Monday, May 26, 2003

The Matrix: Success due to Chinese Philosophy

The Matrix: Success due to Chinese Philosophy

"The Matrix Reloaded" Background in Religion Could Have Helped Buoy "Matrix"

No one knows why The Matrix became so popular, but perhaps the reason was a substantive religious subtext. Perhaps a strong connection to ancient Asian philosophical texts wrapped up viewers. Paul Manfredi, a professor at Pacific Lutheran University, makes the case for profundity. So does Thomas Rondinella, a professor of communications at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

With Hollywood insiders and ordinary film fans alike confidently predicting that this year's two Matrix sequels — The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions — will be the top event movies of the year, the two educators looked back at the picture that launched what likely will be one of the most significant film franchises of recent years.

Manfredi's area of expertise is Chinese language, literature and culture. Rondinella teaches film at Seton Hall. Both are fans of The Matrix. Each has seen it three or more times. Manfredi even uses it as a teaching tool in his classes. And both have thought long and hard about its significance. They agree that it's a pivotal picture. Rondinella likens it to Star Wars in terms of its impact on popular culture. "Every once in a while a movie comes out like this that really changes your perception of how you see things," he said.

Manfredi sees that ultramodern special effect as having its roots in age-old Chinese thought. Manfredi believes Reeves' character, Neo, is dematerializing himself on the atomic level when he goes into "bullet time" mode. He then rematerializes when the slugs have whizzed harmlessly past. The principle behind that "is very explicit in Chinese philosophy." Heroes like Neo, Manfredi said, "have a higher understanding of what the matter of our bodies is, and how they can manipulate it." Even down to the atomic level.

While acknowledging the debt those high-flying martial-arts stunt sequences owe to Asian moviemaking, particularly the brand spawned in Hong Kong, Manfredi said the Eastern influence is at least as pronounced in the plot (emphasis added).

At the start of The Matrix, Neo is awakened from a chemically induced and mechanically maintained state of slumber. He's cocooned in a machine-made womb where his senses have been numbed and his mind flooded with computer-generated images of himself living and working in an illusory city. He's shelved among millions of other people in similar states of suspended animation, and what they're suspended in is the Matrix.

In a key scene, Laurence Fishburne's character, Morpheus, a charismatic leader of the rebellion against the Matrix, gives Neo this literally eye-opening insight into his predicament:

"Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"

Sci-fi mumbo jumbo? Not so, Manfredi said. Rather, it's an almost direct paraphrase of a passage from the Taoist [Daoist] philosopher Zhuang Zi [Chuang Tse, 莊子], who lived in the third century B.C.

"He asked the question: 'I wake up one day and I have no idea if I am who I am. Is my experience the dream of who I am or is my experience the reality? And there is no way to tell.'"

Manfredi said he doesn't know for certain that the Wachowskis were familiar with Zhuang Zi's writings when they penned The Matrix script, but he assumes they were.

Co-existing with the Taoist underpinnings of the plot is what Manfredi sees as a distinctively Christian component to the character of Neo. Morpheus awakens Neo from his endless sleep because he's convinced Reeves' character is The One: the long-sought messiah who will lead humanity out of bondage to the computers that run the Matrix.

Editor's Comments:

Professor Manfredi is correct. As the Wachowski brothers enthusiastically declared in a rare 1999 online chat, "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."

And as scholars of Daoism and Ch'an (aka "Zen") Buddhism know quite well, Dao and Zen are nearly interchangeable.

The Chinese religion of Taoism has greatly affected Buddhism. Early Chinese translations of Buddhist texts explained Buddhist concepts using Taoist terms. In fact, the Chinese Buddhist texts were so similar to Taoist texts that for a long time, Buddhism was thought to be a new form of Taoism ("The Spread of Buddhism Outside of India."). Also, Lao-tzu (the founder of Taoism) and the Buddha were supposed by the Chinese to be the same deity ("Buddhism." Encyclopaedia Britannica Online). During the T'ang dynasty, Buddhism and Taoism competed for followers within the court and the general population. One setback to Buddhism was the popularity of female deities in China. Buddhism was a very patriarchal religion, while Taoism included a goddess. Thus, as a result of the influences of traditional Chinese religions and the rivalry with Taoism, the Buddhist male deity, Kuan Yin, gradually came to be regarded as a female (Palmer and Ramsay with Kwok 6-20). During this period of religious rivalry, many aspects of Buddhism were "borrowed" by Taoism in its effort to gain followers. The many Buddhist sutras (texts that are similar to chapters in the Bible) that came into China at that time were quickly but sloppily copied by Taoists. Most times all that was changed was the name "Buddha" to "Lao-tzu," and sometimes even this was overlooked (Ch'en 474). The remnants of the religious exchanges of the T'ang dynasty still exist today.
-- Mary Kate Walthall, Buddhism: The Journey from India to China

Finally, compare this line of dialogue from The Matrix with a startlingly similar, nearly verbatim passage from "Chuang Chou's Butterfly Dream."

"The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth... that you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.... Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.... Remember, all I'm offering is the truth, nothing more... "
-- Morpheus, in The Matrix

"While they dream, they do not know that they are dreaming. Some will even interpret the very dream they are dreaming; and only when they awake do they know it was a dream. By and by comes the great awakening, and then we find out that this life is really a great dream. Fools think they are awake now, and flatter themselves they know -- this one is a prince, and that one is a shepherd. What narrowness of mind! Confucius and you are both dreams; and I who say you are dreams -- I am but a dream myself. This is a paradox. Tomorrow a Sage may arise to explain it; but that tomorrow will not be until ten thousand generations have gone by. Yet you may meet him around the corner.
-- "Chuang Chou's Butterfly Dream" ( 莊周夢蝶) translated by Lin Yutang (林語堂)

-- Bevin Chu

Explanation: "The Matrix Reloaded" Background in Religion Could Have Helped Buoy "Matrix:"
Illustration(s): Larry Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, Zhuang Zi, Seraph, Buddha
Author(s): Soren Andersen
Affiliation: Tacoma News Tribune
Source: URL:
Publication Date: May 16, 2003
Original Language: English
Editor: Bevin Chu, Registered Architect

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