BUDDHISM IN THE MATRIX
By Frances Flannery-Dailey,
Rachel Wagner, The University of Iowa
When asked by a fan if Buddhist ideas influenced them in the production of the movie, the Wachowski brothers offered an unqualified "Yes." Indeed, Buddhist ideas pervade the film and appear in close proximity with the equally strong Christian imagery. Almost immediately after Neo is identified as "my own personal Jesus Christ," this appellation is given a distinctively Buddhist twist. The same hacker says: "This never happened. You don’t exist." From the stupa-like pods which encase humans in the horrific mechanistic fields to Cypher’s selfish desire for the sensations and pleasures of the matrix, Buddhist teachings form a foundation for much of the film’s plot and imagery.
 The Problem of Samsara. Even the title of the film evokes the Buddhist worldview. The matrix is described by Morpheus as "a prison for your mind." It is a dependent "construct" made up of the interlocking digital projections of billions of human beings who are unaware of the illusory nature of the reality in which they live and are completely dependent on the hardware attached to their real bodies and the elaborate software programs created by A.I. This "construct" resembles the Buddhist idea of samsara, which teaches that the world in which we live our daily lives is constructed only from the sensory projections formulated from our own desires. When Morpheus takes Neo into the "construct" to teach him about the matrix, Neo learns that the way in which he had perceived himself in the matrix was nothing more than "the mental projection of your digital self." The "real" world, which we associate with what we feel, smell, taste, and see, "is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain." The world, Morpheus explains, exists "now only as part of a neural interactive simulation that we call the matrix." In Buddhist terms, we could say that "because it is empty of self or of what belongs to self, it is therefore said: ‘The world is empty.’ And what is empty of self and what belongs to self? The eye, material shapes, visual consciousness, impression on the eye -- all these are empty of self and of what belongs to self." According to Buddhism and according to The Matrix, the conviction of reality based upon sensory experience, ignorance, and desire keeps humans locked in illusion until they are able to recognize the false nature of reality and relinquish their mistaken sense of identity.
 Drawing upon the Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Co-Origination, the film presents reality within the matrix as a conglomerate of the illusions of all humans caught within its snare. Similarly, Buddhism teaches that the suffering of human beings is dependent upon a cycle of ignorance and desire which locks humans into a repetitive cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The principle is stated in a short formula in the Samyutta-nikaya:
 The idea of Dependent Co-Origination is illustrated in the context of the film through the illusion of the matrix. The viability of the matrix’s illusion depends upon the belief by those enmeshed in it that the matrix itself is reality. A.I.’s software program is, in and of itself, no illusion at all. Only when humans interact with its programs do they become enmeshed in a corporately-created illusion, the matrix, or samsara, which reinforces itself through the interactions of those beings involved within it. Thus the matrix’s reality only exists when actual human minds subjectively experience its programs.
 The problem, then, can be seen in Buddhist terms. Humans are trapped in a cycle of illusion, and their ignorance of this cycle keeps them locked in it, fully dependent upon their own interactions with the program and the illusions of sensory experience which these provide, and the sensory projections of others. These projections are strengthened by humans’ enormous desire to believe that what they perceive to be real is in fact real. This desire is so strong that it overcomes Cypher, who can no longer tolerate the "desert of the real" and asks to be reinserted into the matrix. As he sits with Agent Smith in an upscale restaurant smoking a cigar with a large glass of brandy, Cypher explains his motives:
 Cypher knows that the matrix is not real and that any pleasures he experiences there are illusory. Yet for him, the "ignorance" of samsara is preferable to enlightenment. Denying the reality that he now experiences beyond the matrix, he uses the double negative: "I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing. And I want to be rich. Someone important. Like an actor." Not only does Cypher want to forget the "nothing" of true reality, but he also wants to be an "actor," to add another level of illusion to the illusion of the matrix that he is choosing to re-enter. The draw of samsara is so strong that not only does Cypher give in to his cravings, but Mouse also may be said to have been overwhelmed by the lures of samsara, since his death is at least in part due to distractions brought on by his sexual fantasies about the "woman in the red dress" which occupy him when he is supposed to be standing alert.
 Whereas Cypher and Mouse represent what happens when one gives in to samsara, the rest of the crew epitomize the restraint and composure praised by the Buddha. The scene shifts abruptly from the restaurant to the mess hall of the Nebuchadnezzar, where instead of being offered brandy, cigars and steak, Neo is given the "bowl of snot" which is to be his regular meal from that point forward. In contrast to the pleasures which for Cypher can only be fulfilled in the matrix, Neo and the crew must be content with the "single-celled protein combined with synthetic aminos, vitamins, and minerals" which Dozer claims is "everything the body needs." Clad in threadbare clothes, subsisting on gruel, and sleeping in bare cells, the crew is depicted enacting the Middle Way taught by the Buddha, allowing neither absolute asceticism nor indulgence to distract them from their work.
 The Solution of Knowledge/Enlightenment. This duality between the matrix and the reality beyond it sets up the ultimate goal of the rebels, which is to free all minds from the matrix and allow humans to live out their lives in the real world beyond. In making this point, the film-makers draw on both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist ideas. Alluding to the Theravada ideal of the arhat, the film suggests that enlightenment is achieved through individual effort. As his initial guide, Morpheus makes it clear that Neo cannot depend upon him for enlightenment. Morpheus explains, "no one can be told what the matrix is. You have to see it for yourself." Morpheus tells Neo he must make the final shift in perception entirely on his own. He says: "I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it." For Theravada Buddhists, "man’s emancipation depends on his own realization of the Truth, and not on the benevolent grace of a god or any external power as a reward for his obedient good behavior." The Dhammapada urges the one seeking enlightenment to "Free thyself from the past, free thyself from the future, free thyself from the present. Crossing to the farther shore of existence, with mind released everywhere, no more shalt thou come to birth and decay." As Morpheus says to Neo, "There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path." And as the Buddha taught his followers, "You yourselves should make the effort; the Awakened Ones are only teachers." As one already on the path to enlightenment, Morpheus is only a guide; ultimately Neo must recognize the truth for himself.
 Yet The Matrix also embraces ideas found in Mahayana Buddhism, especially in its particular concern for liberation for all people through the guidance of those who remain in samsara and postpone their own final enlightenment in order to help others as bodhisattvas. The crew members of the Nebuchadnezzar epitomize this compassion. Rather than remain outside of the matrix where they are safer, they choose to re-enter it repeatedly as ambassadors of knowledge with the ultimate goal of freeing the minds and eventually also the bodies of those who are trapped within the Matrix’s digital web. The film attempts to blend the Theravada ideal of the arhat with the Mahayana ideal of the bodhisattva, presenting the crew as concerned for those still stuck in the matrix and willing to re-enter the matrix to help them, while simultaneously arguing that final realization is an individual process.
By Rachel Wagner, The University of Iowa
Frances Flannery-Dailey, Hendrix College
PS: This excerpt is from a longer article called Wake up! Gnosticism and Buddhism in The Matrix which
originally appeared in The Journal of Religion and Film
and also see the Philosophy & the Matrix section on http://whatisthematrix.warnerbros.com
Home | Previous Page | More on the Matrix Philosophy