The Matrix film draws heavily from Gnostic Christianity and Buddhism. These traditions maintain that the problem of ignorance can be solved through an individual's reorientation of perspective concerning the material realm.
Gnostic Christianity and Buddhism both offer a guide - a Gnostic redeemer figure (Jesus) and a bodhisattva (Buddha), who are willing to enter our dream-world of illusion to share liberating knowledge and facilitate our escape through awakening and enlightenment. In the Matrix movie, this figure is Neo, whose name is an anagram for the "One."
The film constructs a new teaching that challenges its audience to question "reality." The audience sees the name Trinity6, Neo's death and his Christ-like resurrection and ascension near the end of the film. He is a Jesus figure: he is "the One" who was prophesied to return again to The Matrix, who has the power to change The Matrix from within (i.e., to work miracles), who battles the representatives of evil and who is killed but comes back to life again.
Within minutes of the start of the movie, another hacker says to Neo,
"You're my savior, man, my own personal JesusChrist."
Although the Christian elements in the film are clear, it is not traditional, orthodox Christianity. It is Gnostic Christianity. Gnosticism was a religious system that flourished for centuries at the beginning of the Common Era. The Gnostics had their own Scriptures that were not uncovered until 1945 in the form of the Nag Hammadi Library which explains the true nature of the universe and humankind's proper place in it.
The Christian Gnostic belief is that the supreme god is completely perfect and therefore alien and mysterious, "ineffable," "unnamable," "immeasurable light which is pure, holy and immaculate" (Apocryphon of John). In addition to this god there are other, lesser divine beings in the pleroma. Pairs of these beings are able to produce offspring that are themselves divine emanations, perfect in their own ways....but a problem arises when a female being named Pistis Sophia (Greek for Spirit Wisdom), decides "to bring forth a likeness out of herself without the consent of the Spirit," and produces an offspring without her consort (Apocraphy of John).
Sophia's action produces an offspring that is imperfect or even malformed, and she casts it away from the other divine beings in the pleroma into a separate region of the cosmos. This malformed, ignorant deity, sometimes named Yaldaboath, mistakenly believes himself to be the only god.
Gnostics identify Yaldabaoth as the Creator God of the Old Testament, who himself decides to create archons (angels), the material world (Earth) and human beings.
Yaldabaoth is tricked into breathing the divine spark or spirit of his mother Sophia that formerly resided in him into human beings. Therein lies the human dilemma. We are pearls in the mud, a divine spirit (good) trapped in a material body (bad) and a material realm (bad). Heaven is our true home, but we are in exile from the pleroma.
For the Gnostic, salvation comes through gnosis (knowledge) brought by a Gnostic redeemer (Jesus Christ), a figure sent from the higher God to free humankind from the Creator God Yaldabaoth. The gnosis involves an understanding of our true nature and origin, the metaphysical reality unknown to us, resulting in the Gnostic's escape (at death) from the enslaving material prison of the world and the body, into the upper regions of spirit.
To make this ascent, the Gnostic must pass by the archons, who are jealous of his/her luminosity, spirit or intelligence, and who try to hinder the Gnostic's upward journey. "The gatekeepers - they are guarding all the doors, they are holding all the keys." These Agents are like the jealous archons created by Yaldabaoth who block the ascent of the Gnostic as he/she tries to leave the material realm. They guard the gates of the successive levels of heaven. Apocalypse of Paul). This
parallels the plot of The Matrix with the problem that humans face as well as the solution.
As Morpheus explains to Neo:
"As long as The Matrix exists, the human race will never be free." Neo breaks the rules of the material world that he now perceives to be an illusion. It is "the mind makes it real"- but it is not ultimately real. In the final scene of the film, it is this gnosis that Neo passes on to others in order to free them from the prison of their minds, The Matrix.
When asked if Buddhist ideas influenced the producers of the Matrix movie, the Wachowski brothers offered an unqualified "Yes."
The Matrix is described by Morpheus as "a prison for your mind." This "construct" resembles the Buddhist idea of samsara that teaches that the world in which we live our daily lives is constructed only from the sensory projections formulated from our own desires.
Neo learns that the way he had perceived himself in The Matrix was nothing more than "the mental projection of your digital self." The "real" world, which we associate with what we feel, smell, taste, and see, "is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."
According to Buddhism and according to The Matrix, the conviction of reality based upon sensory experience, ignorance, and desire keeps humans locked in illusion until they are able to recognize the false nature of reality and relinquish their mistaken sense of identity (FALSE EGO).
Buddhism teaches that the suffering of human beings is dependent upon a cycle of ignorance and desire which locks humans into a repetitive cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Humans are trapped in a cycle of illusion, and their ignorance of this cycle keeps them locked in it, fully dependent upon their own interactions with the program and the illusions of sensory experience which these provide, and the sensory projections of others.
These projections are strengthened by humans’ enormous desire to believe that what they perceive to be real is in fact real. This desire is so strong that it overcomes Cypher, who can no longer tolerate the "desert of the real" and asks to be reinserted into The Matrix. As he sits with Agent Smith in an upscale restaurant smoking a cigar with a large glass of brandy, Cypher explains his motives:
"You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, The Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss."
Cypher knows that The Matrix is not real and that any pleasures he experiences there are illusory. Yet for him, the "ignorance" of samsara is preferable to enlightenment. Not only does Cypher want to forget the true reality,he wants to be an "actor," to add another level of illusion to the illusion of The Matrix that he is choosing to re-enter.
For Theravada Buddhists, "man’s emancipation depends on his own realization of the Truth, and not on the benevolent grace of a god or any external power as a reward for his obedient good behavior."
The Dhammapada urges the one seeking enlightenment to,
"Free thyself from the past, free thyself from the future, free thyself from the present. Crossing to the farther shore of existence, with mind released everywhere, no more shalt thou come to birth and decay."44
As Morpheus says to Neo,
"There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path." And as the Buddha taught his followers,
"You yourselves should make the effort; the Awakened Ones are only teachers."
Neo is a reincarnation of the Buddha with extraordinary powers to aid in the enlightenment of all humanity. Like the Buddha, his enlightenment grants him omniscience and he is no longer under the power of The Matrix, nor is he subject to birth, death, and rebirth within AI’s mechanical construct.
Neo, like the Buddha, seeks to be free from The Matrix and to teach others how to free themselves. He represents the actualization of the Buddha-nature, one who can not only recognize the "origin of pain in the world of living beings," but who can also envision "the stopping of the pain."
Buddhism teaches that when samsara is transcended, nirvana is attained. The notion of self is completely lost, so that conditional reality fades away, and what remains, if anything, defies the ability of language to describe. In his re-entry into The Matrix, however, Neo retains the "residual self-image" and the "mental projection of digital self." Upon "enlightenment," he finds himself not in nirvana, or no-where, but in a different place with an intact, if somewhat confused, sense of self.
Trinity may be right that The Matrix "cannot tell you who you are," but who you is related to who you think you are in The Matrix.
The filmmakers portray violence as redemptive,53 and as absolutely essential to the success of the rebels. The Matrix steers sharply away at this point from the shared paradigms of Buddhism and Gnostic Christianity. The producers acknowledge that it is,
"ironic that Morpheus and his crew are completely dependent upon technology and computers, the very evils against which they are fighting." Negating itself, The Matrix teaches that nirvana is still beyond our reach.
Whether we view the film from a Gnostic Christian or Buddhist perspective, the overwhelming message seems to be, "Wake up!" The point is made explicit in the final song of the film, Wake Up! by Rage Against the Machine.
Gnosticism, Buddhism and the film all agree that ignorance enslaves us in an illusory material world and that liberation comes through enlightenment with the aid of a teacher or guide figure.
However, when we ask the question, "To what do we awaken?", the film appears to diverge sharply from Gnosticism and Buddhism. Both of these traditions maintain that when humans awaken, they leave behind the material world. The Gnostic ascends at death to the pleroma, the divine plane of spiritual, non-material existence, and the enlightened one in Buddhism achieves nirvana, a state which cannot be described in language, but which is utterly non-material.
Whether stated in terms of matter/spirit, body/mind, hardware/software or illusion/truth, the ultimate message of The Matrix seems to be that there may be levels of metaphysical reality beyond what we can ordinarily perceive, and the film urges us to open ourselves to the possibility of awakening to them.
Jesus: "Do to others as you would have them do to you." Luke 6:31
Buddha: "Consider others as yourself." Dhammapada 10:1
Jesus: "If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also." Luke 6:29
Buddha: "If anyone should give you a blow with his hand, with a stick, or with a knife, you should abandon any desires and utter no evil words." Majjhima Nikaya 21:6
Jesus: "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." Matthew 25:45
Buddha: "If you do not tend to one another, then who is there to tend you? Whoever would tend me, he should tend the sick." Vinaya, Mahavagga 8:26.3
Jesus: "Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword." Matthew 26:52
Buddha: "Abandoning the taking of life, the ascetic Gautama dwells refraining from taking life, without stick or sword." Digha Nikaya 1:1.8
Jesus: "Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it." Mark 8:35
Buddha: "With the relinquishing of all thought and egotism, the enlightened one is liberated through not clinging." Majjhima Nikaya 72:15
Jesus: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." Matthew 28:19-20
Buddha: "Teach the dharma which is lovely at the beginning, lovely in the middle, lovely at the end. Explain with the spirit and the letter in the fashion of Brahma. In this way you will be completely fulfilled and wholly pure." Vinaya Mahavagga 1:11.1
Reprinted from "Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings" edited by Marcus Borg, published by Ulysses Press