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[Image: logo7.gif]JOURNAL OF RELIGION AND FILM

Wake up!
Gnosticism and Buddhism in The Matrix


By Frances Flannery-Dailey, Hendrix College
and
Rachel Wagner, The University of Iowa


Abstract

The Wachowski brothers' 1999 hit release The Matrix draws on multiple religious traditions to establish its complex worldview. Two of the most prominent are Gnostic Christianity and Buddhism, which, like the film, pose humanity's fundamental problem and its solution in terms of ignorance and enlightenment. Because of ignorance, people mistake the "material" world for something real, but they may "wake up" from this dream with help from a guide who teaches them their true nature. This article explores the film's pervasive allusions to Gnosticism and Buddhism, which in turn opens up the question of the film's overarching message and ultimate view of reality.
Article

[1] In The Matrix, a 1999 film by the Wachowski brothers, a black-clad computer hacker known as Neo falls asleep in front of his computer. A mysterious message appears on the screen: "Wake up, Neo."1 This succinct phrase encapsulates the plot of the film, as Neo struggles with the problem of being imprisoned in a "material" world that is actually a computer simulation program created in the distant future by Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) as a means of enslaving humanity, by perpetuating ignorance in the form of an illusory perception called "the matrix." In part, the film crafts its ultimate view of reality by alluding to numerous religious traditions that advance the idea that the fundamental problem which humanity faces is ignorance and the solution is knowledge or awakening. Two religious traditions on which the film draws heavily are Gnostic Christianity and Buddhism.2 Although these traditions differ in important ways, they agree in maintaining that the problem of ignorance can be solved through an individual's reorientation of perspective concerning the material realm.3 Gnostic Christianity and Buddhism also both envision a guide who helps those still trapped in the limiting world of illusion, a Gnostic redeemer figure or a bodhisattva, who willingly enters that world in order to share liberating knowledge, facilitating escape for anyone able to understand. In the film, this figure is Neo, whose name is also an anagram for "the One."

[2] Although as a "modern myth"4 the film purposefully draws on numerous traditions,5 we propose that an examination of Gnostic Christianity and Buddhism well illuminates the overarching paradigm of The Matrix, namely, the problem of sleeping in ignorance in a dreamworld, solved by waking to knowledge or enlightenment. By drawing syncretistically on these two ancient traditions and fusing them with a technological vision of the future, the film constructs a new teaching that challenges its audience to question "reality."
Christian Elements in The Matrix

[3] The majority of the film's audience probably easily recognizes the presence of some Christian elements, such as the name Trinity6 or Neo's death and Christ-like resurrection and ascension near the end of the film. In fact, Christian and biblical allusions abound, particularly with respect to nomenclature:7 Apoc (Apocalypse), Neo's given name of Mr. Ander/son (from the Greek andras for man, thus producing "Son of Man"), the ship named the Nebuchadnezzar (the Babylonian king who, in the Book of Daniel, has puzzling symbolic dreams that must be interpreted),8 and the last remaining human city, Zion, synonymous in Judaism and Christianity with (the heavenly) Jerusalem.9 Neo is overtly constructed as a Jesus figure: he is "the One" who was prophesied to return again to the Matrix, who has the power the change the Matrix from within (i.e., to work miracles), who battles the representatives of evil and who is killed but comes to life again.

[4] This construction of Neo as Jesus is reinforced in numerous ways. Within minutes of the commencement of the movie, another hacker says to Neo, "You're my saviour, man, my own personal Jesus Christ."10 This identification is also suggested by the Nebuchadnezzar's crew, who nervously wonder if he is "the One" who was foretold, and who repeatedly swear in Neo's presence by saying "Jesus" or "Jesus Christ."11 In still another example, Neo enters the Nebuchadnezzar for the first time and the camera pans across the interior of the ship, resting on the make: "Mark III no. 11." This seems to be another messianic reference, since the Gospel of Mark 3:11 reads: "Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ' You are the Son of God!'"
Gnosticism in The Matrix

[5] Although the presence of individual Christian elements within the film is clear, the overall system of Christianity that is presented is not the traditional, orthodox one. Rather, the Christian elements of the film make the most sense when viewed within a context of Gnostic Christianity.12 Gnosticism was a religious system that flourished for centuries at the beginning of the Common Era, and in many regions of the ancient Mediterranean world it competed strongly with "orthodox" Christianity, while in other areas it represented the only interpretation of Christianity that was known.13 The Gnostics possessed their own Scriptures, accessible to us in the form of the Nag Hammadi Library, from which a general sketch of Gnostic beliefs may be drawn.14 Although Gnostic Christianity comprises many varieties, Gnosticism as a whole seems to have embraced an orienting cosmogonic myth that explains the true nature of the universe and humankind's proper place in it.15 A brief retelling of this myth illuminates numerous parallels with The Matrix.

[6] In the Gnostic myth, 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 (akin to heaven, a division of the universe that is not earth), who possess some metaphorical gender of male or female.16 Pairs of these beings are able to produce offspring that are themselves divine emanations, perfect in their own ways.17 A problem arises when one "aeon" or being named Sophia (Greek for wisdom), a female, decides "to bring forth a likeness out of herself without the consent of the Spirit," that is, to produce an offspring without her consort (Apocry. of John). The ancient view was that females contribute the matter in reproduction, and males the form; thus, 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.

[7] 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. Although traditions vary, Yaldabaoth is usually tricked into breathing the divine spark or spirit of his mother Sophia that formerly resided in him into the human being (especially Apocry. of John; echoes of Genesis 2-3). 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.

[8] Luckily for the Gnostic, salvation is available in the form of gnosis or knowledge imparted by a Gnostic redeemer, who is 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 hitherto 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. However, in order to make this ascent, the Gnostic must pass by the archons, who are jealous of his/her luminousity, spirit or intelligence, and who thus try to hinder the Gnostic's upward journey.

[9] To a significant degree, the basic Gnostic myth parallels the plot of The Matrix, with respect to both the problem that humans face as well as the solution. Like Sophia, we conceived an offspring out of our own pride, as Morpheus explains: "early in the 21st century, all of mankind was united in celebration. We marveled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to A.I."18 This offspring of ours, however, like Yaldabaoth is malformed (matter without spirit?). Morpheus describes A.I. as "a singular consciousness that spawned an entire race of machines," a fitting parallel for the Gnostic Creator God of the archons (angels) and the illusory material world. A.I. creates the matrix, a computer simulation that is "a prison for your mind." Thus, Yaldabaoth/ A.I. traps humankind in a material prison that does not represent ultimate reality, as Morpheus explains to Neo: "As long as the matrix exists, the human race will never be free."

[10] The film also echoes the metaphorical language employed by Gnostics. The Nag Hammadi texts describe the fundamental human problem in metaphorical terms of blindness, sleep, ignorance, dreams and darkness / night, while the solution is stated in terms of seeing, waking, knowledge (gnosis), waking from dreams and light / day.19

[11] Similarly, in the film Morpheus, whose name is taken from the Greek god of sleep and dreams, reveals to Neo that the matrix is "a computer generated dreamworld." When Neo is unplugged and awakens for the first time on the Nebuchadnezzar in a brightly lit white space (a cinematic code for heaven), his eyes hurt, as Morpheus explains, because he has never used them. Everything Neo has "seen" up to that point was seen with the mind's eye, as in a dream, created through software simulation. Like an ancient Gnostic, Morpheus explains that the blows he deals Neo in the martial arts training program have nothing to do with his body or speed or strength, which are illusory. Rather, they depend only on his mind, which is real.

[12] The parallels between Neo and Christ sketched earlier are further illuminated by a Gnostic context, since Neo is "saved" through gnosis or secret knowledge, which he passes on to others. Neo learns about the true structure of reality and about his own true identity, which allows him to break the rules of the material world he now perceives to be an illusion. That is, he learns that "the mind makes it [the matrix, the material world] 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. He functions as a Gnostic Redeemer, a figure from another realm who enters the material world in order to impart saving knowledge about humankind's true identity and the true structure of reality, thereby setting free anyone able to understand the message.

[13] In fact, Neo's given name is not only Mr. Anderson / the Son of Man, it is Thomas Anderson, which reverberates with the most famous Gnostic gospel, the Gospel of Thomas. Also, before he is actualized as Neo (the one who will initiate something "New," since he is indeed the "One"), he is doubting Thomas, who does not believe in his role as the redeemer figure.20 In fact, the name Thomas means "the Twin," and in ancient Christian legend he is Jesus' twin brother. In a sense, the role played by Keanu Reeves has a twin character, since he is constructed as both a doubting Thomas and as a Gnostic Christ figure.21

[14] Not only does Neo learn and pass on secret knowledge that saves, in good Gnostic fashion, but the way in which he learns also evokes some elements of Gnosticism. Imbued with images from eastern traditions, the training programs teach Neo the concept of "stillness," of freeing the mind and overcoming fear, cinematically captured in "Bullet Time" (digitally mastered montages of freeze frames / slow motion frames using multiple cameras).22 Interestingly enough, this concept of "stillness" is also present in Gnosticism, in that the higher aeons are equated with "stillness" and "rest" and can only be apprehended in such a centered and meditative manner, as is apparent in these instructions to a certain Allogenes:

And although it is impossible for you to stand, fear nothing; but if you wish to stand, withdraw to the Existence, and you will find it standing and at rest after the likeness of the One who is truly at rest...And when you becomes perfect in that place, still yourself... (Allogenes)

[15] The Gnostic then reveals, "There was within me a stillness of silence, and I heard the Blessedness whereby I knew my proper self" (Allogenes).23 When Neo realizes the full extent of his "saving gnosis," that the matrix is only a dreamworld, a reflective Keanu Reeves silently and calmly contemplates the bullets that he has stopped in mid-air, filmed in "Bullet Time."

[16] Yet another parallel with Gnosticism occurs in the portrayal of the agents such as Agent Smith, and their opposition to the equivalent of the Gnostics - that is, Neo and anyone else attempting to leave the matrix. A.I. created these artificial programs to be "the gatekeepers - they are guarding all the doors, they are holding all the keys." These agents are akin to the jealous archons created by Yaldabaoth who block the ascent of the Gnostic as he/she tries to leave the material realm and guard the gates of the successive levels of heaven (e.g., Apocalypse of Paul).24

[17] However, as Morpheus predicts, Neo is eventually able to defeat the agents because while they must adhere to the rules of the matrix, his human mind allows him to bend or break these rules.25 Mind, though, is not equated in the film merely with rational intelligence, otherwise Artificial Intelligence would win every time. Rather, the concept of "mind" in the film appears to point to a uniquely human capacity for imagination, for intuition, or, as the phrase goes, for "thinking outside the box." Both the film and the Gnostics assert that the "divine spark" within humans allows a perception of gnosis greater than that achievable by even the chief archon / agent of Yaldabaoth:

And the power of the mother [Sophia, in our analogy, humankind] went out of Yaltabaoth [ A.I. ] into the natural body which they had fashioned [the humans grown on farms by A.I.]... And in that moment the rest of the powers [archons / agents ] became jealous, because he had come into being through all of them and they had given their power to the man, and his intelligence ["mind"] was greater than that of those who had made him, and greater than that of the chief archon [Agent Smith?]. And when they recognized that he was luminous,and that he could think better than they... they took him and threw him into the lowest region of all matter [simulated by the matrix]. (Apocry. of John 19-20)

[18] It is striking that Neo overcomes Agent Smith in the final showdown of the film precisely by realizing fully the illusion of the matrix, something the agent apparently cannot do, since Neo is subsequently able to break rules that the agent cannot. His final defeat of Smith entails entering Smith's body and splitting him in pieces by means of pure luminosity, portrayed through special effects as light shattering Smith from the inside out.

[19] Overall, then, the system portrayed in The Matrix parallels Gnostic Christianity in numerous respects, especially the delineation of humanity's fundamental problem of existing in a dreamworld that simulates reality and the solution of waking up from illusion. The central mythic figures of Sophia, Yaldabaoth, the archons and the Gnostic Christ redeemer also each find parallels with key figures in the film and function in similar ways. The language of Gnosticism and the film are even similar: dreaming vs. waking; blindness vs. seeing;26 light vs. dark.27

[20] However, given that Gnosticism presumes an entire unseen realm of divine beings, where is God in the film? In other words, when Neo becomes sheer light, is this a symbol for divinity, or for human potential? The question becomes even more pertinent with the identification of humankind with Sophia - a divine being in Gnosticism. On one level, there appears to be no God in the film. Although there are apocalyptic motifs, Conrad Ostwalt rightly argues that unlike conventional Christian apocalypses, in The Matrix both the catastrophe and its solution are of human making - that is, the divine is not apparent.28 However, on another level, the film does open up the possibility of a God through the figure of the Oracle, who dwells inside the matrix and yet has access to information about the future that even those free from the matrix do not possess. This suggestion is even stronger in the original screenplay, in which the Oracle's apartment is the Holy of Holies nested within the "Temple of Zion."29 Divinity may also play a role in Neo's past incarnation and his coming again as the One. If, however, there is some implied divinity in the film,30 it remains transcendent, like the divinity of the ineffable, invisible supreme god in Gnosticism, except where it is immanent in the form of the divine spark active in humans.31
yye
It seems like a pretty well written paper.

The truth in this case is, The Matrix can be interpreted in a few different ways which is what makes it a good movie.
some tenets of gnosticism ring true.. but too many people think it's some christian movie. it's not
(09-23-2015 06:53 PM)EVILYOSHIDA Wrote: [ -> ]some tenets of gnosticism ring true.. but too many people think it's some christian movie. it's not

Given the choice between the Matrix and a Christian film, I'm gonna go with the gnostic Neo every time.

[Image: 51A12GRPD4L.jpg]
some merit to the teachings, but a lot of zaniness as well.

The snake as the real god is just not correct.

also both material and spirit matter.. gnosticism only concentrate on the latter.
Yes, it's true. Gnostics do not believe, as opposed to some of the more traditional Christian sects, that God is an object within consciousness.

And this is probably why they, to a large extent, reject the world.

Because they feel their focus should not be on the object thereof but, rather, the Source Itself.

Many see this as a very extreme philosophy.

But maybe that's just because the entirety of most of society's daily experience is focused entirely in the opposite direction...upon the objects and situations arising within consciousness.

Gnostic Christians do have some peculiar beliefs such as that of an evil creator god(Demiurge)...which Freemasonry worships as The Grand Architect.

But to Gnostics, The Grand Architect is considered evil and not the true God.

It would be more akin to what most people conceive of as "The Devil".
I do believe that KNOWING can lead to enlightenment so in some way I am a gnostic.

I just don't believe the world is an illusion. at least it's not an illusion for me. if I get punched in the face I feel it and get pissed.
(09-24-2015 06:15 PM)EVILYOSHIDA Wrote: [ -> ]I do believe that KNOWING can lead to enlightenment so in some way I am a gnostic.

I just don't believe the world is an illusion. at least it's not an illusion for me. if I get punched in the face I feel it and get pissed.

"Slippin' farther an farther away
It's a miracle how long we can stay
In a world our minds created
In a world that's full of shit"



Use Your Illusion, EY.
(09-24-2015 06:15 PM)EVILYOSHIDA Wrote: [ -> ]I do believe that KNOWING can lead to enlightenment so in some way I am a gnostic.

I just don't believe the world is an illusion. at least it's not an illusion for me. if I get punched in the face I feel it and get pissed.

If I can speak from a Gnostic perspective, I would say that it is NOT KNOWING which leads to enlightenment.

KNOWING, which is the accumulation of knowledge, is a form of Illuminism.

The whole point of Gnosticism is not to falsely declare whether the world is or is not an illusion.

It is to find out to whom, exactly, the world is appearing.

And no intellectual knowledge can bring such a thing about. Only a deep silence.

And it is from this deep silence that the fruit ripens and falls from the tree.

The ripening and falling, in Christianity, is what might be called "Grace".
Former NFL kicker, Nick Gancitano, explains the general Gnostic philosophy pretty well in this short video.



(09-25-2015 06:58 AM)THE_DEAN Wrote: [ -> ]
(09-24-2015 06:15 PM)EVILYOSHIDA Wrote: [ -> ]I do believe that KNOWING can lead to enlightenment so in some way I am a gnostic.

I just don't believe the world is an illusion. at least it's not an illusion for me. if I get punched in the face I feel it and get pissed.

If I can speak from a Gnostic perspective, I would say that it is NOT KNOWING which leads to enlightenment.

KNOWING, which is the accumulation of knowledge, is a form of Illuminism.

The whole point of Gnosticism is not to falsely declare whether the world is or is not an illusion.

It is to find out to whom, exactly, the world is appearing.

And no intellectual knowledge can bring such a thing about. Only a deep silence.

And it is from this deep silence that the fruit ripens and falls from the tree.

The ripening and falling, in Christianity, is what might be called "Grace".

yeah it's like that with buddhism or east asian philosophies.

but I think one needs to go full circle. you accumulate enough then you let everything go
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