Middle Path and Middle Earth
The Lord of the Rings is a profoundly spiritual book. J.R.R. Tolkien was a religious man, a Roman Catholic of the thoughtful kind. His work is informed by his deep religiosity, and yet it avoids completely being a narrowly "Christian" allegory. In large measure, this is because of Tolkien's great love for the pagan mythology of Northern Europe. On the surface, these "pagan" elements are a much more obvious influence.
It may seem presumptuous, therefore, to essay a Buddhist reading of this great classic. We can be certain the great man had no Buddhist influences (at least in the lifetime in question.) Nevertheless, Tolkien himself was the first to recognize that a great work of literature is greater than the intentions of the author. And in any case, the book has certainly had its quota of Buddhist readers.
Certainly the world created by Tolkien (one is almost tempted to say "discovered") is in some respects a familiar one to Buddhists. Buddhist cosmology and mythology has always been full of many marvelous creatures; devas of various classes, nagas, yakkhas and an entire menagerie. Tolkien's world too, has as its salient feature a great many magical and intelligent races of beings; elves, dwarves, orcs, ents and of course, hobbits.
In fact there are some very salient points of similarity. Elves are close to bhumma-devas (earthbound gods.) Both love forests and trees. Both come in several grades, from the puckish and mischievous to the grand and magnificent. Likewise nagas and dragons, yakkhas and trolls offer similar parallels. In large measure, this is simply a reflection of the world-wide similarity between all these mythologies. (Does this perhaps reflect some underlying reality? Even if this underlying source is archetypal, of what are the archetypes reflections? )
The immortality of the elves may cause some objection from Buddhist quarters. And yet there is plenty of evidence in Tolkien's work that this immortality is more apparent than real, and is better described as a very long life with a gradual "fading away" of the entire race. There are descriptions in the Buddhist literature of long lived beings who mistakenly imagine themselves as immortal. In some of Tolkien's lesser works, there are hints that he contemplated reincarnation, at least for the elves.
More intriguing though, is the plot of the Lord of the Rings. A marvelous and powerful Ring is found by the very earthy hobbits. With the guidance of wise beings such as Gandalf and Elrond, Frodo and his loyal companion Samwise, undertake to cast this Ring into the great abyss of the Crack of Doom.
How are we to read this? On one level, it is just a rip-roaring good yarn. But it wouldn't have attained the status of a cult classic if this was all there was to it. It is a tale that speaks to powerful spiritual archetypes. It is a very excellent example of the Quest type of spiritual adventure.
Before we go on to look at this a little more closely, a caveat is in order. Tolkien himself hated allegory in literature and categorically rejected that his book could be read as one. It is certainly not a simplistic allegory in the mold of a Pilgrim's Progress with a naive one-on-one correspondence at every step. No, the Lord of the Rings is not an allegory. It is so much more, it is profoundly symbolic, as is all great myth. Tolkien, a master of mythology, lived and worked in a world of powerful symbols and archetypes. The way a Buddhist might read these symbols is of course not necessarily be the way Tolkien read them. The fact that they can yield multiple interpretations is a tribute to the mythic strength of the work.
So how can a Buddhist read these symbols? The overarching theme of the Quest is a staple in spiritual literature, and can be read as a symbol of the spiritual journey. In this case, the goal and purpose of the Quest is a powerful one that appeals very much to the Buddhist sensibility. In most Quests, the goal is to discover something, the Holy Grail for example. In the Lord of Rings, Frodo's goal is to let something go!
And what does he let go? How do we interpret the Ring, which is so central to the tale? The symbolism of a Ring is twofold (at least.) In one aspect, it is a closed circle, an object without beginning or end. In another aspect, it is a symbol of binding, as in a wedding ring. Both the aspects of circularity and of binding are quintessential characteristics of sangsara! The wheel (a circle) of birth and death is after all absolutely central to the Buddhist vision of the world. It is the quintessential description of our existential dilemma, being bound by the endless repetitions of rebirth. It is the First Noble Truth.
And the Second Noble Truth is Craving. Is this not the very thing that binds the characters of Tolkien's tale to the Ring? Gollum is ruined by his craving, and Bilbo very nearly so. Even Gandalf the Grey fears being drawn into its spell. Only Tom Bombadil, who may be taken as a type of enlightened being, is immune to it. It is Frodo's greatest challenge to overcome this deep addiction to the Ring (to sangsara, or becoming.) His entire journey, with all its fantastic adventures is for this purpose alone.
And he must journey into the very depths of the source to accomplish this. The whole hard trek through Middle Earth into Mordor can be seen as a symbol of the inner journey undertaken in, for example, a career of Vipassana meditation. One is tempted at this point to attempt to find correspondence to the stages of insight. (The episode at Bree as the Corruptions, the Council of Elrond as the Discernment of Body and Mind, the Brown Lands as the Knowledge of Misery, the final ascent on Samwise's back - a powerful and poignant image - as Equanimity of Formations.) Enough, to follow this line of thought too far is violate Tolkien's proscription against allegory. Suffice it to see the physical journey of Frodo as a profound symbol of the inner journey of the mystic.
Another angle is to see the three characters who make the final journey, Frodo, Sam and the tragic Gollum, as aspects of one personality. If for example, Gollum is seen as a personification of the defilements, hopelessly addicted to sangsaric becoming ("my precious!") then the climatic scene at the Crack of Doom takes on a profound significance.
It is also important that the book does not end with this scene. Frodo, having accomplished the Goal, now returns to the World and serves sentient beings in the Scouring of the Shire, a very important episode reminiscent of the final image in the classic series of Zen Bull-Taming pictures, where the triumphant yogi rides the bull back into the town.
Other more general points can be raised. The importance of compassion is seen at many points in the book, in particular the kindness shown to the wretched Gollum by Aragorn and others. The sparing of Gollum's life in the end has a critical effect on the outcome, unforeseen by the characters. This can also be seen as an expression of the Law of Karma. Many of the wise good characters, especially Gandalf, often express thoughts that would be approved by any Buddhist. Just think of "He who destroys a thing to learn its nature has departed from the path of wisdom."
Lest I leave the unwary reader with the impression that Tolkien was a closet Buddhist, let's close by looking at a couple of points that separate the tale from a Buddhist sensibility. Tolkien was, as I have said, a Christian. As such, the theme of a duality of Good and Evil is important to him. In Tolkien's world, the only good orc is a dead orc. In Buddhism, by contrast, there is no eternal damnation. Had a Buddhist written the story, one expects there would have been at least one orc who had a profound conversion experience, gave up his nasty habits and perhaps showed up at the Council of Elrond full of repentance.
A less troublesome, but equally unBuddhist, detail is the underlying creationism of Tolkien's mythos. This is in any case, not apparent in the Lord of the Rings at all, but is clearly explained in the Simirillion. The theistic universe is one that has a eschatological meaning, moving in a purposeful way from beginning to end. The Buddhist universe is one of endlessly repeating cycles. Without a beginning, it has no need for a creator, nor for a creator's plan or purpose.
The fact that a Christian with pagan sensibilities could write a book of such profound spiritual meaning for non-Christians is a real tribute to Tolkien's spiritual depth. His religious vision was not a narrow one. He seems to have tapped into some of the deep layers of truth that underlie all the great religious traditions. And, not least, it is a profound and deeply moving story.