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.