Tuesday, January 30, 2018

True Communion: An Introduction

There is no emotion, there is peace. There is no ignorance, there is knowledge. There is no passion, there is serenity. There is no chaos, there is harmony. There is no death, there is the Force. 
-The Jedi Code

Here we are at last.

The Jedi are Star Wars. While one can make the case for the importance of characters like Han Solo and Princess Leia, by the Return of the Jedi, the exploration of the Jedi and their code came to dominate the Star Wars narrative, and main characters became defined by their “force sensitivity.” The prequels told the story of the Jedi, and by Rogue One, their philosophy had morphed into the dominate religion of the Star Wars galaxy.

I’ve had a few problems with this drift, though. First, the Jedi practice, as depicted in the Star Wars movies is essentially the only religion of the setting (with an honorable mention to the Sith, though they really accept the core premises of the Jedi code, and just invert them; they are to the Jedi what Satanists are to Christians). Furthermore, the Jedi philosophy, as depicted in A New Hope is some ancient, nigh-mythical lost religion, but if you can trip over Guardians of the Whills, force sensitive philosophers and outcast Jedi in every cantina, then when Obi-Wan Kenobi explained the Force to Luke, it was more like some preist explaining Christianity to you today, rather than some martial art master explaining the lost secrets of a bygone age.

I’ve tackled the problem of “no other religion” throughout this entire philosophy series: the heroes of Psi-Wars can choose from Neo-Rationalism, the Akashic Mysteries and the Divine Masks as their driving morality and beliefs, and I’d like to think I’ve made each sufficiently compelling that someone might be willing to follow them. True Communion, then, can retain something of an exotic nature.

Two problems remain, though. First, the Jedi philosophy is, as depicted by Star Wars, one exclusively practiced by “knights,” warrior-priests. Outside of the implications of the Guardians of the Whills (we hear very little about this offshoot in Rogue One, and both of those characters are also warriors), we never get a sense of how the common man feels about the Jedi philosophy or how he might express his devotion. Do people go to temples to worship? If so, how? Does “worship” even make sense? Or is all the devotion of the Star Wars galaxy to the Jedi philosophy really a devotion to the Jedi order and the hope that these space wizard-knights will return and save them?

Which brings us to problem number two: the Jedi are thematically an ancient order of heroes with messianic elements. They saved the day long ago and will someday return to save the day again. They resemble the once and future King Arthur, or the Assassins of Assasin’s Creed or the Solar Exalted of Exalted. Thus, the Jedi Order should be dead long enough to have faded into myth, but in fact, they faded away only a generation (in the first trilogy) or two (in the latest trilogy) ago.

What we need then is a broader and more ancient order. We need to get a sense of what it means to be a practitioner of this Jedi-like philosophy without actually being a space knight. What are its priests like? Do lay people go to temples? If so, what do they do there? We also need to end the order a much longer time ago and explain what happened to them in the meantime.

We also need to integrate Communion itself into all of this. The philosophy of True Communion is not the philosophy of the Jedi for the same reasons that the Force is not Communion. True Communion is a universal, divine, psychic gestalt that contains paths, archetypes, occult elements, avatar states and world-shattering miracles. The philosophy of True Communion, then, can and should have a more distinctly religious character, and explain why a Knight of Communion is so much more powerful with Communion than, say, a devotee of the Divine Masks.

Furthermore, the core theme of True Communion must be that it is right. The base assumption of the Jedi is that their vision is correct (They are “the good guys”), and that all right-thinking individuals back them. Most psi-wars players will expect something similar in Psi-Wars, and look to True Communion as the “Right faith.” If this is so, then why doesn’t everyone worship it? And if it isn’t so, in what ways might it be wrong? How might it exploit people’s good will? How might (say) the Akashic Mysteries or the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant be more right, if the GM wishes to go in that direction?

Finally, we must understand that this is an RPG. Star Wars depicts almost all Jedi as essentially the same (all are skilled with their lightsabers; all learn the same styles; all have the Jedi Mind Trick and telekinesis and precognitive dreams and the ability to “sense” things), which is fine for a film, but players will need to express their uniqueness and differentiate themselves from one another, and explore different themes within True Communion. Ideally, one should be able to play a game with nothing but the Knights of Communion and see each player play a different character, and still have a sense that they have more they can explore.

I would like to note that unlike the other philosophies, True Communion did not spring up in this iteration, but has been quietly in the works since Iteration 4, and I’ve discussed them at length before, so if these inspirations seem familiar, that’s why.

The Philosophical Inspiration: Advaita Vedanta and Nagarjuna’s “Emptiness”

One who sees all beings in the self alone, and the self of all beings, feels no hatred by virtue of that understanding. For the seer of oneness, who knows all beings to be the self, where is delusion and sorrow?
— Isha Upanishad 6-7

True Communion is, of course, a philosophy, but it’s an odd philosophy with deeply religious trappings. To get a glimpse of a similar sort of system, we have only to turn our eyes to Indian philosophy to find exactly such a sort of thing (though, I hasten to note, that most religions give rise to philosophy, as theologians invariably stray into the realms of philosophy when they attempt to precisely define what particular religious terms mean and what their ultimate implications are). We also look to India because the Jedi philosophy has deep “oriental mysticism as seen by Westerners from the 70s” themes, which, if you dig deep enough, has much of its roots in Indian religion and philosophy.

I might expect Buddhism to be a guiding light here, and I must give a nod towards Nagarjuna and his concept of emptiness: that things are not things, but interactions, which fits nicely with True Communion’s deeply community-based philosophy. I will also confess that I find Zen Buddhisms stereotypical take on how students must be taught (through koans and riddles and such) to be very appropriate for how True Communion should work, but I took the reasoning for this from Plato.

But for the meat of my philosophy, I found myself drawing more heavily from Hinduism. First, Hinduism is very grounded on an ancient religious tradition found in the Vedas. The philosophical tradition arose from that, and while the original traditions from which Hinduism draws could perhaps be described as polytheistic, the philosophical system that arises out of it is distinctly monotheistic, with a great cosmic god that pervades all things called “Brahman.” We in the West tend to have a rather anthropomorphic conception of God, but Brahman is closer to the gnostic “Monad” than to the Sunday school depiction of a bearded man in the sky (which, it must be said, isn’t really the Christian conception of God either, but nonetheless, I want to draw that distinction between anthropomorphic God and cosmic, ineffable God); that is, the God of Hinduism is pantheistic.

Hinduism, unlike Buddhism, accepts a “self,” called the “Atman.” This is not the self that you mean when you thump your chest and say “Me.” It is not the you that monologues in your own mind, or that perceives the world, but the “you” that hears the monologue, that perceives that you perceive. The Hindu devotion to meditation arises in part from attempting to pin down precisely what this “atman” is and what it isn’t (and, of course, from Buddhist influence, which seems to have put a greater emphasis on meditation in its earlier phase than Hinduism did, which seemed more interested in precisely defined religious ritual).

Many philosophies describe a duality between Brahman (the external world) and the Atman (that which perceives the external world). Advaita Vedanta disagrees with the dichotomy (the name literally means "Not-two"), and argues that just as Brahman suffuses all things, so too does it suffuse who you are at your very core. That means that as you come to understand yourself, you come to understand the cosmos. For me, this is the perfect metaphor for how I imagine True Communion: it is not the extinction of self, but the realization that “self” and “other” are synonymous. It is finding a bridge from the self to the rest of the world.

Hinduism and Buddhism both like to discuss the “cycle of life and rebirth” and how one can escape that and suffering in general, and the consensus seems to be that one must let go of this cycle by not becoming attached to things of the world. This ties strongly into the concepts mentioned above, and suggests an idealistic, rather than a materialistic, philosophy, which suits True Communion nicely.

Incidentally, if any of True Communion’s ideas sound “hippyish” to you, this may be the cause of it. Counter culture and the new age movement began to draw on both the ideas of psychic powers, volkish ideas of organic purity, and “Eastern Mysticism,” or older traditions that also borrowed from “Eastern Mysticism” (like Theosophy). There’s a reason the Jedi sound a lot like garbled Indian Gurus.

The Religious Inspiration: Judaism and Early Christianity in the Roman Empire

Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. -Luke 17:21

For my religious history, I chose the early Christian church and Judaism and I did this for several reasons. First, the Jedi are, despite claims to the contrary, profoundly influenced by Christian thought: their celibate “knights” draw on the tradition of the templars, and their vision of the world as filled with a constant conflict between “good” and “evil” is, in the very least, Manichean, but easily Christian too. The story even revolves around a prophesied messiah who will come and rid the universe of evil! But more importantly, I wanted to draw parallels with the Roman Empire, as much of Psi-Wars (and Star Wars) draws on that history.

Judaism, of course, have an ancient tradition that was already ancient before the Romans had even built Rome. When the Romans finally conquered Judea, they found themselves in possession of an unruly people who refused to give up their monotheistic ways to acknowledge the Gods of others or the Imperial cult. During this period, multiple traditions of Judaism competed with one another (of which Christianity was but one contender), and they especially contended for Roman converts. The ancient Abrahamic tradition was different and evocative, interesting and compelling, and steeped in particularly deep ideas during a period when Roman traditions and religions were fading into decadence and mere ceremony. Jews had to contend with curious foreigners trying to understand and borrow from their religion.

When Judea revolted against the Romans (with its “sicarii” zealots murdering Romans hashashin-style), Rome utterly crushed Jerusalem and the temple with it and scattered the Jewish people in the diaspora, which dramatically closed the debate on which brand of Judaism people would follow, as only two remained: Christianity, which had spread far beyond the borders of Judea already and aggressively sought to convert outsiders, and what would become Rabbinical Judaism, a form of Judaism adapted to life with a temple and that which struggled primarily to preserve the Jewish cultural identity in a world that seemed to hate them. Eventually, the Christian branch of Judaism would have its revenge by converting all the Empire to its faith and installing a Christian Emperor in Rome.

I wanted something similar for True Communion. I saw it as an originally alien faith that resulted, eventually, in two branches, one which sought to preserve the traditions of a culture and race that had a history of suffering at the hands of others, but whose ideas ended up taking the galaxy by storm. Where Christianity and Judaism have diverged fairly significantly, though, I saw these two as much closer to one another, so that players who learned from a human True Communion master might seek out an alien True Communion master to learn the “lost” half of that ancient and traditional faith.

Warrior Priests: The Ikko Ikki, Templars and the Shaolin Monks

Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.
-Koan 29

The Jedi are warrior monks, and this is what makes them so distinct from various other settings, though they certainly have a historical precedent: the Ikko Ikki, the Templars and the Shaolin monks were all also warrior monks.

The Ikko-Ikki were practitioners of Pure Land Buddhism, a form of Buddhism that didn’t require one to have enormous sums of money to go to a monastery and meditate for years; it’s quite a complex topic that I don’t entirely understand, but the core of it is that it has a strong appeal to the poor, and thus, in Japan during the Sengoku Jidai, it became very popular among the peasants and lower-level aristocracy. Other sects of Buddhism began to harass or even attack practitioners of Pure Land Buddhism, who responded in kind and began to fortify their temples and band together to defend themselves. Once they had, they began to notice they had real military potential, and became a force to be reckoned among the warring factions. The key component here, to me, is the common appeal of the religion, in contrast to the more aristocratic religions that might be around and how, when that religion is threatened, its defense starts from the ground up, with the poorest of the poor casting aside their tools to take up arms.

Something similar happened during the Crusades, but ultimately that war was won with the aristocracy, but the crusades are better understood as a mass, armed pilgrimage than as a real conquest. The “Holy Lands” were not held in the name of France or Germany or Italy or even the Church, but as their own thing. The Templars began (setting aside mythical origins) as a means to protect pilgrims on their passage into the holy land, and ended up as an arm of the state as well as an elite fighting force that defended the Holy Lands from external threats. They also evidently took on some strange customs from their time in the Holy Lands, and when they were destroyed, they fell into legend as a secretive conspiracy.

The Shaolin had a similar fate to the Templars. While they engaged in no crusade, they did rise rally in defense of a dying dynasty, and then resisted an “unrighteous” empire and, for their efforts, were destroyed. But their destruction spawned legends, secret conspiracies of resistance, and new martial traditions held in high esteem by the people. Like the templar, they faded into legend, and many common people hoped that in some way, they could be resurrected.

The Knights of Communion, our “space templars” draw from all three traditions. True Communion had a strong appeal to the common man whom the Akashics had always said were worth nothing; they offered the common man the chance at psychic power, and told him that he mattered. When the Alexian Empire moved against them, the common man rallied in defense. When the temple-worlds fell, the common man rose to retake them, and many “poor knights” set aside their titles to become these knights who would protect the common man, and who would assist in resisting the unrighteous tyranny of the Alexian Empire and, eventually, would even bring it down, but then be scattered and broken, becoming little more than legends. But like the Shaolin, their martial tradition would remain in scattered bits and pieces, and like the myths of the Templars, they would linger on as a conspiracy, waiting to return when they were needed.

What is True Communion?

So what, then, is True Communion?  True Communion began as an alien philosophy, one held firmly by a race that struggled against a hostile universe full of horrors and enslavement.  They used their philosophy to form deep bonds with one another and to protect themselves, to forge an identity that could withstand the persecutions they suffered.

As other races came into contact with the philosophy, they found its message and power compelling.  Humanity had their own philosophies in the form of Neo-Rationalism and the Akashic Mysteries, but both were elitist philosophies; True Communion spoke to everyone.  It took the galaxy by storm, undermining the carefully cultivated image of the Akashic Order and Neo-Rationalism, and when the followers of the philosophy freed the Temple Worlds of True Communion and formed the Knights of Communion (the "Space Templars"), True Communion came to be a force to reckon with and eventually brought down both the corrupt Alexian Dynasty and the Cult of Satra Temos.

True Communion remains out in the galaxy as a deeply meditative philosophy that teaches people to look within for answers and that says everyone has a place in the world.  The aliens who created it still practice it; many common men and aliens still practice it, in and outside the Empire, or quietly in the Alliance.  On the edges of space, the last remnants of the Knights of Communion remain, trying to piece together the lost lore of their ancient and powerful philosophy and waiting for when the Galaxy will need them which, given the great galactic invasion, the destruction wrought by the Cybernetic Union and the rise of the Empire, seems to be now!

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