There is no spoon: The Matrix and Buddhist philosophy

In this video by The Film Theorists Youtube channel, a compelling plot theory is proposed for the movie The Matrix and the entire Matrix franchise created by the Wachowski Brothers. In this theory, Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) and the movie’s heroes of Zion, the last refuge in the real world of free humans not enslaved by machines, are actually still trapped inside the Matrix. This explains Neo’s powers outside the Matrix that are seen in the later movies in the series.

However, I believe this interpretation misses many important elements. For instance, the Matrix itself isn’t real either. It’s just a movie.

Did I blow your mind yet?

Here’s what I mean: these kind of plot-specific theories about the Matrix miss the symbolic character of the movie. I believe the Matrix should be interpreted not just as a science fiction movie with philosophical elements thrown in, but as a philosophical statement in and of itself. Why is Neo able to use his powers outside of the Matrix? Because its a movie! It’s all an illusion, and we as viewers are meant to see that Neo is just as imaginary as anything on screen. However, we participate in that illusion, even to the point of trying to make theories about the film in order to make it a consistent, logical reality. Sound familiar?

This isn’t just a metacommentary on film as a genre, some kind of ultimate fourth wall reference. In fact, the Matrix is simply a large commentary on the actual nature of reality itself, not the reality of the movie. In short, the point we should draw from characters like Morpheus doubting the reality of Zion is that “there is no spoon” also refers to “real” world.

The Matrix also evidently borrows from Buddhist metaphysical and philosophical concepts. This is not just idle speculation; it is evident from the directors’ comments and movie plot (not to mention the fact that Keanu Reeves is a Buddhist and starred as the Buddha in the movie Little Buddha). The bald orphan in robes who delivers the famous “there is no spoon” line is an obvious homage to Buddhist monks and the philosophy of sunyata, or emptiness. More on emptiness later, but the proof is also in the words of the Wachowskis themselves. Take this quote from a 2003 interview to the directors when they were asked if Buddhism influenced making of the Matrix:

“Yes. There’s something uniquely interesting about Buddhism and mathematics, particularly about quantum physics, and where they meet. That has fascinated us for a long time.”

The intersection of Buddhism and physics has fascinated many scholars, including the Dalai Lama himself, who wrote about it in his book The Universe in a Single Atom. What is usually discussed in this context is the uncanny resemblance of several interpretations of quantum mechanics and the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness. Emptiness, or the lack of inherent existence, is a fundamental Buddhist concept that essentially posits that reality itself is an illusion, in that because all things are temporary and subject to time, nothing really exists independently and thus nothing has any fundamental substance. This seems to be born out by our modern understandings of physics at the most elementary level. Not only are particles like atoms already made up of 99.9% empty space in which a few elementary particles are whizzing about, but these elementary particles themselves are non-substantive because their nature as particles or waves is dependent on a variety of factors (in some interpretations, even whether they are observed or not, although the technical meaning of the term observation is still subject to intense debate among physicists). This physical phenomenon is known as wave-particle duality. Wave-particle duality is also supplemented by the famous Schrodinger equation, made famous by the Schrodinger’s cat analogy in which an elaborate quantumly-determined death trap is set up so that a cat in a box can be dead and alive at the same time. This fundamental indeterminacy of the quantum world (referred to as the probability functions of quantum particles), among many other features and theories of the quantum world, is why Buddhist teachers and physicists have been able to have many prolific discussions. It has also led some physicists to propose that “fundamental particles” do not actually exist: they are merely human interpretations of the strange and indeterminate world of the smallest scales of reality.

However, the Matrix does not only reference the quantum world. In its “levels of reality” schema, the Matrix sets up a situation in which worlds or dimensions are inside of other worlds, layers upon layers of illusion. This bears a striking resemblance to the Buddhist doctrine of interpenetration, which is explored most distinctly in the Buddhist scripture called the Gandavyuha Sutra, a part of the larger Avatamsaka Sutra. Interpenetration is most clearly represented by the metaphor of Indra’s Web, the god Indra’s infinite web of jewels in which jewel reflects all the other jewels. This infinite net of reflections creates the eternal illusion of reality itself. To put his metaphor in the language of the Matrix, there is no escape from the Matrix because we are eternally caught in Indra’s Net. Indeed, the Matrix is Indra’s Web. Who created the Matrix (Reality itself)? There is no answer because all is illusory: this is the answer we are given over and over by the sutras, the Zen patriarchs, the Tibetan tantras, and all Buddhist masters and yogis of the ages. Another way of expressing this ineffable truth is “nirvana is beyond concepts”. 

Something else that must be explored is the idea, foundational to Mahayana, of non-duality. Non-duality is most eloquently articulated in texts such as the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. In these texts, such ambiguous and mind-breaking teachings (for a Buddhist) are explicated, such as:

“There is no Nirvana, there is no Buddha, there is no Dharma [teachings]”

“Nirvana is Samsara [impure cyclic existence, our world]”

These paradoxical teachings seem to imply that the foundations of Buddhist philosophy, including the promise of freedom, are also fundamentally illusory. Therefore, is Enlightenment, the goal and promise of Buddhism, a lie? No: rather, enlightenment is realizing that nothing like Enlightenment exists as such. This must not only be temporarily realized, but integrated into the fabric of one’s mind, and all subtle traces extinguished.

How does this parallel with the Matrix? In the theory offered by the Film Theorists channel, the people of Zion (a Biblical reference to the promised land) are unaware that they are also in a dream, a fantasy created by the Matrix. In the movie, we are led to believe that this is a nefarious plot, an elaborate version of the Cartesian “brain in a vat” problem (how do I know if I’m not just a brain in a vat somewhere?). While the Matrix absolutely draws on Western philosophy as well as Eastern philosophy, the inconsistencies and paradoxes of the later movies are best explained not as a plot-hole or an in-canon larger technological conspiracy, but as a purposeful philosophical statement by the Wachowskis. Thus, the people of Zion are still metaphorically attached to the illusion that they exist, and so are we. 

And so, the most abiding question of film theorists and Matrix fans, “what is the Matrix?” can be definitively answered in philosophical context:

The Matrix is you. It is everything. It is Us, trapped by our own illusions and misinterpretations of reality. We are the ones who should take the “red pill”, while realizing that in reality, “there is no red pill”. In the words of the Heart Sutra:

” Form is empty. Emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form is also not other than emptiness…in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no discrimination, no compositional factors, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no visual form, no sound, no odor, no taste, no object of touch, and no phenomenon. There is no eye element and so on up to and including no mind element and no mental consciousness element. There is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, and so on up to and including no aging and death and no extinction of aging and death. Similarly, there is no suffering, origination, cessation, and path; there is no exalted wisdom, no attainment, and also no non-attainment.”

There is no You, no Me, and there is no Matrix either.

What should we take from this? I believe there are many answers. One, I believe that we should take what the makers of movies who have something to say about us, about our world, more seriously, even if what is offered on the screen is an illusion. On the one hand, the general viewer must be faulted for not taking the movie seriously enough, or seen in another view, for taking it too seriously (as a coherent story with a narrative that must make sense). The way we watch movies is thus reflective of society as a whole and the way we perceive reality: it can therefore be changed and is not necessarily inherent. The Matrix should therefore also be seen as a cultural commentary, and there are many layers (particularly with respect to the effects of technology on society) that should be explored in more detail, perhaps by other commentators. However, I believe that the proverbial heart of the Matrix lies with its timeless message about reality: that things are not as they appear.

Or are they? It all depends on your point of view.

Check out my other article on Avatar: The Last Airbender and Buddhist philosophy

 

 

 

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Politics as herd mentality: stepping back from the crowd

Can even an empancipatory political movement stifle the growth and development of an individual? Can microfascisms in a social group develop and completely dominate a particular subjectivity? I argue that particularly in terms of authoritarian socialism and to some extent in any political mass movement, this is not only encouraged but the modus operandi.

While not falling into Nietzschean extremes of denigrating the ideology of socialism as inherently a “slave morality”, the concept of the herd mentality should be resuscitated  by the critical philosophical project. Why? Because for many people caught in the snare of mass culture, politics is just part and parcel of that grand project of creating a mass culture. Liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism: these are all more than just political leanings. They are cultures, pastimes, and more importantly ways of life. They are modes of subjectivity that furthermore aim to completely take over the individual.

Above all, they are simply diversions, illusions of creating a perfect world. Sure, one of them (in my view non-authoritarian socialism) holds the keys to creating a structurally sound society, but often fixing society’s problems is the end-all and be-all of a political person’s life. But what do I mean when I say diversions?

I mean that when libidinal energy is invested in a political structure, the motive of that libidinal energy can not only be compassionate, but also a kind of dangerous ressentiment no matter what side of the political aisle you are on. Politics can make people do terrible things: it can warp and twist the mind to do things normally unthinkable in the name of “the greater good”. Perhaps we need to revitalize the “smaller good”. In this way, I partly disagree with Zizek’s re-prioritization of the global as opposed to the local. While issues like climate change certainly require global action and cooperation, one of the reasons why I believe the “postmodern condition” has been exacerbated is because of the continuing abstraction of daily life. The politicization of every aspect of life and the continuing complete totalization of life into the mediascape must be fought. Other, pre-modern forms of subjectivity should be encouraged and revitalized to this effect. In particular, attachment to the land, locality, folk belief, and religion is the last thing that the capitalist world order wants. The capitalist world order wants to eventually drown the entire world in one monoculture: it will not just adapt as Zizek believes. While there is a danger of new ethnic folk nationalisms, these are fast becoming anachronisms. The preservation of life as it has been, “folk life”, is a necessity to counteract the effects of globalizing monoculture. Politics is just one way in which one can become ensnared and forget life outside the comings and goings of Power.

When the comings and goings of History and Power seem too much for you- LET GO. Let go of it all. Watch it as the effervescent shadow play of kabuki theater. It is all impermanent, it means nothing. If you feel called to act, act, but still recognize that your actions are like drops of water on an endless beach: they will be washed away by the unrelenting tide of eternity.

This may seem nihilistic or defeatist, and I’m sure some will accuse of “New Age” ramblings, or worse of having the “privilege” to look at everything from a cosmic perspective. But more than that, I want people to be able to look at the rush and hustle and bustle and take a minute to go beyond the troubles of their lives or the world. Step back, and see what can be accomplished when you aren’t a part of a group or a crowd. Let life happen. Listen: be aware of the sights. I address this those I know in my generation who I would describe as brilliant, political people: let go. Find yourself. Stop trying for a moment to save the world. This generation has many troubles, and one of them I feel is the inability to really be with themselves. I hope- no, I pray- that they find some kind of spiritual life. To me, it does not matter what that is, but that is one reason why I feel that something is lacking in this generation compared to say the Boomer Generation. The Boomers tried to find themselves: the Beatniks, the hippies, the Eastern religious acolytes. Our generation seems only lost in comparison. Perhaps I am too quick to judge, but I feel that one of the culprits may be the overpoliticization of our lives. As part of the Iraq War generation, we feel that we have an obligation to rid ourselves of the bad politics of our forbears. I assent to this feeling. But there is a latent problem in this mentality as well, and that is the lack of inward focus necessary to achieving true individual development. When I look around, I see Deleuze’s prophecy coming true all the same, even if problem isn’t consumerism:

Dividuals. No individuals to be found