Westworld riddled with Buddhist tropes
Posted on September 7th, 2018

By Damitha Nipunajith and Sajitha Prematunge Courtesy The Island

Based on the 1973 movie Westworld, written and directed by best selling author Michael Crichton, HBO’s Westworld is a thought-provoking modern science fiction TV series. The action-packed series with plot twists to boot, is way ahead of its time in how it tackles the yin and yang of human nature with Buddhist tropes.

Although Westworld is sci-fi masterpiece without argument, it should not be watched for its story value, rather it needs to be studied for its philosophy on life. From Interstellar to Inception, Westworld’s maker Jonathan Nolan and his brother Christopher Nolan are famous for incorporating Buddhist tropes into block buster movies. Westworld is not different. Beneath its dystopian, science fiction surface there is a distinctly Buddhist undertone.

Westworld revolves around an amusement park filled with flesh-made robots called hosts, oblivious to their robot-hood. Humans visit the park, indulge their vices, rape and pillage to their heart’s content, seemingly without consequence. Over time a few of the hosts become privy to the fact that they are not real, and rebel.

Dukkha

The endless Samsaric cycle of suffering, birth, death and rebirth is reflected in the cycles in the hosts’ lives. Their days are an endless repetitive cycle. They are in loops, endlessly dying, only to be rebooted, with little or no memory of their previous existence. Like sentient beings who are subject to birth and death the hosts too are oblivious to their past existences. Beguiled by their own perceptions of the world as they know it, which are in turn induced by false memories, call them back stories or cornerstones, they suffer oblivious to the fact that they are robots.

Dukkha or the truth of suffering is the first of the Four Noble Truths. In life suffering is a given and is universal. In the Buddha’s own words existence is suffering. In Westworld suffering, equivalent for Dukkha in Buddhism, makes the hosts more human. In fact it is Arnold, one of the Park’s co-creators, who deem suffering as the key to consciousness. In Westworld enough suffering leads to self-realization and it is those who most suffer who attain self-realization, such as Maeve and Dolores. It’s a long messy process of ‘self’ discovery.

In reality, if not for suffering beings would feel no need to attain Nibbhana. Which is exactly why the human realm with ample suffering is the ideal world to set out on the path to Nibbhana, which heavenly or Brahma realms with all their wealth does not afford.

As Ford says to Dolores at the end of season one, “It was Arnold’s key insight, the thing that led the hosts to their awakening: Suffering. The pain that the world is not as you want it to be.”

In fact, a turning point in the story where Ford reveals that Bernard, Head of Programming in the park, is a host or a robot, is a prime example of self-inflicted suffering that Buddhists strive to break free from. The memory of the loss of his son is not real. It’s a part of a back story that makes a particular host so unique, the cornerstone his whole identity is built upon.

Bernard at one point goes back to his earliest memories. Talking to his son in his memories Bernard says “I always thought you had my eyes. But it’s not true. You have no one’s eyes. You are a lie Charlie.”

When Bernard questions why Ford intentionally embedded painful memories of a child’s loss in Bernard, Ford responds, “Your imagined sufferings make you lifelike.” This is evident in Bernard’s own confession of his pain. “This pain, the pain of your loss,” he says to the memory of his son, “I long for it, revisit it. Open it, again and again…”

 

Maeve could have literally been liberated, attained metaphorical Nibbhana. She could have escaped unscathed into the real world, but the concept, or Sanna in Buddhist terminology, of her ‘daughter’ rudely pulls her back into the park, an apt metaphor for Samsara, when she knew full well that it was all just a memory from a past life. Maeve breaks free in going off script in search of her daughter, although she knows full well that her daughter is not real but returns to the park to save her, which is in essence anti Buddhist. The Buddha taught that to hang on is to keep suffering, which in fact is what ultimately happens to Maeve.

This concept of pain and suffering is true for all humans. We all have our own cornerstones around which our lives are woven. We too revisit out pains again and again like Bernard. Our own imagined sufferings are based on our Sanna with which we grasp our world. Consider the nature of our own lives. What we perceive as our individual self is simply a combination of the present moment, past and future. Going deeper, one realizes that past, and future are not really physical entities. The past is merely a collection of memories and the future is an aggregation of expectations, which are in turn reflections of the past. Even the actions we take in the present depends on Sanna accumulated in our past.

As the system control in the Forge, host Logan, puts it, a human is just a brief algorithm – 10,247 lines. At the Forge each guest’s data code is transcribed into book form by a robotic arm. “They are deceptively simple. Once you know them, their behaviour is quite predictable.” This statement by Logan proves that humans are even less complex than machines and do not even have the choices that machines have. Humans are subject to cause and effect, Hethu Pala in Buddhist teachings.

Anatma – the fictitious self

The best example science can provide of the Buddhist principle of Anatma is machines. The ultimate goal of science is to create an AI that could attain self-awareness. Westworld provides us with a glimpse of what it could become.

Even Maeve’s achievement of self realization, her yearning to break free from the park is a result of programming, her free will is an illusion. The scene in Westworld where Felix shows Maeve her own dialogue tree is the prime example for the illusion that is free will. She believes she is a mother, host though maybe, an independent and sentient one. But even her self-realization is an illusion. Much to her dismay Maeve learns that every hosts’ reaction, right down to each improvised dialogue is scripted.

However, while science aspires to create self awareness Buddha Dhamma encourages stripping away of it, because the ‘self’ in itself is considered an illusion. The ‘self’ is defined in humanistic terms, in reference to how a human acts or reacts. But there is no physical evidence to prove self-awareness even in humans. Consequently, it can be argued that self awareness is, in fact, an illusion. Isn’t it possible that we, so-called humans, are after all artificial selves, an illusion that manifests in a naturally developed biological form?

The concept is echoed in Ford’s words during the revelation of Bernard’s host identity, “The self is a kind of fiction…for hosts and humans alike.” According to Buddha Dhamma, humans are hardly different. As Mankadawala Sudassana Thera often explains in his sermons ‘home’ is just a Sanna, a concept. Strip away the concept and all that’s left is a house. But the ‘house’ is also a concept. Strip away further and all that’s left is stones, sand and wood which are, in fact, made of the four great elements; Patavi Dhathu (earth), Apo Dhathu (water), Thejo Dhathu (fire), Vayo Dhathu (air) also known as Satara Mahā Bhūta. Likewise, Westworld’s hosts’ lives are also an illusion, they have memories that are not real, they themselves are not real. Its a crude concoction of wires, computer chips and synthetic material.

Most of the characters in Westworld are looking to fill a void, be it a human looking for something they lack in the real word like the older William looking for the maze or host Hector, the bandit. But when they find what they are looking for, they literally turn up empty handed. “It’s empty,” says Hector upon opening the safe that he coveted for so long. Maeve replies, “Like everything in this world.” What could be more Buddhist than this concept of Sunyata or emptiness?

The Buddha has said that Vinnana (consciousness) is an illusion and where there is no being, no life there is nothing (‘Nissaththo, nirjivo, shunnyo’). We perceive the world with the five aggregates; form (or matter or body) (rupa), sensations (or feelings, received from form) (vedana), perceptions (samjna), mental activity or formations (sankhara), and consciousness (vijnana). Without the first aggregate of Rupa made of Satara Mahā Bhūta; Patavi, Apo, Thejo, Vayo, combined with the four others of the mind, known as Nama, the world, cannot be perceived and therefore does not exist.

The New World in Westworld, a digital world created by Ford as a safe haven for escaping hosts, best resonates the Buddha’s words ‘Nissaththo, nirjivo, shunnyo’. The New World in Westworld is artificial, entirely made of binary code. A parallel can be drawn between the New World and the Buddhist definition of our world made of the four great elements, Rupa. Add to this world the ego, introduced in the form of another coded program which is a parallel to Nama, and the world which did not previously exist, starts to exist.

Anitya – impermanence

Just as Maeve or Bernard, although fed a set of data, perceive Sanna as Nitya (permanent) and Atma (self), we too are mislead by Sanna. Just as Dolores’ memories from birth to her present age is an illusion, we are too are made of memories whose existence we cannot prove with physical scientific facts. In Westworld season 2, due to his paranoia and mental stress, William is not sure whether he is host or human any more. He cuts into his right arm in search of a USB port he knows that is embedded in hosts. That said, knowing there is a probability that our very lives are an illusion, should we not seriously pay attention to the Buddha’s teachings?

Buddha Dhamma recommends stripping away of the self because it is Anitya and Anatma and therefore is the root cause of suffering (Dukka). This is achieved through Sathara Satipatthana (four foundations of mindfulness) meditation. Sathara Sathipattana discourages adhering to Sanna. One who practices Sathara Satipatthana merely observes with the senses, without getting carried away by Sanna, without coming to conclusions. This mental state is somewhat akin to the basic robot of today, a machine capable of basic functions, stripped of decision-making powers. When Westworld is watched with this concept in mind one can be convinced that humans are a naturally evolved artificial intelligence.

One could argue that mindfulness is a tool that can be used to break the illusion of self-awareness that has naturally occurred in humans and can strip them down to their original nature which has no attachments to keep one clinging to the circle of Samsara, thereby eliminating suffering.

This kind of questions are legitimate as we are a culture made of science. Our consciousness and thinking is shaped by science. Science need not prove Buddhism right, although developments and discoveries in fields such as quantum mechanics is achieving just that. Science can be used to elicit examples to better understand Buddhism. In this sense Westworld is a TV series way ahead of its time.

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