Beliefnet
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.

Unlike every other living human, Neo has managed not just to see beyond the veil, but to pierce it. A bodhisattva who attains enlightenment but continues to be reborn to help all living beings, Neo returns to the Matrix again and again to free the minds of his benighted species. His goal, too, smacks of Buddhism--it's to help people realize what's illusion and what's real.

But the hero who will bring about this Buddhist-style enlightenment is a Christ figure--"the One" to his cheerleaders and an "anomaly" to the malevolent Agents out to get him. Neo performs miraculous healings, receives a bloody handshake from a traitor, and from time to time ascends. He's an iconoclast, literally shattering the statues of gods that might have gone missing from Olympus as he whacks the bad guys. For nail marks, his body has data-entry ports.


Neo (Reeves) fights Merovingian's henchmen. Jasin Boland, Warner Bros.


The parallels aren't seamless. Jesus never taught that the world we live and suffer in is fake; he came to save people from sin and pain, not to claim that sin and pain aren't real. If there's a Buddhist-Christian connection here, it's tenuous.

The first movie implied that once you see the Matrix for the lie it is, everything gets easy. At the end of movie #1, Neo seems serenely indestructible. But for all his past success, the star of "The Matrix Reloaded" is a curiously uncertain Messiah. A nightmare-plagued Neo anguishes over how to break down the Matrix and rescue the last human city, Zion. As we wonder what happened to the controlled hero we knew, the religious metaphors crumble. Can we picture Rama or Buddha saying "I wish I knew what I'm supposed to do"? Can we see Jesus telling his followers "We're not going to make it"? They may have had moments of doubt, but weren't nearly as hesitant as Neo.

Even though Neo beat death in the first movie and gloriously resurrected, in the sequel the trials have only just begun. Yes, Neo is powerful--but he's still physically and emotionally vulnerable to the Matrix's violence and deception. In short, he's "still human," as the invidious self-replicating Agent Smith sneers. He doesn't seem to have fully transcended--he can make the Matrix wobble, but it won't fall down. For devotees who like their Jesus or Buddha a little more invincible, this is a letdown.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus