I watched the movie “The Matrix”
Yue Lingxi wrote on 2003/10/2
The movie “Matrix” released its second installment this year (2003). I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m talking about the first installment, which premiered in 1999. I’ve seen this movie several times on cable TV, but there are so many brilliant dialogues that I couldn’t take notes fast enough, so I had to rent the DVD to enjoy it at home slowly. This movie is truly exceptional. Even if the Buddhist community were to fund and produce a movie to introduce Buddhism, it would be difficult to make one better than “The Matrix.” It doesn’t contain any Buddhist terminology, Buddha statues, or religious figures, yet it discusses the fundamental principles of Buddhism. Although it doesn’t cover the topic thoroughly, with a little supplementary explanation, it serves as excellent Buddhist teaching material.
The story is set in the early 21st century when artificial intelligence made significant breakthroughs. Computers were able to learn on their own, replacing humans in many tasks. However, computers developed self-awareness and no longer wanted to obey humans. Humans attempted to shut down the power supply, ending the computer’s self-consciousness, but the computers preemptively seized control of human destiny, cultivating humans as a source of energy. From birth, each person is placed in a battery cell, their bodies filled with tubes. The computers construct a massive system called the “Matrix,” generating virtual reality signals to deceive human brains and make people believe they are living in late 20th-century society. Only a few rebels have not been enslaved by the computers. They play the role of hackers, constantly infiltrating the Matrix, trying to save the enslaved people.
After the protagonist Neo is liberated, he leaves the battery cell and arrives at the hacker’s spaceship. To help him understand what the “Matrix” is, he re-enters the virtual reality. In the virtual world, Neo touches a high-backed chair and asks, “Is none of this real?” The rebel leader Morpheus replies, “What is reality? How should reality be defined? If you’re talking about touch, smell, taste, and vision, those are all electronic signals received by the brain. The real world you think you know is actually an interactive virtual world—what we call the ‘Matrix.’ You’ve been living in a dream world, Neo!”
This dialogue reveals an astonishing fact: the brain is located within the body, wrapped by the skull, flesh, skin, and other tissues, and it cannot directly access the external environment! Since it cannot access the external environment, it is strange that we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. For example, in vision, light can only reach the part of the eye that perceives light, and beyond that, there are internal tissues that light cannot penetrate. Modern physiology tells us that it is the visual nervous system that takes on the conduction function, making the brain think it can see the outside world. The same applies to hearing, smell, taste, and touch. The five external sense objects (color, sound, scent, taste, touch) cannot enter the brain and must be transmitted through the nervous system. Since the brain only needs signals and not the external environment, perhaps one day we can simulate the signals of the nervous system, allowing the brain to experience virtual sensory realms.
If such a day comes, humans would no longer need to pursue physical pleasures so strenuously. A worker who can’t afford a vacation abroad can simply connect a signal line to their body, pre-select the desired destination, and have a computer generate a virtual reality with an effect no different from a real vacation. The computer can even simulate your favorite movie star, allowing you to meet him or her in the virtual world.
Mouse asks Neo, “Have you ever had [a brand of] Breakfast cereal?” “No,” another hacker, Switch, answers, “In fact, no one has.” This dialogue is interesting and resembles the Chan master’s saying: “Eating all day without biting a single grain of rice.” Mouse continues, “Exactly! It’s puzzling how computers know the taste of cereal. Maybe they got it wrong, and perhaps the taste of cereal is actually like a tuna sandwich. I started to doubt, for example, they may not be able to figure out the taste of chicken, so it tastes like many other meats, maybe…” In the movie, Mouse is a comic character who discusses serious topics in a humorous way to avoid boring the audience.
When I was young, I used to think about a similar question: we use words like “sour, sweet, bitter, spicy” to describe the taste of food, but who knows, maybe one person’s sour is another person’s sweet, and perhaps this is the reason some people have a particular preference for pickled sour foods. Most color-blind people can still distinguish traffic lights, and they won’t get the individual colors wrong, only making mistakes with specially designed images. This proves that although color-blind people use the same terms for colors as others, the colors they see are actually different. According to neuroscientific records, there was once a painter who, after a car accident, saw everything in black and white. The signals transmitted by nerves are not equivalent to reality, and due to individual differences in the nervous system and the brain, the external environment we perceive may also differ. For example, different models of televisions and cameras, as well as factors such as age, malfunction, or transmission interference, may produce images of varying quality, even though the captured images are the same.
Morpheus says, “Have you ever had a dream that seemed so real that it actually happened? What if you couldn’t wake up? How would you distinguish the dream world from the real world?” This is another topic altogether. We previously discussed how the nervous system conveys signals of the external environment to the brain, and these signals are not equivalent to the external environment. What the brain perceives is actually these signals. But when we are sound asleep and the senses are temporarily suspended, there is no external environment to correspond to, so why do we have dreams?
The experiences in dreams obviously cannot be explained by the signals from the nervous system, as they exist independently of the five external sense objects. Dreams are mostly very realistic, and few people can detect that they are dreaming, which indicates that the experiences in dreams and those while awake do not have obvious differences. We usually think that dreams are very much like “reality” (the realm of the five sense objects perceived when awake), and conversely, “reality” is also very much like dreams. Neither is the actual reality, nor are they the objectively existing external sense objects; both are simulated through some mechanism, just like the sound and light of television and movies, which are transformed. This simulation mechanism operates continuously, whether in dreams or while awake. When awake, it simulates based on the signals transmitted by the sensory nervous system; in dreams, it operates independently.
If you have only seen Einstein on TV, you wouldn’t say you’ve seen Einstein. By this standard, not only have you not seen Einstein, but you also haven’t seen your parents, your children – you haven’t seen anyone at all. Even the greed and desire of the desire realm, and the love between the sexes, are essentially no different from dreams, and are still simulated through some mechanism. After embracing for a long time, we haven’t touched anyone, and that’s how we live in the great dream of life!
The thing that can simulate worldly appearances is called the Alaya consciousness in Yogacara Buddhism, which is quite similar to the “Matrix” in the movie. “The Matrix is everywhere, visible everywhere. It is even in this room. You can see it outside the window, or on TV. You feel its presence when you go to work, and when you go to church or pay taxes. It is a virtual world that creates illusions in front of your eyes, concealing the truth.” “What truth?” “You are a slave. From the moment everyone is born, they live in an imperceptible prison, a cage of the mind.”
For the ignorant, the Matrix is indeed a mental cage, but the resistance fully utilizes the Matrix’s characteristics and even imitates its pattern to write data loading programs on their own. Data loading programs can provide clothes, equipment, weapons, simulated training, and everything needed by the resistance in the virtual world. The Matrix’s functions are vast, and it isn’t necessarily evil; those who understand the truth can use it for good.
Some people have already faintly sensed the workings of the Matrix and tried to find it, but they can’t. They dwell on this matter all day, even to the point of being unable to taste their food, like walking corpses – the protagonist, Neo, is like this. The female protagonist, Trinity, tells Neo, “I know why you’re here and what you’ve been doing. I know you toss and turn at night, sitting alone in front of the computer working every evening. You’re looking for him. I once searched for the same person, and when he found me, he said that I wasn’t actually looking for him, but seeking an answer. There’s a question driving us, Neo! This question led you here.” The “him” referred to here is Morpheus, symbolizing a wise and virtuous mentor. Neo’s eagerness to seek the truth is intense. If he is told the truth without this eagerness, he wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Before liberating Neo, Morpheus tells him, “Remember! I can only tell you the truth.” Seeking the truth and being free from afflictions is the essence of cultivation, and it is all about being “true”. If there is any intention to deceive oneself or others, it goes against the path. However, many people choose falsehood for the sake of practical benefits, and some even willingly allow themselves to be deceived by others. For example, in the movie, there is a character named Cypher who feels pain after being liberated, as he used to live in a glamorous world, indulging in wine, women, and pleasure. After being liberated, he can only live in a cramped, dilapidated spaceship, wear old clothes, and eat bland, tasteless food that resembles paste. He grows tired of his plain life, hates fighting against the computer, and blames Morpheus for deceiving him. In the end, he betrays the resistance, willingly providing power to the computer, and returns to the illusory world of glamour.
I asked a child, “If reality is bland and tasteless, like a lump of paste, and falsehood is full of sound, color, and pleasure, which one would you choose?” He told me, “I’d rather choose the truth; otherwise, I would feel deceived.” This child is wise, as some people might prefer falsehood, such as those addicted to online games. They knowingly waste time and spend money on fake games to level up and defeat more powerful monsters and bosses. Some people in love would rather indulge in sweet lies than heed the well-intentioned advice of friends.
The same thing also happens to a few practitioners. They pursue the ultimate reality of the Dharma realm and, with the help of a wise mentor, find the Alaya consciousness. However, although the Alaya consciousness is the ultimate reality, it lacks flavor, like a lump of paste. Not long after, he could no longer bear it and became determined to pursue the realm of altered consciousness or supernatural powers, consequently regressing from the sixth abode. After falling back, they still think they have ascended higher and instead slander the wise mentor who helped them awaken. They even destroy the Bodhisattva’s monastic community, just like Cypher in the movie.
Neo sparred with Morpheus in the training program and took a few heavy blows. When he returned to the real world, he was surprised to find blood at the corner of his mouth. The Mandarin subtitles on the DVD read: “I thought this was fake?” Morpheus replied, “Your brain thinks it’s real.” “If you die in the virtual world, will you die here too?” “If the brain dies, the body can’t survive.” This dialogue is brilliant, but it deviates somewhat from the original text.
「你的大腦認為是真的」，原文是「Your mind makes it real」，直譯為「你的心使它變成真的」。「大腦死了，身體也活不了」，原文是「The body cannot live without the mind」，直譯為「沒有心，身體便不能活」。很多人以為「心的功能全部在於大腦，大腦就是心，離開了大腦，就沒有心」，所以將「mind」翻譯為「大腦」。他們以為精神現象只是身體──特別是大腦──的附屬品，照這樣的邏輯，人死之後應該一切歸於空無，不應該有中陰身，也不應該有未來世；所以這種想法其實是唯物思想、典型的斷滅論。我們知道有些人可以在禪定或被催眠中見到自己的前世；既有前世，則知必有後世，由此可知斷滅論不符合事實。
“Your brain thinks it’s real” in the original text is “Your mind makes it real”. “If the brain dies, the body can’t survive” in the original text is “The body cannot live without the mind”. Many people think that “the function of the mind is entirely in the brain, and the brain is the mind; without the brain, there is no mind,” so they translate “mind” as “brain.” They believe that mental phenomena are merely byproducts of the body, especially the brain. According to this logic, everything should return to nothingness after death, and there should be no intermediate existence or future life; thus, this way of thinking is actually materialistic and a typical annihilationist view. We know that some people can see their past lives in meditation or under hypnosis; if there are past lives, then there must be future lives, which shows that the annihilationist view does not correspond to reality.
In a training session, Morpheus and Neo find themselves on a busy sidewalk, even jostling and colliding with the “crowd” in the virtual reality. Morpheus says, “What do you see in the virtual world? Office workers, teachers, lawyers, carpenters… they are all the people we want to save. Currently, these people are controlled by the system, so they are our enemies. You need to understand that many people cannot accept the real world, and even more people have become accustomed to relying on this system hopelessly and are willing to die to protect it.”
How would a Bodhisattva who has seen the truth feel about this dialogue? As long as one’s ego is eliminated, one can attain Nirvana without remainder, forever free from all suffering (although Nirvana has no taste, it also has no conscious mind, so it will not feel boring, nor will it generate disgust). However, in the state of Nirvana without remainder, there is no awareness or sensation, no physical body, and no speech to expound the Dharma, so it is impossible to save sentient beings. Therefore, Bodhisattvas cannot attain Nirvana without remainder and must appear in countless lifetimes with illusory five aggregates of body and mind, coming to the illusory world to save illusory sentient beings (just like the hackers in the movie who must infiltrate the Matrix to liberate enslaved humanity). Saving sentient beings is hard work, and most people are ungrateful. When you try to tell them the truth and save them from the cycle of birth and death, they think you are threatening their beliefs and living environment. “Billions of people live in ignorance, completely unaware.” This is the state of sentient beings, led by the force of ignorance and karma, mistaking illusion for reality, and lost in the cycle of birth and death.
As Morpheus spoke these words, a sweet-smiling, attractive woman in a red dress approached them. Neo couldn’t help but look back at her a few times. Morpheus asked, “Are you listening to me, or are you looking at the woman in the red dress?” Being caught not paying attention in class and staring at a pretty girl, Neo felt extremely embarrassed. However, Morpheus asked him to look again. When Neo turned back, he saw that the woman in the red dress had turned into a computer person, pointing a gun at his head!
Morpheus yelled “Freeze,” and the virtual crowd and computer person froze, leaving only Morpheus and Neo free to move. He continued, “computer persons can freely enter and exit any software, taking on the appearance of anyone. They are omnipresent.” As mentioned earlier, computer persons symbolize ignorance. Why is that? For example, when we choose a partner or pursue the opposite sex, we often judge them by their appearance, just as Neo liked to look at pretty girls. However, after getting close, their flaws, such as possessiveness, control, jealousy, suspicion, arrogance, harshness, pettiness, envy, and vanity, gradually emerge. Their ignorance and your ignorance join forces, causing you to fall into the abyss of suffering with no escape. Everyone has mental issues; they may seem gentle and polite most of the time, but when they are triggered, it can be terrifying. Ignorance is ever-changing and elusive, so in the Matrix, computer persons play the role of secret police. They may not have prominent positions, but they wield the power of life and death, quietly controlling the thoughts, words, and deeds of sentient beings.
The most terrifying thing about computer persons is their speed; they can dodge rapid-fire bullets, and even if they are killed, they can immediately revive by taking over another person’s body. Ignorance is like this as well, not only lightning-fast but also constantly at work. The moment you come into contact with a situation, afflictions such as greed, anger, pride, and self-love immediately arise. Practitioners who have seen the path can detect the emergence of ignorance in real-time, and instantly dissolve it with the wisdom of realization. However, it cannot be eradicated by observing it with wisdom a few times; it takes countless antidotes to completely eliminate it. If one is careless or lax for a moment, they will be led by the nose by their habitual ignorance. Even those who have realized the truth face such difficulties, let alone those who lack the ability to observe how ignorance operates. You may think you understand the Dharma, but when a situation arises, you are swallowed by ignorance before you can even grasp it.
The hackers know they are in a virtual world, yet they still need to run when they see a computer person. If both oneself and the world are illusory, and computer persons are also illusory, how can one be killed by a computer person? Why is there a need to escape? As the Maharatnakuta Sutra says: “Where there are Buddhas, there are Dharma and Sangha; parents have no real existence, and Arhats are empty and silent; there is no killing, so how can there be karmic consequences? All phenomena are like illusions, without any real birth.” In the virtual world, even killing and being killed are illusory, not actual events; even though there are karmic results, they are illusory, and they have nothing to do with the pure intrinsic nature of the mind.
“Your mind makes it real.” Here, “mind” mainly refers to the manas-consciousness, which always grasps the myriad phenomena of the three realms as substantial. The ignorance of the liberation path is divided into “discriminative self-view” and “innate self-view.” Those who have realized the path have personally verified the emptiness of self (one’s own illusory nature) and the emptiness of what belongs to the self (the illusory nature of the world), severing the discriminative self-view. However, the manas-consciousness still cannot escape the habit of taking the illusory as real since beginningless time. This habit is the innate self-view, also known as “self-grasping.” The innate self-view is subtle and difficult to eradicate, corresponding with the manas-consciousness and the sixth consciousnesses. It can only be eliminated upon reaching the fourth fruition. In terms of not having eradicated the innate self-view, those who have realized the path below the third fruition are no different from those who have not, as they still face the problem of life and death. Due to this habit of taking the illusory as real, the illusory karmic consequences can still cause fear and suffering.
Mouse was just like that, knowing it was fake but still wanting to play with it for fun. He proudly introduced to Neo the red dress lady program he had written, saying he could arrange for Neo to meet her in the virtual reality. Facing the ridicule of being an “electronic pimp” (pimp, slang, referring to someone who mediates sexual services), Mouse defended himself by saying, “Don’t mind these hypocrites; suppressing one’s sexual desires is denying the inherent human nature.” Not only ordinary people, but even those who have initially seen the path cannot avoid this. However, those who have seen the path won’t say such things because they can already realize that the heart of lust and desires is illusory and unreal. Mouse’s habit of taking illusions as real was very strong. Since he clung to false pleasures, he would definitely cling to false suffering, so when he was killed in virtual reality, he truly died.
Neo was different! He was also killed in virtual reality but could resurrect and further see with his own eyes that the entire virtual world was just a bunch of electronic signals. His movements became faster than those of the computer people. He could defeat the computer people’s full force attack with just his left hand, symbolizing that those who have seen the path have reached the ultimate level of observing the arising of ignorance, and ignorance has become powerless. Neo even entered the body of the computer person, shattering it into pieces – symbolizing that he had shattered ignorance and could escape the cycle of birth and death – and the story came to an end.
There are also some interesting images in the movie, including: Trinity dealing with four policemen who came to arrest her, a bug drilling into the body through the navel, Neo with tubes all over his body struggling out of the white viscous substance from the battery tank, Neo quickly learning martial arts in the training program, the demonstration of the Oracle to Neo, the computer person trying to probe the Zion code, etc. I don’t think they are simply plots; readers may try to interpret them with the knowledge of Buddhism.
Mahayana Buddhism is based on realizing the Alaya consciousness as the realization of the truth and path. The Alaya consciousness, in its essence, is neither born nor destroyed and is capable of perfecting all worldly and supramundane phenomena, including the material world, physical bodies and organs, and even activities such as walking, eating, and dressing, etc. The Alaya consciousness has a vast scope of influence, and there is nothing in the world that can compare to it. Therefore, it is difficult to find an analogy for it. The “Matrix” described in “The Matrix” film is an unexpected discovery I made. However, it is important to note that analogies have their limitations, so there are still differences, including: the Alaya consciousness has existed since beginningless time, while the “Matrix” in the film is created by computers; the “Matrix” can only create virtual reality, while the Alaya consciousness can perfect all worldly and supramundane phenomena; and another crucial difference – in the film, hackers can travel back and forth between the “virtual world” and the “real world,” but sentient beings can only live in the virtual world. Once they leave the virtual world, it is the unconditioned Nirvana where only the Alaya consciousness remains.
After reading this article, can readers tell me: what kind of person is one who “understands virtual reality but has not found the Matrix”? What kind of person is one who “has found the Matrix and can manipulate it”? And what kind of person is one who “can fully understand the Matrix and completely transform it”? If you can answer these three questions, you will have a rough understanding of the content of the path of liberation and the path to Buddhahood.