Words by Diep Tran
Warning: Spoilers because this essay won’t make sense if you haven’t watched, and rewatched, Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Growing up, my dad’s favorite film was The Matrix (it still is, though he admits he couldn't get through The Matrix Resurrections). Like many people, my dad loved Keanu Reeves learning kung-fu and the then-revolutionary bullet-time sequences. But the biggest reason he loves The Matrix was because, as he told me, it’s a “Buddhist movie.” My parents are Buddhist, and my dad’s favorite scene in the film is the bald boy dressed up as a Buddhist monk telling Neo, “Do not try and bend the spoon, it is impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth: there is no spoon. Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
In other words, according to my dad, our present reality is an illusion, and there’s a higher reality out there, if we can wake up (i.e. become enlightened). Once we become enlightened, then we can use our minds to bend our present reality.
It’s heady stuff amidst all the robots and squishy rebirthing scenes, but my dad was not the only one who internalized the Buddhist themes within The Matrix. Everything Everywhere All At Once creators Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) have spoken about how they were inspired by The Matrix. The parallels are similar. In The Matrix, Neo realizes that his present reality is an illusion, and there’s a higher reality out there. In Everything Everywhere All At Once, Evelyn (played by Michelle Yeoh) realizes that her reality is just one out of an endless number of realities out there. Both films blend sci-fi and martial arts. And both contain philosophies and themes that are surprisingly accurately rooted in Buddhism.
That is not to say that Everything Everywhere All At Once or The Matrix is a Buddhist film (sorry, Dad). As National University of Singapore professor John Whalen-Bridge wrote in the book, Buddhism and American Cinema, “Whether Buddhist beliefs (about karma or reincarnation) or practices (meditation, especially) have been in the foreground or in the background, it is uncontestable that films, even as they have traded upon the exoticism of Buddhism in the American imaginaire, have made Buddhism far less exotic than it was previously. Buddhist film is important because it is a marker of the impact of Asian philosophy and religion on American culture.”
Specifically, Everything Everywhere All At Once uses Buddhist imagery not as exotic window dressing (as is the case with other films such as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness).
Instead, the Daniels’ film actively engages with the religion’s philosophy. Within the film’s larger themes of Asian American identity, this engagement is appropriate instead of appropriative.
Everything Everywhere shows audiences how to find happiness the Buddhist way: not through violence or longing for another world, which only brings more suffering, but through compassion and living in the present moment.
Part 1: The Multiverse
“Multiverses are so hot right now,” a recent Variety story proclaimed. From the end of 2021 to now, there have been three high-performing films that feature the multiverse: Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Everything Everywhere All At Once. That same article also erroneously credited the multiverse theory to physicist Hugh Everett III, who wrote a PhD thesis on alternate realities in 1957. But the origins of the multiverse theory is more ancient than that: it has roots in Buddhism, a 2,500-year-old practice.
The book Myriad Worlds by Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Tayé, a 19th-century Tibetan Buddhism scholar, explores Buddhist cosmology. And according to Buddhist sutras, there are “a billion realms” where “their locations, shapes, sizes, durations, and arrangements are inconceivable” and that there are “infinite links, continuums, oceans, and flower-filled world.” Furthermore, “In some realms, there are no Buddhas; in some realms, there are Buddhas; in some realms, there is one Buddha; in some, many Buddhas.”
To make sure those scriptures were really talking about the multiverse, I spoke to Thầy Thích Thiện Trí, a Buddhist monk who helps run the Princeton Meditation Center in Texas. He simplified it for me further:
“It's kind of like an ocean and the many bubbles represent many different worlds in the universe, or many universes, the multiverse—we're just one of the bubbles in the ocean.”
And because reincarnation is a key part of Buddhist beliefs, it is possible that a person could be reincarnated into another universe, says Thầy. It’s not quite parallel universes but the notion that one person can live many different lifetimes; that’s pure Buddhism.
In the 20th century, the multiverse theory gained popularity among physicists, such as when Albert Einstein teamed up with Nathan Rosen to theorize the Einstein–Rosen bridge, or a wormhole, which could be used to connect different universes together. String theory posits that there can be multiple variations of the same universe due to different particle arrangements, and that there are an infinite number of parallel universes. Though the multiverse and parallel realities are just scientific theories with no hard evidence, it exploded in popularity once the creatives got ahold of it.
Isaac Asimov wrote about parallel universes in his 1972 novel The Gods Themselves, about what would happen if two universes made contact with each other. But most commonly, the multiverse was used as a convenient storytelling device. In comic books and films, the multiverse has been used as an excuse to bring dead characters back to life, create parallel realities via time travel, and more recently, to create a live action multiple Spider-Man meme.
Everything Everywhere seems to begin as the kind of film that uses the multiverse narrative for some cheap thrills (such as a fanny pack fight). But as the film progresses, the multiverse becomes a metaphor for something deeper: the multiverse are the what if’s in Evelyn’s life, all of the roads that Evelyn could have taken. What if she had stayed in China instead of going to the United States? What if she had fulfilled her potential instead of settling? What if she had succeeded instead of failed? And Evelyn is longing for those what ifs, dissatisfied with her current reality where she is a laundromat owner.
“What if I want to go back to the other universe?” Evelyn asks a version of her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) from another universe.
“If you fall into their temptations, you invite contradiction, chaos,” he responds, “You could die.”
Unlike in other multiverse narratives, Evelyn is able to access the multiverse not through her body, but through her mind. Using her mind, she is able to tap into her other lives, see what they are seeing. She just needs to focus on where she wants to go, and then she can see her other self, even if she is physically still in her original universe.
That method of travel is rooted in Buddhism (portals in the MCU are not). “You cannot travel physically [to other universes],” Thầy tells me. In Buddhism, in order to enter a higher plane of consciousness, perhaps even another reality, you must clear your own mind and meditate. “Only through the practice of meditation, Zen meditation, can you actually attain that mind. And Buddha says if you attain that mind, you don't have to go anywhere because anywhere is in your mind.” Or put it another way, everything, everywhere, all at once is in your mind.
Part 2: The Third Eye and the Everything Bagel
The villain of Everything Everywhere All At Once is Jobu Tupaki, a hyper-powerful version of Evelyn’s daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). Jobu can experience all of her different lives at the same time. This has caused her to disassociate from the world and to conclude that because the universe is so big and infinite, nothing really matters. “If nothing matters, then all the pain and guilt you feel for making nothing of your life goes away,” she says.
Jobu creates a giant everything bagel, which she hopes will finally destroy her. The bagel, visualized as a black circle with a white hole, also resembles the ensō sign in Zen Buddhism, which represents enlightenment. In Jobu’s case, she is enlightened in that she can see past her present reality into the multiverse.
But instead of finding inner peace in that discovery, Jobu has become nihilistic, and wants to destroy herself. This is a common misinterpretation of Buddhist philosophy—Friedrich Nietzsche even called Buddhism, “passive nihilism.”
Evelyn is initially tempted by Jobu, and plans to enter the bagel and be destroyed, as well. But she is pulled back by Waymond, remembering the life they had together. While that life was filled with struggle, it was also filled with small joys. She refuses to enter the bagel and tries to stop Jobu from destroying herself. Jobu’s henchmen, who worship Jobu as a deity, shoot bullets at Evelyn.
Then in a crucial moment in the film, Evelyn turns those bullets into googly eyes, the same googly eyes that Waymond left around their apartment to try and make her laugh. She takes one googly eye and puts it on her forehead, effectively giving herself a third eye.
The third eye has become a common symbol in Western pop culture, but here it is actually used in the way it's intended. Unlike in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness—where the third eye is a moment of body horror representing insanity, effectively coopting the Buddhist imagery and stripping it of its meaning (in one fight scene, Strange has the multiple arms of the Bodhisattva for no reason other than it looks cool)—the third eye in Everything Everywhere is clear: Evelyn has become enlightened. She sees all of her lives simultaneously, and instead of it frying her brain or making her feel small, she sees the joy and beauty of those lives (even the universe where everyone has hot dog fingers).
And she learns how to fight not with her fists, but with love.
Part 3: The Answer Is Compassion
Perhaps the most beautiful moment in Everything Everywhere All At Once, or at least the most quoted moment, was in the universe where Evelyn and Waymond did not leave China together. They are both rich but alone, and Waymond tells her in Mandarin, with English subtitles, “In another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you.” The Mandarin dialogue actually says, “If there’s a next life,” also pointing to the Buddhist philosophy of reincarnation.
But more crucially, Waymond says this: “You tell me that it’s a cruel world and we’re all just running around in circles. I know that. I’ve been on this earth just as many days as you. When I choose to see the good side of things, I’m not being naive. It is strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive through everything.”
Unlike in other action films with Buddhist imagery, like The Matrix or Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, where the conflict is solved with a big, bloody fight—Everything Everywhere does the more radical thing. Evelyn solves her problems not with martial arts, but with kindness. Or as she tells Waymond, “I’m learning to fight like you.”
For instance, she tells Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), who is about to kill her with a crowbar, “You’re not unlovable.” She stops Deirdre not with a punch, but with an embrace. Evelyn is able to prevent Jobu from entering the bagel using her words. “Maybe there is something out there, some new discovery that will make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit,” Evelyn tells Joy. “No matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always, always want to be here with you.” Jobu then turns around and embraces her mother.
Everything Everywhere ends on a note not of violence, but of compassion. That is the key in how to be happy, according to Buddhism. “I don't know whether the universe, with its countless galaxies, stars and planets, has a deeper meaning or not, but at the very least, it is clear that we humans who live on this earth face the task of making a happy life for ourselves,” writes the Dalai Lama. “I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes.”
The Dalai Lama also says that the best people to teach us about compassion aren’t our friends and families, but our enemies—so it seems particularly apt that Evelyn learning to love Deirdre is a key turning point in Everything Everywhere All At Once.
This is the opposite of nihilism.
Instead of disassociating from the world, Buddhism advocates for valuing life and human connection. Gautama Buddha may have become enlightened but he still spent his days in conversation with regular people, helping them ease their suffering.
At the end of the film, Evelyn is still enlightened, she can still hear the whispers of her other selves in those other universes. But she is now able to foster a better relationship with her family, and thus able to truly be present and happy in her present reality.
As Thầy told me, Buddhism does talk about the vast universe and the multiverse, but the central focus of the philosophy is on the self. “It doesn't matter how many universes are out there, it doesn't matter how many people are out there,” he says. “We have no control over that. What we can control is our own mind. Everything that Buddha teaches is basically: return to your mind. We don't have to do anything. We already know everything is changing—one thing leads to the next, it's endless. We don't have to run after that. What we have to do is return to ourselves.” At the end of the film, after hearing the voices of the different realities, Evelyn comes back to herself, and looks at the camera with a smile.
Granted, Daniels didn’t set out to make a Buddhist film, and this essay may make the film sound more pretentious than it actually is (then again, their inspiration for the multiverse in the film was quantum physics). But they did create a touching, funny movie with an almost all-Asian cast, and placed Eastern imagery of Wong Kar-wai and Buddhism on an equal playing field with the Western imagery of Pixar’s Ratatouille and the children’s book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.
They have also reclaimed Buddhist imagery, using it not as an exotic set piece or a shorthand for wellness and spirituality, but actively engaging with its philosophy. And the message is one that both Buddhist and non-Buddhist can find comfort in: don’t go chasing the multiverse, look for love and connection in the universe you’re used to.
Published on August 16, 2022
Words by Diep Tran
Diep Tran is a culture critic/reporter/editor based in New York City. Her loves include musical theater and period dramas. She interviewed Keanu Reeves once and got him to admit he was Asian. Twitter: @DiepThought