Loopy Buddhism and HBO’s Westworld

[WARNING CONTAINS SPOILERS]
I bring out a tall glasses of apple juice for Doris and Maria, iced tea for Ken, and coffee for Lilian and Ernie (they have iced tea at lunch but not for dinner, a mistake that I learned the hard way). “Red juice!”, Barbara hollers and I bring her out two tall glasses of cranberry juice. Some of the other servers pre-pour drinks minutes before the residents arrive familiar with their predictable, repeating loops. During a staff meeting, the director of the senior living facility kindly informed us that it is against policy to “pre-pour” drinks because it “removes the free-will of the residents”, a rule drafted by the large Florida based corporation that runs this senior living facility. At this, my fellow server and long-time friend, who wrote his undergraduate thesis on the illusion of free will, look at each other smirking.

The two of us, both avid fans of the HBO series Westworld, love to draw comparisons between the environment of this senior living facility and the land of the pre-programmed robots in Westworld who live out their lives on repeating loops. Our observation of the residents merely backs up what we have argued for years, that everything is causal, pre-determined, and humans are absolutely NOT endowed with free will. We profess this on a theoretical level, yet we somehow believe that we are different. In observing the predictable behaviors of the seniors we think, “They are all on pre-determined loops, but we can’t be, we are too smart!” and “They don’t have agency, but we certainly do…. we must. We are like Maeve and Dolores in Westworld; we’ve figured it all out.” We understand our lack of free will theoretically, but the illusion of agency still holds strong in how we actually perceive and interact with the world. The Buddhist concept of karma gives us a working method of understanding determinism and may help us begin to poke holes in this illusion.

Westworld’s Maeve and Buddhism’s Buddha

Ironically, we understand most aspects of our experience in accordance to determinism. Every phenomenon has its cause(s). You get sick because you were exposed to a virus. The ball rolled because I kicked it. You got a ticket because you were speeding. Cacti have spines because of an evolutionary need for defense. In Buddhism this causality is understood as Karma. In physics causality is explained by Newton’s third law, and in biology Darwin observed and provided a working theory of evolution in living species that outlines lawful cause and effect. For practical purposes, I believe the best way to understand karma is nature plus nurture. I am the sum of 23 years of living in the American west, a college education, loving parents, 1,000 Modelo’s with lime, 10,000 cups of coffee, an interest in exploring existential questions, and an exposure to insight meditation; but, I am also inescapably the product of a family with long second toes, 40,000 years of Eurasian ancestry, and about 3.8 billion years of evolution on top of all of that. All of this karma has accrued for an incomprehensibly long period of time and makes all of my choices for me. I am the ball that is rolling and the karma is the foot that is kicking. Whereas in Westworld, the hosts are the ball and the programmers, Ford and his late partner Arthur, are the doing all of the kicking.

Any given decision that is made in the present moment has a massive web of all of the programming or karma that went in to said decision. The fact that reality presents itself as entirely causal is integral to the teachings of the Buddha. The futility in attempting to trace back and fully understand karma is also integral to Buddhist teachings. There is a Pali word, Acinteyya meaning imponderable or incomprehensible. The attempt to trace back the exact workings of Karma in Buddhism is considered one of the Four Imponderables. The Buddha’s teachings suggest that undertaking such a task would be entirely futile and would make any sane person go mad.

Westworld’s Maeve must not have read any of the ancient Buddhist canons before she progressively became aware of her unfortunate robotic-slave nature, and took what appeared to be agency to escape her pre-programmed loop. Throughout the first five or so episodes of Westworld, the viewer watches Maeve slowly become more aware of her situation. In the second episode of the series Chestnut, Maeve is taken in for maintenance where she suddenly awakens and witnesses the shocking behind the scenes realm of her robotic world. In the following episodes, Maeve has recurring visions of a previous progammed life in Westworld as well as visions of her time in maintenance being programmed and rebuilt. In the fifth episode Contrapasso, Maeve awakens once more in the host maintenance area of the park and demands answers from the humans charged with her maintenance and programming. Later on, Maeve convinces these maintenance men to alter her code to make her stronger, smarter, and more in control of her own actions. The viewer gets behind Maeve as she exhibits ever increasing amounts of agency, above her robot counterparts who remain stuck on their repeating programmed loops. Maeve’s awakening is rather akin to the Buddhist’s progress of insight. After tireless inquiry and introspection with subtle clues from faint memories (leftover programming from previous incarnations), Maeve dedicates her existence to escaping the cyclical and painful Samsaric world which she found herself in. Maeve sees through the programmed loops of her peers, like I can see the loops of the residents at the senior care facility. Through her awareness of the situation Maeve has been endowed with agency, free will, and the knowingness to make her own choices to escape her suffering, right? Wrong! In one of the most shocking turn of events in the first season, we find out that Maeve’s great escape was programmed entirely and she followed her determined loop down to a tee. In making this jarring discovery, Maeve persists and attempts to carry on with her escape before she ultimately reaches the end of her loop and devastatingly returns to the park in the last moments of the season finale.

It appeared that Maeve was taking her own agency in escaping Westworld after becoming aware of her painful Samsaric reincarnations. However, even her great escape was scripted. Similarly, the Buddha’s progress of insight and eventual awakening was also predetermined by an imponderable amount of karma that led him to discover and progress through the path of insight. For both the Buddha and Maeve, their worldly pain and suffering motivated their attempts at escaping their respective plights. The Mahasaccaka Sutta outlines the knowledges that the Buddha attained upon his enlightenment. According to the Sutta, during his awakening the Buddha gained insight into his past lives and insight into the workings of karma and reincarnation. Maeve’s programming allowed her these same insights. As a server at the retirement home, I clearly see the loops that the residents are on, yet I have discovered that I am not any different. I am also on a predetermined loop. Everyday at four o’clock I fill up carafe’s with ice water, I set out menus, and I have drinks prepared for the residents in my section of the dining room. I have no choice but to bring Barbara her “red juice”. It just so happens to be that my loop is to make sure that their loops are well accommodated. Knowing this is liberating in and of itself!