If Buddhism Had a Messiah

'The Matrix Reloaded' is a field day for Joseph Campbell types. Does all the religious imagery work?

Religion scholar Huston Smith tells the story of the Buddha being asked, "What are you?" The Buddha replies "I am awake." Centuries later, so is Keanu Reeves.

Human beings who, like Buddha, see beyond the illusory--who are enlightened--are the rock stars of "The Matrix Reloaded," the sequel to 1999's technoclassic "The Matrix." They wear robes. They intone meditative speeches. They know that what we experience daily isn't real. And they kick a lot of butt while looking really slick in shades.

"The Matrix Reloaded" is crammed with so many religious symbols that Joseph Campbell couldn't keep them straight. Characters with names of biblical and mythological import continue to ponder philosophy between their motorcycle chases and martial arts battles. Reality, causality, chance and choice are all deconstructed--it's no accident that one minor character is named Soren, as in Kierkegaard.


Neo (Reeves) battles nefarious self-replicating agents Warner Bros.

Trinity, Morpheus, the Oracle, and the ship Nebuchadnezzar are back, and we meet new people and things named Icarus, Niobe, Osiris, Seraph, and Persephone. And there is the hero, Neo--half Zen monk, half Christ figure--who has learned that the world he "grew up" in is a computer program created by machines.


But what do all these spiritual symbols and allusions add up to? Is this a Buddhist allegory about illusion and reality or a Christian parable about a Messiah fighting evil? Yes, we know that above all it's just a special-effects-laden Keanu Reeves vehicle. But the moviemakers seem to have aspired for something more. So from a spiritual point of view, did they achieve it?

Some parts of the movie clearly draw on Eastern influence. The "matrix," a computer program that enslaves and deludes all humans, is recognizable as a high-tech riff on the Hindu/Buddhist concept of maya. Eastern spirituality pioneer Swami Vivekananda described maya as "ignorance... a kind of mist that has come between us and the Truth." In the movie, it has fooled all Earthlings for a century.

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