Monday, 3 February 2014

Exploring The Matrix part 2: Eastern Influence

Ok, so I had covered the idea that Neo represents the religious figure of Jesus Christ, but he clearly is an amalgam of many religious character models.  The second most obvious figure is the Buddha.  The simple explanation of a Buddha is an individual who has become enlightened and has reached a form of transcendence beyond this reality.  A Buddha has been released from the endless cycle of life, suffering and death.

A funny thing I must point out is the fact that the actor who plays Neo, Keanu Reeves played the historical buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama in the 1993 film Little Buddha.  Five years later he would essentially reprise his role in The Matrix.    

If I had to sum up The Matrix in two words it would be “Wake up”. Each of the three films of the trilogy we are introduced to the character of Neo as he is waking from some kind of sleep or unconsciousness state. This is the constant theme of all of the works that have emerged out of The Matrix series.  Waking up is the perfect metaphor for any kind of disillusion, as is heavily emphasized in Buddhism and Hinduism.  Eastern philosophy nearly always centers around the concept of waking from the base form of human consciousness into something more elevated.  Alan Watts is my go-to english speaking philosopher regarding eastern ideas.  The main theme of his books, essays and lectures always revolve around the concept of waking from the dream that is life.

My obsession with his lectures this summer has helped me now understand this film much better.  I think The Matrix does a great job of putting the viewer into a context where its easier to understand this kind of school of metaphysical thought. The concept of a simulated or illusory reality can metaphorically substitute for society, law, religion, careers or even life itself.  This film is heavily influenced by these Eastern religions which have their main premises based on the idea of reality as some kind of illusion or dream.  But the film uses the tools of a science fiction/kung-fu genre to convey it’s very thought provoking concept for people living western society.  

Although the film deviates from eastern thought at a crucial point.  In traditional religious teachings, enlightenment takes time, effort and investment. To be free from Samsara, a Buddhist monk will spend decades practicing their meditation. A Hindu Sadhu will practice torturous ascetic feats to attain a high measure of holiness. To attain any kind of higher status in any religious tradition, one must give some sort of dedication or sacrifice.  In The Matrix, Neo became enlightened and eventually reached a kind of Buddhahood by simply believing and taking a red pill.  All you need for enlightenment is an insatiable curiosity and a little courage.

One of my favorite scenes of the movie is when Morpheus is captured and interrogated by the agents of the matrix. Agent Smith revealed that the original incarnation of the Matrix was a utopia. It was a perfect world where no one suffered and everyone was to be happy.  In a parallel to the Book of Genesis, It was a Garden of Eden in digital space. Apparently it was a catastrophe. The humans didn't accept the perfect reality because they constantly tried to wake up from what appeared to be just a dream. People couldn't resist seeking the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Therefore the Matrix was re-designed to a more realistic vision of human life with all of its un-pleasantries.Smith believed that human beings defined reality through misery and suffering. This is interesting from an eastern religious point of view because it would be in accordance with Buddhist philosophy which teaches that the cycles of life and death are full of suffering known as Samsara. Studying The Matrix from a Buddhist perspective, people like the Morpheus or Trinity characters represent a Bodhisattva. They are people who have been freed and have reached a higher level of enlightenment. But instead of leaving samsara, they remain inside and vow to make it their duty to help beings reach Buddhahood.  Which in a way, Neo eventually did achieve.

Midway through the film we are introduced to the character known as The Oracle. She appears as a simple old woman baking cookies in her apartment, but she has the ability to see the future. The lasting message I take from the Oracle scene is “Know Thyself”. A Latin phrase which is seen inscribed above her kitchen door. An essential theme borrowed from Greek mythology as the same inscription appears above the entrance to the Delphic oracle’s temple.  The Oracle asks Neo if he believes himself to be The One. Neo responds by saying “I don’t know”. She then points to the Latin phrase and tells Neo that it means “know thyself”. Later, when Neo became The One, It wasn’t only because Trinity confessed her love. It was because Neo really was beginning to believe that he in fact was The One.  Again I hearken back to Alan Watts who spoke eloquently about understanding the nature of the self.  A key to attaining enlightenment is to truly understand yourself.

The symbolism of self-knowledge first appeared immediately after Neo took the red pill. Neo looks into a mirror and he notices that his face is distorted by a crack. The mirror then repairs itself before his eyes. He touches the mirror and his body begins to be consumed in a mirrored substance until he is completely enveloped in a reflective surface and then is ejected from the matrix into the real world. I think the mirror is an important image because it symbolizes self-knowledge. The mirror that consumed Neo represented a feedback loop of introspection. The lasting message of this film I believe is that one cannot grasp true knowledge of the universe until one know the true nature of the self.

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