christian, was a crypto-Buddhist. The intent is merely to convey what I, a Jodoshinshu Buddhist, get from reading Tolkien through that lens. Also, it should be noted that a deep reading of the Lord of the Rings is helpful in approaching the following essay as we make little attempt to provide clear explanations or proofs regarding the characters, events or conceptual themes in that work.
The Lord of the Rings (hereinafter LotR), by J. R. R. Tolkien, contains a great deal of material which speaks to issues near and dear to Jodo Shinshu Buddhists. After all, it is redolent with Pure Land imagery (as in descriptions of Lothlórien and Rivendell), LotR also develops themes relating to the calling of the name (of ‘Elbereth’), the Bodhisattva ideal (through Elrond and Gandalf), the dangers of self-power (as evident in Sauron, Saruman, Gollum, Boromir, Denethor, the Rings of Power, and the Uruk-hai), the limitations of the Pratyeka Buddha ideal (through Tom Bombadil), the inability to do good despite our best intentions (as seen in Frodo’s inability to destroy the Ring) and the value of compassion (which Bilbo, Gandalf, and Frodo show towards Gollum).
At present, I will only touch on these topics in a broad and suggestive way rather than going into great detail or with any attempt at comprehensiveness. For instance, there will be no scholarly discussions regarding any possible relationship between the Elven realm of Lórien presided over by Galadriel and her consort, Celeborn, which is located in Middle-Earth and the garden of the same name located in Valinor (the Undying Lands, where only immortals reside). Nor will I be discussing the likelihood (or symbolic meaning) of Glorfindel being the Elf of the same name who was head of the House of the Golden Flower.
I will place in bold such terms and phrases as can provide further points for comparative study.
Interconnectedness, Light and Pure Lands
One of the basic themes of Buddhism, reflected in the LotR, is the interconnectedness of all life. Taetestu Unno remarks:
This interconnectedness [of] life, however, extends not only to humans but to all beings, both animate and inanimate. Based upon the central Mahayana philosophy of interdependence and inter-penetration…
Shinran Shonin has written:
The [infinite life and light (wisdom and compassion) of the] Tathagata pervades countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings, thus plant, trees and land all attain Buddhahood.
Taetetsu Unno, in reference to this quote, explains:
The Tathagata or Buddha as fundamental reality … provid[es] the source of life and creativity. This source fuels the energy in nature, so that plants, trees and land fully realize their potentials. The same source enables human beings to become liberated from their ego-self and thus become truly human. This is none other than Buddha-nature actualized and attaining its fullest flowering. Human Beings, animals, plants, and the land all attain Buddhahood.
The idea of trees attaining their fullest flowering and attaining Buddhahood can be best seen in the lives and wisdom of the Ents: especially in Treebeard/Fangorn; while the idea of land and plants attaining their fullest flowering is, perhaps, best seen in descriptions of Lothlorien which are similar to those of the Pure Land of Amida.
Sukhavati (‘Land of Utmost Bliss’), the Western Pure Land of Amida (the Buddha of unhindered light and infinite life) is described as follows:
[T]his buddha-land continuously produces heavenly music, and the ground is yellow gold. In the six periods of the day and night, the heavens rain down māndārava flowers. In this land throughout the early morning, due to the precepts, all sentient beings have an abundant multitude of exquisite flowers.
In describing Lothlórien, the Sindarin Elf, Legolas, exclaims:
That is the fairest of all the dwellings of my people. There are no trees like the trees of that land. For in the autumn their leaves fall not, but turn to gold. Not till the spring and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers; and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey.
Frodo was also struck by the quality of Lothlorien’s light, by the land’s ineffability, antiquity and newness as well as its purity or stainlessness:
Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien, there was no stain.
Similarly, Śākyamuni praises Amida’s light:
Amida Buddha’s Light is of the finest quality; it is the most excellent of all that is good; it is pleasing beyond compare; it is superb and unparalleled. Amida Buddha’s Light is pure, serene, and unblemished and lacks nothing. Amida Buddha’s Light is incomparably excellent…
The flowers, the yellow and golden colors, the quality of the light, the lack of blemish, the music coming from the land (not otherwise mentioned in this essay), are all very similar in descriptions of Lothlorien and Sukhavati. The time-dilation felt in those lands (also not mentioned here), the healing of physical wounds and emotional stresses (again, not mentioned) might also be taken as significant similarities; not to mention a certain vagueness about whether one is somehow both in the world and removed from the world at one and the same time while in those lands.
These are just a few of the similarities that immediately come to mind when reading Tolkien’s LoTR in the light of Jodoshinshu.
The Boddhisattva Ideal, Wisdom and Giving
Elrond, the half-Elven, clearly embodies the Boddhisattva ideal in resisting the temptation to pass over the ‘sundering seas‘ to Elvenhome in the West (the Blessed Realm of Aman) and stay there enjoying bliss and peace, instead choosing to remain in Middle Earth and endure—together with all life—pain and loss, until his work is ended. While some Elves seem quite content to keep to themselves and do not become actively involved in the plight of the other kindreds (indicative of the Arhat ideal), others, like Elrond, do concern themselves with the larger issues and events of the outside world. To such Elves as these (like Elrond and Galadriel), the following words from the Lotus Sutra aptly apply:
I see bodhisattvas
Dwelling in forests, radiating light,
Alleviating the suffering of beings in the hells
And causing them to enter the Buddha path.
I also see heirs of the Buddhas
Who have never fallen asleep,
And are constantly wandering in forests
In search of the Buddha path.
I see some who are pure like jewels,
Endowed with integrity
And faultless in behavior…
Furthermore, I see heirs of the Buddhas …
Who have the power of perseverance
And patiently endure …
Having single-mindedly rid themselves of inner confusion
They are meditating in mountain forests.
I also see bodhisattvas seeking
For the highest path,
Who are giving food and drink,
And a hundred kinds of medicine…
They give superb garments and clothing…
And priceless robes…
They give clean garden groves
Full of flowers and fruits,
Fountains and bathing pools…
Thus they give such various excellent things,
With joy and vigor,
Seeking the supreme path.
Wisdom and the capacity for giving are also important themes in the LoTR. Galadriel’s consort, Celeborn, is described by her as possessing these qualities:
…the Lord of the Galadhrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle Earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of Kings.
Nevertheless, it is Galadriel who bestows the greatest gift of all: the Phial of Galadriel (which, regrettably, we will not discuss in this essay – though this is briefly mentioned in a comment below).
Self-power, Other-power and Calling the Name
The Ring of Power is the ultimate symbol of self-power in the LotR. This One Ring was made by the Dark Lord, Sauron, to help him bring all of Middle-Earth under his dominion.
The fallen Wizard, Saruman, modeled his dwelling (Isengard) and its tower (Orthanc) on the realm of Sauron (Mordor), and its tower (Barad-dûr).
This is telling because Isengard means ‘Iron Fortress’ and is thus indicative of the Kali Yuga [or ‘Iron Age’], and thus of the rise of Mappo [the third and last age of the decline of the Dharma]). Orthanc means ‘Cunning Mind‘ and is thus indicative of self-power calculation).
Saruman also imitated Sauron in employing Orcs as servants. The largest and most vicious breed of Orc was the ‘Uruk-hai’. This term, coincidentally, is very close to one of the Japanese terms for self-power calculation: hakarai.
In Freedom and Necessity in Shinran’s Concept of Karma, Ueda Yoshifumi describes the import of the term, hakarai:
Although burdened with karmic evil, we are not aware of its working, believing ourselves capable of choosing good over evil, we value as essentially worthy our aspirations to perform good as best we can. To become free of hakarai, then, is to awaken to our karmic evil and to our actual ignorance of [and incapacity to perform] good and evil.
That the cunning and calculating mind of Saruman is governed by hakarai is clear from Gandalf’s narration of his meeting with Saruman, wherein Saruman declares:
A new Power has arisen. Against it, there is no hope. With it, there is such hope as we never had before. None can now doubt its victory, which is near at hand. We fought it in vain—and foolishly. We knew much but not enough. We looked always at it from the outside and through a mist of old falsehood and hate; and we did not consider its high and ultimate purpose. We saw not the reasons, but only the things done, and some of those seemed evil; but they were done under necessity. There has been a conspiracy to hinder and frustrate knowledge, wisdom, and government. The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning. The day of the Elves is over. But Our Days are begun! The Power grows, and I shall grow as it grows, until all things are ours. And listen, Gandalf, my old friend,” he said, coming near and speaking now suddenly in a soft voice. “In the end, I—or we, if you will join with me—we may come to control that Power. We can bide our time. We can keep our thoughts in our hearts. There need not be any real change of purpose—only of method. Why not use this new strength? By it we may well accomplish all and more than all that we have striven to do with the help of the weak and foolish.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The History of Middle-earth VII: The Treason of Isengard, The Council of Elrond (2) Fifth Version
As we have said, Saruman modeled himself upon Sauron, the epitome, embodiment and personification of self-power and self-will (hakarai) in the LotR, for it is he that forges (notice the double entendre in the term) the Ring of Power.
One ring to rule them all,
One ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all
And in the darkness bind them.
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
He also forges the nine rings “for mortal men doomed to die” which he bestows as ‘gifts‘ (a negative reflection of the gifts of the Elves) to “kings, sorcerers, and warriors of old” who are thus enslaved and become Nazgul (or Ring Wraiths), “shadows under his great shadow”. These Nazgul are Sauron’s primary servants.
The concept of hakarai / jiriki (self-serving calculation / self-power) is diametrically opposed to the concept of Tariki (or Other Power) which is a forsaking of calculation (or cunning) and self-will (or forging – in the sense of both ‘making’ and ‘deceit’) through sincerely and joyfully entrusting ourselves to the encompassing and penetrative virtue of Amida Buddha (the Buddha of unhindered light and infinite life). Gratitude for being grasped, never to be abandoned, and this joyful trusting of the power of the Primal Vow (hongan) manifest as calling the Name.
Deep Hearing of the Name that Calls and Calling the Name
In the LotR it is the Name of Elbereth that is called by the High-Elves. We first hear of Elbereth in the chapter “Three is company” when the Hobbits are hiding from an approaching Nazgul and Frodo is struggling with the temptation to put on the Ring of Power.
As Frodo watched he saw something dark pass across the lighter space between two trees, and then halt. It looked like the black shade of a horse led by a smaller black shadow. The black shadow stood close to the point where they had left the path, and it swayed from side to side. Frodo thought he heard the sound of snuffling. The shadow bent to the ground, and then began to crawl towards him.
Once more the desire to slip on the Ring came over Frodo; but this time it was stronger than before. So strong that, almost before he realized what he was doing, his hand was groping in his pocket. But at that moment there came a sound like mingled song and laughter. Clear voices rose and fell in the starlit air. The black shadow straightened up and retreated. It climbed on to the shadowy horse and seemed to vanish across the lane into the darkness on the other side. Frodo breathed again.
This is a perfect description of the phenomenology of temptation and the failure of jiriki / hakarai to resist temptation and make the choice of good over evil of its own accord. Nevertheless, temptation retreats and vanishes as the virtue of the Name approaches, for the Elves approaching Frodo and the Nazgul are singing a hymn to Elbereth:
Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
O Light to us that wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!
Gilthoniel! O Elbereth!
Clear are thy eyes and bright thy breath!
Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee
In a far land beyond the Sea.
O stars that in the Sunless Year
With shining hand by her were sown,
In windy fields now bright and clear
We see your silver blossom blown!
O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
Thy starlight on the Western Seas.
Frodo, however, does not deeply hear and respond to the calling of the name until the attack of the Nazgul beneath Weathertop, when, having given in to the temptation to put on the Ring, Frodo enters the shadow-world of the Nazgul:
At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground and he heard himself crying aloud: ‘O Elbereth Gilthoniel!’ At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy. A shrill cry rang out in the night; and he felt a pain like a dart of poisoned ice pierce his left shoulder.
Notice that Tolkien doesn’t say that Frodo “called the name” which might indicate that such was done out of self-power calculation, seeking to achieve a prudent, self-serving effect, but rather that he “heard himself crying aloud” – a clear indication of the deep hearing of the name and the Other-Power aspect of the call.
The leader of the Nazgul, the Witch-King of Angmar, was neither slain nor greatly discomfitted by Frodo’s sword-stroke. But, as Aragorn proclaims: “More deadly to him was the name of Elbereth.”
Healing the Wound of Ego-Infatuation and Self-Serving Calculation
The Witch-King pierced Frodo’s shoulder with his Morgul-knife, a splinter of which broke off in the wound and was making its way to Frodo’s heart which would have caused Frodo to become a wraith himself. When Frodo finally awakens, Gandalf tells him:
Elrond is a master of healing, but the weapons of our Enemy are deadly. To tell you the truth, I had very little hope; for I suspected that there was some fragment of the blade still in the closed wound. But it could not be found until last night. Then Elrond removed a splinter. It was deeply buried and it was working inwards.
It has been said that:
… the Buddha, when a Bodhisattva, found a barb in the human heart, which, when extracted, one no longer runs about nor sinks down.
This ‘running about’ refers to the futile motions of self-power calculative acts, which are likened to the movements of a fish out of water; while ‘sinking down’ refers to unconsciousness and heedlessness of reality caused by being weighed down under the sway of distracting thoughts.
Gandalf sums up this teaching about the ‘barb’ (or splinter):
‘Don’t be alarmed!’ said Gandalf. ‘It is gone now. It has been melted. And it seems that Hobbits fade very reluctantly. I have known strong warriors of the Big People who would quickly have been overcome by that splinter…
Which is to say, one’s own strength (however great it may be) is insufficient to resist, let alone remove, the splinter of self-power calculation and headlessness of reality from the human heart, for the weapons of the Enemy truly are deadly. It is only in going for refuge, in entrusting oneself to the Perfect Wisdom and Absolute Compassion of that which is True and Real that avails against such an enemy and it’s weapons.
This is the ultimate meaning of the teaching of Gandalf who:
…so often counselled [his] friends to suspect even their own hands when dealing with the enemy.
And with that I will leave you to your own researches, for it was only my intent to indicate how Tolkien’s LotR might speak to one who reads it, as I do, through the lens provided by Shinran Shonin and Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.
Concepts for Further Consideration
Light encircling the head
The ‘star-brow’ of the Elendili (“the Faithful”) can be related to one of the benefits of shinjin (true entrusting or faith):
Unhindered light constantly illumines the person of shinjin … Constantly illumines means constantly protects … hence, the Buddha‘s light encircles the head … the Buddha‘s compassion constantly and brightly shines upon the head of the person of shinjin.
Living with power in two worlds
Regarding the nature of the Elven Lords it is said:
Those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power.
This is suggestive of the person of shinjin who is grasped never to be abandoned and who immediately attains birth without bodily loss and without calculation shares in the virtues of Amida:
Shinjin that is the inconceivable working of the power of the Vow is none other than the mind aspiring for great enlightenment; The evil spirits that abound in heaven and earth all hold in awe the person who has attained it.
The term ‘Elf-friend’ can be likened to one for whom deep-hearing of the name that calls has become ‘second-nature’.
Passing over the sundering seas and into the West
The phrase ‘passing into the West’, which in the LoTR describes sailing to the Blessed Realm, is analogous to being ferried to Amida‘s Western Pure Land:
Now, as I ride on the ship of the great compassionate vow and sail on the expansive ocean of wondrous light, the breeze of highest virtue blows peacefully and calms the waves of pain and sorrow. Quickly shall I reach the land of immeasurable light and attain unexcelled peace and freedom.
Rebirth and returning
Gandalf ‘the Grey’ may be likened to one who has attained shinjin in that, when he falls (in Moria), he immediately passes into the West, but returns to Middle Earth becoming Gandalf ‘the White’ until his ‘mission’ is fulfilled – clearly indicative of the Bodhisattva ideal.
The failure of self-power and the wisdom of compassion
Frodo, despite his desire and best attempt to do good and destroy the Ring (of self-power) fails due to congenital incapacity to know and do good relying solely upon self-power; Gollum too, despite his desire and best attempt to do evil, ensures a good ultimate outcome by inadvertently destroying the ring in his attempt to wrest it away from Frodo (which would not have been possible without the previous mercy and compassion shown to him by the Elves, Aragorn, Gandalf, Bilbo and Frodo).
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