Thursday, May 15, 2008
Behind the Matrix
Behind the Matrix
For a little over twenty years now, fans, critics, and even scholars have been debating the religious influences of Star Wars, beginning with A New Hope in 1977, but especially since the introduction of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. With the release of The Phantom Menace, the articles have started again. However, this year has produced another science-fiction movie that should be generating the same types of questions, but it's not. The movie is The Matrix, and the reason for its omission in the religious debate is clear: people think it's too simplistic, religiously speaking, and they already have it all figured out. But like most people in the world of The Matrix, they haven't even begun to see the truth yet.
There have been numerous articles showing the heavy Christian imagery that runs throughout The Matrix, and the critics who point out such connections are, for the most part, right. They see Neo as the Christ figure, the savior of the world. His name means "new," and he has come to herald a new world. He is "the One" that Morpheus has been searching for; his approach has been prophesied. His real last name, Anderson, can even be translated as "son of man" (incidentally, his real first name is Thomas, and he doubts that he is "the One"). He dies, and he is resurrected by Trinity, an obvious Christian reference. Morpheus fits in as the God figure or the John the Baptist figure (which is how Lawrence Fishburne described the role). When Tank is about to disconnect Morpheus and kill him, he says that Morpheus has been more than a leader; he's been like a father. In the John the Baptist role, he is the one coming before Christ. Trinity fulfills the role of the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost, whose power resurrects Neo. Cypher is seen as Judas who betrays Christ, though here he betrays Morpheus rather than Neo, but The Matrix is not an allegory; it simply draws on Christian symbolism. The Wachowski brothers then throw in some nice touches along the way. The only remaining human city, their stronghold is Zion. Morpheus' ship is named The Nebuchadnezzar; Nebuchadnezzar was a Babylonian king whose name means, "Nebo, protect the crown (or the frontiers)." Lastly, Neo's room number is 101 (he is "the One," after all), while the room Trinity is in at the beginning of the movie is 303 (note, however, that this is the same room Neo attempts to reach at the end of the movie). The critics fail to mention other gems, such as early in the movie when Neo illegally sells a disk to Troy, who invites him out with them. After receiving the disk, Troy responds, "Hallelujah! You're my savior. You're my personal Jesus Christ." So, there we have it, a nice Messiah archetype to provide a structure for the movie.
And it does provide a structure, but that's all it does. In fact, the core truth of this movie is not Christian at all; it's Buddhist. Unfortunately, the Buddhist influence on this movie has been almost ignored by the critics. There have been mentions of the Buddhist child bending spoons, comparisons of Morpheus to Yoda or to Master Po (the Buddhist monk in Kung Fu), or even a brief mention of Buddhism in an article. However, the depth of the influence of Buddhism on The Matrix has gone without notice.
The Buddhist child in the Oracle's waiting room provides Neo with the truth he needs to begin acting in the world of the Matrix. The young child hands Neo a spoon and tells him, "Do not try to bend the spoon, that's impossible. . . . There is no spoon." He adds, "Then you will see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is you." Neo returns to this statement later in the movie when he is having to perform a seemingly impossible task: when he and Trinity are trying to rescue Morpheus, they must ride up to the roof on an elevator cable. Before Neo shoots the cable to propel Trinity and him upwards, he softly says, "There is no spoon." When Neo realizes that "reality" is not real, he begins to move toward Enlightenment. The Buddhist concept of "reality" is called maya; it is the world around us, and it is not permanent; it is not the real world. In fact, maya originally referred to a delusion or an illusion produced by a magician before it came to refer to the world around us. This concept of "reality" is the truth that Neo has to understand to become "the One."
Morpheus also teaches Neo Buddhist truths through a number of situations. When Morpheus is sparring with Neo in the Kung Fu arena, Morpheus yells at Neo, "When are you going to stop trying to hit me and hit me?" To achieve Enlightenment, Neo must let go of the rational mind, which prevents one from progressing spiritually. In Buddhism, the belief is that we know the truth, but the mind prevents us from accessing it. Morpheus tries to free Neo's mind through the Kung Fu sparring session and through the jump training, where he tells Neo, "Free your mind." The jump test is similar to a Zen koan, which seeks to show the limitations of the rational mind; Neo, however, is not ready to accept the truth and falls to the pavement below.
The last Buddhist reference has to do with the idea of life's being a path to follow. Both times this idea surfaces, it is in relation to the Oracle. On the way up the elevator, Neo asks Morpheus, "Has the Oracle ever been wrong?" Morpheus responds, "Do not think in terms of right and wrong. She is a guide; she will lead you on the path." Besides the reference to the path of life, Morpheus here echoes Taoist thinking (a precursor of and influence on Buddhist) in the removal of dualities. In the Western world, we are concerned with good and evil or right and wrong; Taoists and Buddhists believe that dualities are useless conventions and prevent us from attaining Enlightenment. For example, the opening of the second poem in the Tao Te Ching, one of the primary works of Taoism, states,
All the world knows beauty
but if that becomes beautiful
this becomes ugly
all the world knows good
but if that becomes good
this becomes bad (Pine 4)
If there is good, Lao-Tze is saying, there must also be bad; thus, dualities are irrelevant. The last reference to the path of life comes after Neo and Trinity have rescued Morpheus and Neo has then saved Trinity. Everyone but Neo now believes he is the one. Neo is not convinced because the Oracle told him he was not the one, which leads Morpheus to respond, "You have to learn, as I once did, that there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path." Again, this would seem contradictory in the Western mind; it is a combination of free will and predestination that is unacceptable in rational thought. However, the acceptance of this duality enables Neo to believe that he is "the One" and to reach Enlightenment, necessary for him to disrupt the world of the Matrix.
The Christian symbolism is an important structural device, providing the viewer with a strong Messiah archetype; however, the core truth of the movie, that "reality" is not real in the least, is heavily influenced by Buddhism. Only by freeing the mind and removing burdensome rational dualities can the soul reach enlightenment, and only by doing so can Neo become a savior. Irrational, perhaps, but that's the whole point.
*Quotation from Lao-tzu's Taoteching. Trans. Red Pine. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1996.