By John Lee Pendall
What inspired The Matrix? According to the directors, Buddhism and quantum physics both played a role.
I’m not going to go into the quantum physics aspect, because I only have a window-shopper knowledge of it at best. So, I’ll just stick with Buddhism. It’s easy to see the Buddhist influence in The Matrix. One of the cornerstones of Buddhism is that everything is like an illusion. Instead of being permanent and isolated, everything is empty, mind-made and non-dual.
The Zenniest line in the entire trilogy is probably, “Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth… there is no spoon. Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.” That might as well be a koan. In fact, it looks a lot like a famous koan:
Two monks were arguing about a flag flapping in the wind. “It’s the wind that is really moving,” stated the first one. “No, it is the flag that is moving,” said the second. A Zen master, who happened to be walking by, overheard the debate and interrupted them. “It’s not the flag or the wind that’s moving. It’s the mind that’s moving.”
If two people arguing about whether it’s the wind or the flag that’s moving seems outrageous, then take a few minutes to explore some Buddhist Facebook groups. People have argued about a lot more ridiculous things than that.
One of the main differences between The Matrix and the Zen take on reality and awakening is that in Zen, there’s no world “outside” the Matrix. There’s no truer or realer reality beyond this one. Nirvana isn’t some spiritual realm separate from the Matrix; it’s the wisdom of Matrix-only.
That’s not as exciting as the movie. We’re not escaping the Matrix so that we can fight some kind of malevolent robotic race. We’re not leaving behind our friends, families and our lives or saying that everything’s unreal. When Neo said that everything’s unreal, Morpheus responded, “How do you define real?” We’re just Waking Up to the Matrix, not escaping it.
Also, from a Buddhist standpoint, we’re all Neo; we’re all the Chosen One. That’s Buddha-nature.
That doesn’t mean we’ll be able to dodge bullets or fly after we Wake Up, it means we won’t be afraid of bullets or flying anymore, because we’re not the center of the universe, though the universe is the center of us. If we turnaround and look at where everything arises in our minds, we end up looping back around to the world that surrounds us.
The “illusion” in Buddhism is separation, this sense of containment we all have, even though everything about our experiences says that nothing is contained. The fact that I can even breathe proves that I’m not contained. Breathing in, what wasn’t me is becoming a part of me; breathing out, what was me is becoming a part of everything else. So in and out, me and not me, wholes and parts—these are the illusions that Buddhism talks about.
If we use programming lingo, everything’s code, so there aren’t any boundaries between one thing and another. Data flows freely between systems to the extent that there’s no such thing as a “closed system.” There aren’t any isolated “data sets.” That’s why the information processing model in psychology doesn’t quite cut it. Computers are finite, and they’re housed in discrete hardware. The mind isn’t like that because the body isn’t like that.
The body is totally open to the world. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be able to breathe, let alone think.
So the simulation model that The Matrix gives us only goes so far because—even though it has Buddhist influences—it’s also grounded in Cartesian dualism, whereas Buddhism isn’t. Descartes’ maxim, “I think therefore I am,” is basically what Buddhism sets out to call BS on.
Descartes had his own version of the Matrix with his, “I could be a brain in a vat hallucinating all of this,” thought experiment. The flaw in that is, if this was literally a simulation in your mind, then you could control it with intention alone. You could bend that spoon, you could jump 5,000 feet into the air. “It’s all a simulation,” isn’t the illusion that Buddhism is talking about.
The illusion isn’t the Matrix; it’s the notion that we’re outside of it, that there is an outside to it. That we’re in a pod somewhere, or that we’re a brain hallucinating in a vat.
That said, Buddhism isn’t totally incompatible with the simulation model. Buddha’s law of dependent arising is, “If this arises, then that arises; if this ceases, that ceases.” That’s an algorithm, and it was Buddha’s explanation of how there could a mind, body, universe and karma without a God or souls.
In Zen meditation, we’re just sitting with/as this universal algorithm that transcends us, yet also gives rise to and supports us and all things. When we’re sitting, it’s the Matrix sitting; when we’re walking, talking, or making love, it’s the Matrix walking, talking, and making love. The Matrix is just this algorithm and the awakening to its boundless, intimate play.
Awakening to the Buddha-Matrix won’t allow you to bend spoons with your mind, but it does allow us to not be bent or broken by anything. But, just like in the movie, most of us don’t give a fuck about Awakening. That path starts with an existential crisis and questions of purpose and meaning.
Practice starts with suffering.
If we haven’t had our fill of suffering yet, then we’re probably not gonna have the right motivation to practice well. We’ll choose the blue pill, and treat Buddhism like any other philosophical novelty. That’s what causes most of our misunderstandings about it. None of the teachings are saying what they want to say, because they can’t. Even the Matrix is just a metaphor; we can’t cling to it.
More than anything, it all points back toward a certain state of mind that can grok and create such teachings and methods. Even emptiness is just a tool that was forged by someone who had that state of mind. So, please, don’t go around saying, “It’s all the Matrix, man. Everything’s empty,” because it’s fucking not, Kyle, alright?
These views just help us to uncover an open, clear, compassionate state of mind. They have no value beyond that.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".