In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is someone who has achieved enlightenment, recognized reality as an illusion, let go of all ties of attachment, and escaped the circle of reincarnation. Beyond all this they have chosen to return, to be reincarnated, so they can show others the way. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is a bodhisattva and The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers 1999) is the story of his journey to enlightenment.
The first step for the student Neo is that he recognizes there is something beyond what he knows about reality: Have you ever felt like you were dreaming but you couldnt wake up? He begins looking for an answer, but ironically the only answers he has are in a book labeled Simulacra & Simulation. He cannot find the answers with the tools he has because the tools he has are a part of the problem. He needs someone to show him the way.
Now it is up to the teacher to find him and make contact. The teacher gives the student three chances for the student to accept contact. Each time comes closer to the teacher and closer to direct human contact. First his computer tells him to follow the white rabbit. Neo follows out of curiosity and learns that others have searched and it is possible to find answers. The second is the cell phone, a faceless voice. Neo doesnt follow because he is afraid. His judgment makes him fear, common sense says to fear: but his judgment flawed is because he is trapped in the illusion. The third contact is with old students of the teacher. Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) voices Neos knowledge that he is trapped. She tells him that there is a way out, but he cant see it because his judgment is flawed. Without trusting them, his flawed judgment will bring him right back to where he was. He must trust that others can show him the way. Neos desire for something better defeats his comfort with the familiar, so he chooses to follow them and take the way out.
To offer that way out, the future teacher has to know the destination. He may be a bodhisattva or one who has travelled far on his own path. The teacher cannot just show the student the path. That is meaningless. Instead, the student needs to find his own way (A Collection of Dhamma Talks, 3). Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) will reveal this directly to Neo later when they travel to the Oracle (Gloria Foster): I told you I can only show you the door. You have to walk through it.
It is important for the teacher to acknowledge the students search, for it is an accomplishment in itself that few manage. The teacher also acknowledges the feelings and drives behind the students search. This makes it clear that he understands, that he had to followed the same path as well. When they meet, Morpheus empathizes with Neos confusion and need to know:
I know exactly what you mean. Let me tell you why youre here. Youre here because you know something. What you know you cant explain, but you feel it. You felt it your entire life, that theres something wrong something wrong with the world. You dont know what it is, but its there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. (The Matrix)
Morpheus has put into words what Neo felt but has never said. Buddhism defines this feeling as Dukkha, the first of the Four Noble Truths:
Dukkha [suffering]: refers to the implicit unsatisfactoriness, incompleteness, imperfection, insecurity of all conditioned phenomena, which, because they are always changing, are always liable to cause suffering. Dukkha refers to all forms of unpleasantness from gross bodily pains and the suffering implicit in old age, sickness and death, to subtle feelings such as being parted from what we like or associated with what we dislike, to refined mental states such as dullness, boredom, restlessness, agitation, etc. (A Collection of Dharma Talks, 22)
When the student can acknowledge that what the teacher said is truly what he feels, the teacher makes the offer. In Morpheus words, Do you want to know what it is? When the student says yes, he is told what it is. The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even here in this very room, you can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television (The Matrix). Neo is also told that it is the wool that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth (The Matrix). The student now has been told the truth, and has no idea what was said. The telling makes it clear that being told by itself does not help. You have to walk the path to understand the path. As the memorable trailer line goes: Unfortunately no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself (The Matrix). The teacher speaks with much authority and caution, and makes clear that the next choice, the choice to take the road, is a life-altering choice, and that nothing will ever be the same afterwards: This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back (The Matrix). As the choice to continue is being made, the teacher draws back one last time to make it clear that he is not offering paradise, end to suffering, hell, or godhood, but only the truth, Dharma. Finally the moment of revelation: mirrors warp, shatter, and become liquid as Neo learns his reality is an illusion. He is pulled out and Morpheus makes clear what the Matrix is.
Revelation does not come easily. Horrified, Neo goes into hysterics and breaks down. After rest and much time alone the student begins comprehending the revelation and accepting it. This consists of learning that limitations are only what one believes they are. Neo is first shown that limitations are not what he thought they were when he is taught martial arts through five second downloads. However, it is impossible to learn something by having it pumped something into your head: you have to learn it for yourself. Morpheus invites Neo into the dojo for his first lesson on the limitations impressed by ones own self image when in the Matrix.
Although Neo enters with static knowledge, Morpheus challenges Neo to keep pushing farther. When Morpheus asks Neo if he believes he is breathing air in the Matrix, Neo finally realizes that he is only breathing in the Matrix because he thinks he should be. Now Neo is able to push beyond what the program says he can do. When Neo beats Morpheus the battle ends, for the teacher has taught all he can here. Because Neo is still defining himself by others, he can go no farther in this field. He has not yet broken any rules, only bent them. In the jump program he learns to stretch the limits of gravity, jumping impossibly far but still just jumping, something that is already possible. Failure in the jump program, something everyone does the first time, teaches that when the mind believes in injury and death, it will make them real.
Morpheus has brought Neo as far as he can. Now he brings Neo to the Oracle, so she can help him continue. The journey to the Oracle is as important a lesson as the actual talking to the Oracle. During the car ride Trinity introduces the concept that others cannot define you: The Matrix cannot tell you who you are (The Matrix). It is a lesson that will be continued by the Oracle later. At the door Morpheus tells Neo that you must actively walk the path, not just have others tell you how to walk the path. I can only show you the door. You have to walk through it (The Matrix). Buddha-Dharma explains the same thing: walking the path to reach the Buddha-Dhamma [Dharma] is something each one of us must do individually ourselves, for no one can do it for us (A Collection of Dhamma Talks, 3).
Neo chooses to walk the path farther, to walk through the apartment door on his own. On the other side he finds the children, who become the next lesson. How can children teach Neo anything? Children dont have preconceptions of the world. Their minds dont have the trouble letting go that Neos does.
Child: Do not try to bend the spoon. Thats impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth.
Neo: The truth?
Child: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Child: Then youll see it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
Compare this to the Zen Buddhist koan:
Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said, The flag is moving. The other said, The wind is moving. The sixth patriarch, Eno, happened to be passing by. He told them, Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving. (A Collection of Zen Koans, Internet)
The flag and the wind like the spoon are mental impressions. When the mind contacts a mental impression it flaps about according to the mental impressions of sensation. The less Dharma one knows, the more the mind will pursue mental impressions. Dharma is the practice of releasing attachments: no flag, no wind, only the Buddha mind. If there is a flag, there is a wind; if wind, a flag. Both flag and wind are only concepts. In reality they are nothing more than empty labels (A Collection of Dhamma Talks, 7, 17).
The Oracle challenges Neos beliefs and rejection of destiny and fate by saying, And dont worry about the vase, which he promptly breaks (The Matrix). She suggests that he is controlled by destiny, but then alters that perception by commenting on his breaking of it because of what she said: Oh, whats really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadnt told you? (The Matrix). Now destiny becomes a potential of an active force controlled by oneself.
The Oracle points out the sign, know thyself. The true revelations are about oneself. For Neo the revelation now, as before, is that he doesnt know himself. Learning the nature of the Matrix wasnt the primary revelation. Rather, Neo learns that he is not what he had thought, that he had defined himself by something outside himself and is still doing so, defining himself by how others see him and by the residual self image of his past life in the Matrix. The Oracle causes him to question his preconceptions about himself, so he can become what he truly is. She shows him dedication to something greater: Morpheus believes in you, Neo. And no one, not you, not even me, could convince him otherwise. He believes it so blindly, hes going to sacrifice his life to save yours (The Matrix). Then she lays before him his next choice: Youre going to have to make a choice. On the one hand, youll have Morpheus life, and on the other hand, youll have your own. One of you is going to die. Which one will be up to you (The Matrix). Here she defines that fate is real, but that it does not control your life. Fate is what is going to happen. Morpheus will sacrifice himself and one of them will die. But Neo has the control to choose what he will do about it, to choose whether Morpheus will die or not.
Now the second part of revelation is revealed. Morpheus has sacrificed himself so Neo can fulfill his destiny and continue to free others of the illusion of the Matrix. Neo now understands that his knowledge carries with it the responsibility to act on it:
Quote:Neo, like Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), can now see what the true nature of the Matrix is:
Knowing that all creatures are born to die
Suddenly and alone
And that all forms of life go through changes
Look at the transience of the fabric of existence
And discover the cause of suffering (The Great Dragons Fleas, 53)
People just living out their lives, oblivious. Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect world, where no one suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed that we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that as a species human beings define their reality through misery and suffering.
Buddhism has a word for this place:
Samsara: lit. perpetual wandering, is a name by which is designated the sea of life ever restlessly heaving up and down, the symbol of this continuous process of ever again and again being born, growing old, suffering, and dying. (A Collection of Dhamma Talks, 28)
Agent Smith can see Samsara. He looks upon it in disgust. He hates it. He wants out. Although Neo knows Nirvana, he looks upon a world trapped in suffering, a world with people who need to be freed.
And so Cyphers betrayal becomes more than a betrayal of friends and family. It is a betrayal to all the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar stand for, a betrayal of enlightenment, a betrayal of Truth. He betrays his responsibility to others when he chooses Samsara, the illusion, over Nirvana. Even worse, he becomes an agent of Samsara by destroying the agents of Nirvana. We never free a mind once its reached a certain age, explains Morpheus earlier. Its dangerous, and the mind has trouble letting go (The Matrix). Dharma is the nature of releasing attachments. It is as important to release the positive as the negative to prevent suffering, because denial and fear of losing the positive is the greatest cause of suffering. Cypher has never released attachments and remains trapped in the phenomenal world. Although Cypher knows Dharma, he is unable to follow it.
Accepting the responsibility laid upon him by enlightenment, Neo returns to save Morpheus, and with him Zion and the hopes of humanity. This is the choice that the Oracle revealed he would have to make.
Neo returns, against the advice of the others, because he believes in himself. Here is where he begins to separate from the others. The others do not believe in themselves, but in Morpheus. They believe in Morpheus because he believes in something greater. Now Trinity transfers her faith in Morpheus to Neo because she sees him believe in something greater also. Morpheus is able to go further than the others because he believes in something greater (the One), but that belief will not take him as far as the belief in oneself to which Neo is opening himself.
Most movie critics seemed to enjoy the action sequences and visual effects of The Matrix in and of themselves, but in isolation from the rest of the movie: Sure, weve all seen it all before; the slow-mo, and the bad guys that have no aim, the bullet shells hitting the floor. But, its never been done this well (Kong, Hard Boiled Movies). Those who sought for meaning beyond the action looked for good and evil, and seemed to be disappointed by the apparent lack of answers. What they failed to see is that the rescue of Morpheus is Neos systematic surpassing of the layers of the construct of the Matrix.
The first layer is the impossibility of getting into the secure military building. Neo and Trinity walk right in the front door and defeat security almost before it can react. Only a quick call for help gets out. The guards dont even believe it is something that can happen. The second layer is the military assault squad. Neo and Trinity avoid getting shot and beat them with their own weapons, but Neo and Trinity are still using the tools of the construct. The Agents are the next step. Using the tools of the construct, Neo is unable to hit the Agent. Now Neo takes the first blatant step beyond the others, ignoring the limits of speed to dodge the Agents bullets, gaining enough time for Trinity to shoot the distracted Agent. What is important to Neo is not how fast he moved but that he didnt move fast enough. However, he is still limited by the illusion of physical self limitation. The next step on the path is the helicopter. Neo transcends these physical limitations when he saves Trinity by hanging onto a line connected to the helicopter as it crashes, and then her as she falls out. Logically he would have been pulled over the edge both times.
Neos limitations are now far beyond human belief. He has bent the rules into pretzels but he has yet to break them. Neo has travelled the path far beyond the others when he faces Agent Smith, and Trinity can no longer stay with him. He must travel this part of the path alone. Alone Neo faces Agent Smith. Their abilities are now equal in all but one respect. The Agents are immortal within the construct. If their body dies, they take a new one. Neo cannot. Although Neo finally defeats Agent Smith, the Agent continues in a new form. The chase begins as Neo learns the rules work for the Agents, so defeating them within the rules is meaningless.
Neos lesson now is to truly learn that it is the mind which makes it real: life and death are in the mind and nowhere else (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, 46). When Neo is shot in the Matrix, his mind believes this should kill him so he dies. When all else is gone, love remains. Because Trinity has accepted her own destiny to love a dead man who would turn out to be the One, she will not accept his death. She calls to Neo from outside the Matrix. In doing so Trinity gives him the connection to reality that he needs. Trinity is in reality, the Matrix is an illusion. The bullet does not exist so it could not have killed him. It was Neos mind that decided he was dead, not the illusionary physics of the Matrix. Realizing this, his mind makes him alive once more, and Neo finally transcends fully and breaks the illusionary rules of the Matrix.
This kind of seeing [enlightenment] will give rise to a tranquil feeling of dispassion towards the world (A Collection of Dhamma Talks, 27). Neo has become a full bodhisattva. Samsara cannot touch him. To demonstrate that it cant, he stops the bullets in midair. He continues by showing the Agents cant touch him either, when Agent Smith attacks him. The Agents find out that they are not indestructible when Neo gives Agent Smith what he wants by freeing him into oblivion. Having transcended the limitations of Samsara on himself, Neo takes up his responsibility. Where Roger Ebert sees a cliched titanic fist-fight between the designated representatives of good and evil (Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times), Buddhism does not see Samsara as evil. It just is, and the way to transcend Samsara is through Dharma. At the end of the movie, Neo sets about freeing others by bringing them Dharma, even suggesting the AIs can be free as well. He does this by flying, going beyond the jump program. Neos mind no longer has any limitations, not even gravity. Ebert dismisses this Buddha-revelation as All we get is an enigmatic voice-over exhortation at the movies end (Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times).
The Matrix may not be as profound as it aspires to be, and it doesnt explore the characters enough to connect them to our hearts (Caro, Chicago Tribune). Caro is trying to find profoundness in Samsara. The Matrix is the story of Neos journey down the road of Dharma to transcendence of a bodhisattva.
A Collection of Zen Koans. 2000. <www.cybernet.net/~rpmille...y/zen.htm>
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