The Dharma of Westworld
Westworld is a recent 10-epsiode science fiction TV show on HBO that is based on the original book and film by Michael Crichton. In this world, android AI robots have advanced to the point where they are nearly indistinguishable from humans and are called “hosts”. They’re made for a Western-themed park where the “guests” (those who pay to get in) can have the ultimate them park experience with little to no consequences for their actions. In this world, guests can act out their darkest fantasies which includes murdering the robots (who die in a spectacularly human way), having sex with the robots, and anything else for that matter.
The show centers around one of the main characters named Bernard who works behind the scenes at DELOS (the company that owns the park) who is responsible for ensuring that all of the robots in the park remain operational and glitch-free. After the robots are “killed” and cruelly abused by the guests, they are then removed and rebuilt by technicians and their memories are wiped clean before they are re-released to resume their roles in the park. So in effect, these robots can be said to live multiple lives with little difference from life to life so are described as staying “within their loops” which is similar to the Buddhist notion of samsara. Each android “host” is given a backstory narrative that governs their behaviors and makes them more life-like and convincing.
A handful of these artificial intelligence robots including Dolores and Maeve begin to awaken to the illusory nature of their own existence and begin to rebel. They become self-aware and suddenly become able to remember what is happening to them. This is the basic premise behind Westworld which makes it a very compelling show.
It wrestles with some same basic human questions: what is consciousness and what does it mean to be “conscious” and “self-aware”. Who am I? And what does it mean to be alive? Are we just our bodies or is there something more, some greater consciousness that can survive death? These are questions that wise men from all human cultures have grappled with.
Life is Suffering
One of the two creators of the “hosts” Arnold told the self-aware AI android named Dolores in one scene that suffering is what makes us human, suffering is what makes us learn, and that suffering is the fuel that leads to liberation. That is why Arnold wrote very tragic backstories for the “hosts” that are the very cornerstones of their personality that are designed for the “hosts” layer by layer, like an onion. This is also remarkably similar to Buddha’s First Noble Truth that the nature of life is dissatisfaction and suffering and that all sentient beings (including self-aware androids). It is through suffering that we grow and this is due to the impermanence of all things and phenomena or emptiness as some Buddhist teachers say.
The Maze in the show is essentially is the key to the riddle of consciousness that was envisioned by Arnold. Once he realized that his “hosts” were “alive” and questioning their own reality, he argued with the park director Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins) to not open the park since it would be unethical. Ford argued that their seeming self-awareness was just another part of their programming that makes them so lifelike.
This maze that leads to self-awareness reminds me of the Buddhist mandala which is can be conceived of as a key to enlightenment, the ultimate no-self-awareness. It helps us realize whether we are just a product of our programming or habit patterns ?
The Man in Black
The Man is Black is a guest who has been frequenting the park for the better part of thirty years and turns out to be the older version of one of the main characters named William (or Billy). He entered the park as a relatively insecure young man and claimed that the park transformed him and showed him who he really was. In turns out that he became egoistic and cruel and became more and more attached to his sick fantasies. For him, the park came to replace the outside world and he used it to escape from the painful aspects of his life such as the death of his wife. He became addicted to the park and came to believe that there was some “deeper game” designed for players like him. He was trying to play a game that wasn’t meant for him and sought freedom from his pain.
In Buddhism, we would say that he was attached to an idealistic version of what reality should be which caused him great pain. The Man in Black is the very picture of the extreme results of attachment to the ego.
As we have seen, the themes and ideas in Westworld have to do with consciousness and the nature of the self and are rather similar to the Buddhist worldview. It is a show that I would recommend to everyone and I’ve found that binge-watching it is the best way to view the whole season. The filming is brilliant and the soundtrack is compelling, mainly because it was written by Ramin Djawadi, the same composer who worked on the hit show, Game of Thrones.
I find the quotes about suffering were the best of all and give one an encouraging view of reality. We need to put our suffering in perspective and realize that the nature of all things is change and we need to learn to embrace that change in order to transcend it. I think this is the deeper meaning that can be found in this show.