Portraying the Quest for Buddhist Wisdom?: A Comparative Study of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

by Geoff Baker


1. I am grateful to Dr Stuart McFarlane for his help with an early version of this essay and for a number of insights and references that he provided on the topic. I also wish to thank Dr David Appleby for having read through an initial draft of the paper and for his support and encouragement throughout.

2. David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment ( London: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 86.

3. For two excellent discussions of how Therevada and Yogacara Buddhist teachings have been drawn on in The Matrix (as well as Christian teachings) see: Frances Flannery-Dailey and Rachel Wagner, ‘Wake Up! Gnosticism and Buddhism in The MatrixJournal of Religion and Film, Vol. 5, No.2, October 2001; James L. Ford, ‘Buddhism, Christianity and The Matrix: The Dialectic of Myth-Making in Contemporary Cinema’ Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 4, No. 2, October 2000. Indeed, though arguing that Hindu teachings have also been drawn on in the film, Julien R. Fielding maintains that The Matrix has received so much attention from scholars of film and religion precisely because the Wachowski brothers drew on the traditions of a variety of religious and popular cultures in the film. Thus, what is offered here is not a single way of viewing either film under consideration, but instead an analysis of whether they can be seen as having successfully incorporated a Buddhist worldview. Julian R. Fielding, ‘Reassessing The Matrix/ReloadedJournal of Religion and Film, Vol. 7, No. 2, October 2003.

4. Tim Noble, ‘Film Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonThe Month, February 2000, 92.

5. Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema. The Extra Dimensions (London: British Film Institute, 1999), p. 97.

6. Edward Conze (ed.), Buddhist Texts through the Ages ( Oxford: Oneworld, 2000), p. 158.

7. Ang Lee and James Schamus, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: A Portrait of the Ang Lee Film ( London: Faber and Faber, 2001), p. 76.

8. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (ed.), The Lankavatara Sutra: A Mahayana Text ( London: Kegan Paul, 2000). I am grateful to Stewart McFarlane for providing me with this reference. Indeed, in Greek Mythology, Morpheus is the God of Dreams controlling whether the dreams we have are true or false. I owe this reference to David Appleby.

9. Flannery-Dailey and Wagner, ‘Wake Up!’.

10. Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 226.

11. Indeed, a recent article has argued that the film is a critique of enlightenment, and Li Mu Bai did in fact reach enlightenment before he withdrew himself from meditation, his fear was a result of the experience not being what he had expected. J. Heath Atchley, ‘When the Master is Not Master: The Critique of Enlightenment in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonJournal of Religion and Film, Vol 7, No. 2, October 2003.

12. Flannery-Dailey and Wagner, ‘Wake Up!’, 27.

13. Flannery-Dailey and Wagner, ‘Wake Up!’, 35-6.

14. Stewart McFarlane, ‘Fighting Bodhisattvas and Inner Warriors: Buddhism and the Martial Traditions of China and Japan’ The Buddhist Forum, Vol. 3, 1994, pp. 188-9, 200-2; Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings, trans. Thomas Cleary (London: Shambhala, 1994).

15. J. Heath Atchley, ‘Film Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonJournal of Religion and Film, Vol. 5, No. 1, April 2001, 3.

16. McFarlane, ‘Fighting Bodhisattvas’, pp. 195. For a discussion of the links between martial arts and Buddhism see: Stewart McFarlane, ‘Mushin, Morals and Martial Arts: A Discussion of Keenan’s Yogacara Critique’ Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 17, No. 4, 1990, pp. 397-420; Stewart McFarlane, ‘Warrior Myths and Tales of Power: Asian Martial Arts in the West’ Demos, Vol. 6, 1995, pp. 44-5.

17. For a full discussion of skilful means see: Michael Pye, Skilful Means: A Concept of Mahayana Buddhism (London: Duckworth, 1978).

18. Burton Watson (ed.), The Lotus Sutra (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 57.

19. Pye, Skilful Means.

20. Stephen Prince, ‘True Lies, Perceptual Realism, Digital Images and Film Theory’ Film Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3, 1996, p. 28.

21. This notion will be considered in more depth in my forthcoming work on Southeast Asian cinema.

Copyrighted by Journal of Religion and Film 2006
Site Maintained by
Department of Philosophy and Religion
University of Nebraska at Omaha

Contact Webmaster about site