Buddhist Emptiness: Deeper Down The Rabbit Hole Than The Matrix Dared To Go

The Matrix is a deep film. Many have pointed out how it represents the archetypal journey of spiritual awakening. Neo, the main protagonist, lives in the regular world but just cannot get passed a feeling of existential incompleteness. He knows there is something deeper to reality. He has heard of a great teacher, who has the power to guide him to liberation – a liberation he doesn’t even understand yet, but intuits as real. This teacher is Morpheus. He finds Morpheus, or rather Morpheus finds him, and Neo comes to understand that the world he has been living in – the regular everyday world – is not as real as he believed. He wakes up, realises reality as it truly is, and then re-enters the world to bring that liberation to all beings. Sound familiar? Gautama Buddha anyone? Shankaracharya? Padmasambhava? Or any of the other great sages?

If you’ve seen the matrix, you’ll remember the scene (linked to at the bottom of this article) where Morpheus explains to Neo that the world he has spent his whole life taking to be real is actually just a construction of his mind. As this information starts to fully land in Neo’s awareness, he basically freaks out. He can’t take it. It’s too much. He collapses, and is brought round by Morpheus and the new community he has entered.

When I teach about what is the central teaching of Buddhism – emptiness – I like to point out that it is very much like what Morpheus points out to Neo in this scene. For Buddhism, the outer world we experience is not ultimately real. It is a construction of mind, concepts, assumptions and habits of perception. One difference between Buddhism and the Matrix is that in the Matrix, reality behind the illusion of the world is a future where super-intelligent robots have taken over the earth and enslaved humanity to harvest their bodies as batteries to power their world. In Buddhism, the real nature of reality is very different to this. In Buddhism, the true nature of reality is buddha-nature – an ocean of infinite consciousness, wisdom, compassion, and presence, which has no centre, no end, and no limits whatsoever. That’s pretty different, right? Haha!

As different as these two are, in the Matrix, Morpheus points out the illusory nature of the apparent outer world perfectly. As Neo touches a chair in front of him he struggles to ask, “This isn’t real?” Morpheus replies with, “What is ‘real’? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain”.

What Morpheus points to here is what modern science has made clear. When we look out upon the world, despite our best instinct, we don’t see what is actually there. We see patterns of electromagnetic energy in the visible band of the electromagnetic spectrum that the photoreceptor cells in the back of our retinas can code for (reds, blues green and their various combinations). Those electromagnetic signals are picked up by these cells (with the vast amount of the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum not able to be decoded) and then transformed into electro-chemical signals that pass to the visual cortex at the back our brain where they are chunked together and matched up with things we have previously seen. We don’t see what is truly out there, which are essentially waves of electromagnetic energy and light. We see the tiny amount of that that our brains can code for. A similar process happens for all the rest of the physical senses – hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Our brains interpret the ocean of energy, light and information we are surrounded by and construct it into our apparent experience. The outer world is a construction. As the Matrix and the Buddhists say, the outer world is empty.

Apart from the whole robots thing though, another difference between the Matrix and Buddhism is that Buddhism doesn’t just understand the world as a construction of our minds that is not ultimately real. It also understands the apparent self that perceives the world as a construction – as empty. This is where Buddhism hangs out in wilder territory than the Matrix ever dared to go.

Getting the fact that our sense of self is not ultimately real, and is simply a construction, isn’t so easy as just being able to resort to science (though there are some fascinating neuroscientific findings that point to it, such as studies looking at the experience of free will in decision-making. These studies show that decisions actually happen in the brain before there is any conscious experience of us ‘making’ a decision). Getting the emptiness of self takes deep meditative practice. This requires a foundation in concentration, so our minds are actually steady enough to be able to really look at them. When we do, we take Neo’s awakening to a whole new level. We see that actually, the entirety of our experience of our self and world is made of concepts – concepts such as “I”, “me”, “mine”, “you”, “we”, “it”, “they”, “the world”, “inside”, “outside”, “space”, “time”, etc. that are fundamentally arbitrary. They don’t really exist in any real way. Ask yourself, would they exist in the same way for people of another culture with totally different language? Would they exist if you had never been taught them? What are they actually but just labels? Are you really the label “I”? Is the world really the label “world”? What is the relationship between our conceptualisation of reality, and reality itself? Are they the same or different? If they are different, what is reality behind the conceptualised chunking of our experience into the apparent experience of self and other?

When a trained meditator thoroughly investigates these patterns of perception and conceptualisation, in Buddhism it is called vipashyana. It is using the mind to investigate the mind, and bring down the two pillars that hold up dualistic experience – self and world. For Buddhism, suffering, pain and getting so caught up in our stories that we hurt each other and ourselves happens when we forget that these are empty. The eventual outcome of vipashyana is the collapse of the apparent outer world and apparent inner self, with both being realised to be simply constructions of experience that do not stand up to investigation.

What is revealed is reality as it truly is, deeper than the limitations of a human brain and mind. What is revealed is an ocean of infinite consciousness, light, intelligence, compassion and wisdom, arising as the entire cosmos. What is revealed is buddha-nature Now that would have been a very different film…


Here is the scene in the Matrix: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGZiLMGdCE0