The Dharma of the Rings: A Buddhist Interpretation of the Lord of the Rings

David Loy and Linda Goodhew

I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days — quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice. If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapor, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens! And the products of it all will be mainly evil — historically considered. But the historic version is, of course, not the only one. All things and deeds have a value in themselves, apart from their ‘causes’ and ‘effects.’ No man can estimate what is really happening at the moment sub specie aeternitas. All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labors with vast power and perpetual success — in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in. So it is in general, and so it is in our own lives. —J.R.R. Tolkien to his son Christopher, 30 April 1944
[T]he Lord of the Rings as a modern Buddhist myth? Not very plausible, on the face of it. As is well known, Middle-earth is derived largely from the Nordic and Germanic sagas that Tolkien knew so well, and according to his own admission the tale expresses some Christian influence too (he was a devout Roman Catholic). There is no hint, either in the story or in its sources, of any Buddhist influences.

Moreover, Tolkien’s fantasy is built on a radical and quite unBuddhist dualism between unredeemable evil (Sauron, Saruman) and uncompromising goodness (Gandalf, Frodo, etc.). The good as well as the bad use violence in pursuit of their goals, and we are entertained with plenty of it. Stupid and cruel as they may be, orcs are still sentient beings that (to use a Buddhist term) must have Buddha-nature; in Middle-earth, though, no one has any interest in “saving” them. The only good orc is a dead orc, so Gimli and Legolas cheerfully compete to see who can kill more of them.

And yet … Tolkien achieved what he intended, which was to create a modern myth, and myths, as he also knew, have a way of growing beyond their creator’s intentions. The Lord of the Rings is much more than an endearing fantasy about little hobbits, gruff dwarves and light-footed elves. It has been voted the novel of the century — according to some, it is the novel of the millennium! — because so many readers find it deeply moving as well. Being among them, we have puzzled over what it is about the tale that makes it so compelling, so mythic. One answer, for us at least, is that despite its European origins it resonates with Buddhist concerns and perspectives. Evil, for example, is much more nuanced than appears at first glance. Even Sauron is not intrinsically evil: he too was corrupted, long ago, by his craving for the Ring. It is no coincidence that, as the foremost expression of evil, he is never seen (only his hand and “eye rimmed with fire”). Sauron is more effective as an abstract principle, so malignant and powerful that he could not be depicted as a believable person. The implication, in Buddhist terms, is that evil too has no self-being: like everything else, it is a result of causes and conditions that we allow to infect and defile our minds. There is also an essential thread of non-violence that runs throughout the tale. Despite all the bloodshed, a repeated act of compassion — sparing Gollum’s life — is crucial to the plot.

More fundamentally, The Lord of the Rings can serve as a Buddhist fable because it is about a spiritual quest readily understandable in dharmic terms. It provides a myth about spiritual engagement for modern Buddhists. Frodo leaves home not to slay a dragon or win a chest full of precious jewels, but to let go of something. His renunciation of the Ring is not done for any selfish purpose, not even to gain enlightenment, but it nonetheless transforms him spiritually. The quest is to save the world, which makes him a bodhisattva. However, Frodo’s journey doesn’t just illustrate the Buddhist path. It has something important to teach us about how karma works and how we should understand the Buddhist Way 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. In some mysterious, inexplicable way the task has been appointed to him. There is nothing he hopes to gain from the journey. By the end, he and Samwise expect to be destroyed themselves soon after the Ring is cast into the Chambers of Fire, and that almost happens. Their total renunciation is a powerful metaphor for our own practice. We are sometimes willing to give up everything for enlightenment — but that is the catch. It is the self that seeks to be enlightened, that still wants to be around to enjoy being enlightened. Self remains the problem. Frodo and Sam show us something deeper. They let go of all personal ambition, although not the ambition to do what is necessary to help others.

Frodo’s quest is not an attempt to transcend Middle-earth, by realizing some higher reality or dimension. He is simply responding to its needs, which because of historical circumstances (the growing power of Sauron, now actively seeking the Ring) 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. The Dark Lord would soon discover him and his Ring, and the Shire, along with the rest of Middle-earth, would fall under his baneful control. When we consider the ecological and social crises that have begun to impinge on our own little worlds, is our situation 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. Middle-earth needs to be saved, not denied or escaped. (Contrast the secret wardrobe that leads to a very different world in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, which Tolkien disliked because of their blatant allegory.) The goal is not another world, but another way of living in this one. And by doing what he can to transform it, Frodo transforms himself. That is how his selflessness is developed. Frodo does not change because he destroys the Ring. He changes because of his tireless efforts to destroy the Ring. His early adventures on the road to Rivendell test and toughen him, giving him the courage to be the Ringbearer. His own strength of heart and will grow from those encounters, teaching him self-reliance and eventually developing into his unassuming heroic stature.

Gandalf cannot accompany Frodo and Sam all the way. The plot dramatically requires him to fall away, so that Frodo and Sam can grow further 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 a Buddhist world because it is structured karmically. As Randel Helms has pointed out, the “essential law” of Tolkien’s story is that good intentions lead to good results, while evil intentions end up being 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, but the reverse consequences of bad intentions are just as important to the success of Frodo’s and Sam’s mission. For example, consider the effects of Boromir’s effort to seize the Ring from Frodo by the river Anduin. That evil attempt is quickly followed by his expiatory death, defending against an orc attack, but it also leads to Frodo’s decision to set out alone for Mordor. This breaking-up of the Fellowship is necessary in order for Merry and Pippin to meet Treebeard and play their part in destroying Isengard, and it is also necessary for Aragorn to play his vital role in the battles to come. Aragorn’s decision not to follow Frodo, but to chase the orcs who have seized Merry and Pippin (a noble choice motivated by pity and loyalty towards them) leads to many unintended positive consequences, including meeting Eomer and Gandalf, that also turn out to be important for the fulfilment of the quest.

The best example of self-defeating evil intentions is, of course, Gollum. He does not want to help Frodo and Sam. He wants to get his hands on the Ring. In order to gain the chance to do this, however, he must help them again and again. When they are lost he leads them to Mordor. When they become stuck, he shows them a mountain path that leads through Shelob’s tunnel towards Mount Doom. And at the end, when an exhausted Frodo is no longer able to renounce the Ring, Gollum appears one last time to bite off Frodo’s finger — and fall into the fiery pit.

In Middle-earth this karmic law works 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. “Here is perhaps the basic difference between the moral structures of Tolkien’s world and our own. We know that intention has nothing to do with result” (Helms, 75). Or does it? According to Buddhism, intention has a lot to do with results in our world too. But a point religious scholars often make — that religious language is always metaphorical — suggests that Buddhist teachings about karma can be understood less literally than they usually are.

In Middle-earth as on our earth, it is clear that karma does not mean all events are predestined to happen. It is karma that gives Frodo responsibility for the Ring, as Gandalf and Elrond realize, yet what he does with it depends upon his own determination. In both worlds karma creates situations but does not determine how we respond to them.

There is, however, much more to say about what karma is and how it works. Karma need 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 our motivations. This was the Buddha’s great insight, in an Iron Age India that understood morality in more mechanical ways. 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. “I” (re)construct myself by what I intentionally do. My sense of self is a precipitate of my 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.

Sow a thought and reap a deed
Sow a deed and reap a habit
Sow a habit and reap a character
Sow a character and reap a destiny

This understanding of karma does not necessarily involve an afterlife. As Spinoza expressed it, happiness is not the reward of virtue but virtue itself. To become a different kind of person is to experience the world in a different way. When your mind changes, the world changes. (Remember those psychedelic trips?) And when you respond differently to the world, the world responds differently to you. The six realms of samsara are not necessarily distinct worlds or planes of existence, through which we transmigrate according to our karma. They can also be the different ways we experience this world as our character, and therefore our attitude towards the world, changes. Perhaps the hell realm is not another place I will be reborn into later, due to my hatred and evil deeds now. It can be the way this world is experienced when my mind becomes dominated by anger and hate.

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, it changes us— the essential karmic insight. 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 were to do 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.

Power is eager to test and display itself. What is the point of having an overwhelming military machine, if you don’t use it once in a while? When you create a new weapon (a nuclear bomb, a “smart bomb”), you want to see what it can do in a combat situation. The scientists who created the first atom bombs for the U.S., all the while hoping it would not be needed, learned about this the hard way. But do Buddhists have something more to learn from the Ring of power?

Buddhism has not had much to say about power, unfortunately. Traditional teachings warn more about sex and other physical cravings, which play almost no role in The Lord of the Rings . The absolute prohibition of sex for the sangha suggests it is the archetypal craving that needs to be transcended in order to achieve the serenity of nirvana. Whether or not that was true in India 2500 years ago, it is a mistake for Buddhists to focus primarily on that type of craving now. Our situation requires a different response. Today the primary challenge for socially-engaged Buddhism is the individual and collective craving for power, which like Midas destroys whatever it touches (another appropriate metaphor, since money is a form of congealed power). 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 a 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, thanks to modern technologies, there is so much more power to crave and use; and, thanks to modern institutions, that power tends to function in impersonal ways which assume a life of their own. Transnational corporations and stock markets institutionalize greed (never enough consumption or profit!) in a world where centralized bureaucratic states unleash institutionalized ill will (horrific military aggression) in pursuit of their “national interests,” while, under the guise of globalization, ever more sophisticated technologies are deployed to extend the institutionalized delusion that dualizes us from the earth (by commodifying, exploiting, and laying waste to its furthest corners). Today they are the Mordor that threatens our future. If Buddhist teachings do not help us understand this, perhaps there is something wrong with our Buddhism?

In contrast, Hobbiton expresses Tolkien’s nostalgia for the vanishing rural England of his youth, but we should not dismiss such homesickness with the reassuring Buddhist maxim that “everything passes away.” Our collective attempt to dominate the earth technologically is related to the disappearance of the sacred in the modern world. 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 attempt to secure the conditions of our existence here may destroy us. Is there a better example of institutionalized delusion? We are one with the earth. When the biosphere becomes sick, we become sick. If the biosphere dies, we perish with it. Wisdom is realizing, before it is too late, that a technological Ring of Power is not the solution to our problems. It has become our problem.

In contrast to the imperialist, militaristic, and technological will to power expressed by Sauron and Saruman, Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship share a non-anthopocentric sensibility that has room for many different types of sentient societies. Middle-earth is alive with diverse life-forms — hobbits, elves, dwarves, humans, ents, orcs, etc. — which dwell together not always peacefully but with some degree of harmony until the shadow of the Dark Lord begins to grow. They feel no need to dominate or commodify Middle-earth. It is enough to be a part of it, because it is home to all of them. Happiness for our heroes is connected with the ability to delight in the simple pleasures of everyday life: a glass and a song by the warm hearth, for example — enjoyed with others, of course, for the fellowship of loving friends is contrasted with the greedy, private pseudo-happiness of those who seek only the Ring. Sauron, Saruman, Gollum: each tormented, solitary soul looks out only for himself, and knows nothing of the wide community of willing helpers that enables Frodo to complete his mission.

We need to recover such an ecological sensibility if we are to make it through the dark times that threaten our world. We also need new types of bodhisattvas, inspired perhaps by the models that Tolkien’s myth provides socially engaged Buddhism. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to be optimistic. There is, however, something to remember at such times. Frodo’s task was appointed to him in a mysterious way that he did not understand because it cannot be understood. The implication is that his and others’ efforts were successful in the end because they were a part of something greater than themselves. For us, too, to be spiritual means opening up to a transformative power that works in us and through us when we do the best we can. Then is that also true for the world that we are nondual with? Who knows what is possible? Or what is really happening today? For example, who anticipated the sudden, worldwide collapse of communism in 1989? The task of socially engaged bodhisattvas is not to unravel the mystery that is our world, but to do what we can to succour its sufferings in this time of crisis. Frodo and Sam discovered many unexpected helpers along their way, and so may we.

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,1981), p. 76.
See his Tolkien’s World (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974), especially chapters 4 and 5.

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David Loy and Linda Goodhew

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