The Matrix from a Buddhist perspective

I know – the film’s been out a while. More than a few have analysed it from a Buddhist perspective, but many have come unstuck when it comes to the foul language, bullets and guns, BDSM clothing and all the violence.

More than a few commentators have speculated that, apart from a being scattered with nuggets Buddhist doctrine, the film devolves into a good old dualistic good and evil battle between the machines and the humans, making it more akin to a typical Christian story of good triumphing over evil. However, I disagree with this, and feel that this interpretation is the result of western materialistic thinking.

The boy with the spoon is perhaps the most obviously Buddhist scene, but if one can look past a literal interpretation and compare the metaphors to Buddhist philosophy, there are other, more interesting perspectives to be considered.

Nichiren Buddhists will certainly recognise the relationship between Morpheus and Neo as one of master and disciple. Neo seeks out Morpheus, and Morpheus’s great desire is for Neo to succeed his own skills (enlightenment). So, Morpheus could be identified as a Bodhisattva – selflessly fighting for the enlightenment and happiness of others (to release humanity from the grip of the machines).

And what about those machines? A huge part of the trilogy is spent beating up the machines with fists and bullets and heaven knows what else. How does that fit in with Buddhism? Consider the film in a less literal way!

The machine world (The Matrix) represents our conscious everyday view of the world. Our underlying humanity (those pitiful beings cocooned as Duracell batteries), on the other hand, represents our originally enlightened state. Therefore the “construct” – our subjective experience of the Matrix, represents our fundamental darkness – our delusion that the world of the Matrix is all there really is. That things exist, or they do not exist. Things are good, or they are evil. We live, and then we die. It is the material world that we see, smell, taste and touch, as Morpheus puts it, “when you go to church, when you pay your taxes”.

In terms of Mahayana Buddhism, and the Madyamaka (Middle Way) doctrine, one could view the “Architect” and the “Oracle” as the Form and Non-Form aspects of the Threefold Truth respectively – Neo’s enlightenment is in seeing that neither the Oracle nor the Architect are the truth, but that they are two necessary sides of the same coin – the coin itself being the doctrine of Sunyata, or emptiness – that everything is interconnected, and interdependent.

Neo on the road to enlightenmentI almost laughed when I heard the lines delivered in the subway battle when Neo and Smith ran out of bullets. Smith tells Neo he is empty. Neo accepts his emptiness (emptiness of self), and retorts that Smith (representing ignorance) is empty too (emptiness of views).

The machines, like our ignorance, are a fact of life. It is impossible to destroy them, as they are a product of our own stupidity as human beings, and so would only arise again at a later time. The Matrix (Samsara), a world where we undergo constant rebirth and suffering is therefore the seed for human beings to want to break free of the suffering – to become enlightened.

When we think of the films in this light, then it begins to make a lot of sense. The fundamental ignorance of seeing the world in terms of absolute (dependant) Form and Non Form only is one of our deepest delusions, and the cause of our deepest suffering.

When Neo asked how he could learn to dodge bullets, and was told “When you know you’re the one, you won’t have to.” This could be interpreted as asking, “how can I avoid the suffering of samsara” – the answer being, that when you become enlightened, you won’t have to because you will see them for what they are; just a symptom of ignorance.

The Agents, the Architect and the Machine “Boss” all represent those harmful aspects of ourselves that serve to maintain our ignorance to our true potential for enlightenment and true happiness. The Oracle on the other hand most closely represents Buddha, who’s expedient teachings are only helpful to those for whom she preaches, and her true enlightenment is unfathomable by the characters in the film.

The violence and bullets, if viewed metaphorically, serve to demonstrate the importance of the internal struggle to utterly crush and defeat one’s own ignorance and delusion. The normally mild mannered Shantideva (great scholar of Nalanda) speaks of this battle with these internal foes thus:

This shall be my all-consuming passion
Filled with rancor I will wage my war!
Defilement of this kind will halt defilement
And for this reason it shall not be spurned.

Hatred is not an emotion Buddhists like, and is viewed as a defilement. But, a hatred of delusion and ignorance is a kind of defilement that can halt a greater defilement – that of delusion and ignorance to our true nature. For this reason, this kind of hatred “shall not be spurned”.

Zion (I’ll overlook the semitic connotations of the name) represents those beings who have been enlightened to their true potential, as human beings.

Neo’s ultimate task in the film, therefore, having undergone his epic battle (involving so many expedients along the way – the Merovingian, the Keymaker etc.) with the forces that would have humanity enslaved to ignorance, is to broker a deal with the machine “Boss” (metaphorically his own fundamental darkness) to ensure the continued emancipation of those who have already gained enlightenment, and “want out” [of The Matrix]. With this ultimate act of compassion he enters the Nirvana of no remainder (i.e. dies) and is taken off somewhere golden and lovely – he becomes enlightenment itself – joined with the eternal Buddha to help all living beings.


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