Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies
by Dean Sluyter
Copyright © 2005 by Dean Sluyter
All Rights Reserved
Three Rivers Press
Excerpt from Dare to Be Dopey: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
So, in planning a new picture, we don't think of grown-ups and we don't think of children, but just of that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us, that the world has maybe made us forget and maybe our pictures can help recall.
— Walt Disney
As a role model, Snow White sucks. She's an utterly passive fairy-tale heroine who climbs no beanstalks and slays no dragons. She has no talents but housecleaning and no interests beyond pining away for that Special Someone who will someday come and solve all her problems. Her shrill, girly voice attests to her empty-headed helplessness - she's sisters-under-the-skin with the old politically incorrect Teen Talk Barbie that sighed, 'Math is hard!' All she is is young and pretty, and not smart enough to understand that one day, like the Queen, she'll be forty and washed up.
This sort of critique is valid as long as we're viewing the film on a strictly literal level. But on that level Jack and the Beanstalk teaches us to solve our problems by stealing and killing, and Christ's parables are pointless stories about pearls and swine, lost sheep and mustard seeds. If we look at it in the right light and from the right angle,Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length cartoon ever made, turns out to be an extended dharma parable, its teachings as exquisitely detailed as they are unintended.
Back in 1937, when the film was in production, the press called it 'Disney's Folly.' Even Roy Disney, Walt's brother and partner, wanted to stick to their wildly popular Mickey Mouse shorts, fearful that the project would sink the studio. Walt kept hiring more artists, hundreds of them, and going back to the bank for more money. To realize his vision, new technology was developed (a giant multiplane camera to add layers of perspective), an in-house art school was established, live dancers and dwarfs were filmed and copied, chemists mixed 1,500 custom paint colors, and teams of animators worked around the clock for months, fired up by Walt's relentless perfectionism. As one artist said, 'Disney had only one rule: whatever we did had to be better than anybody else could do it, even if you had to animate it nine times.'
The result tapped into something universal, and Snow White became the first great international blockbuster of the sound era. True, it set in motion the Disney juggernaut-of-cuteness that would eventually crush every delicate, wistful children's classic in sight (poor Pooh!), but that's another story. Visually, the film is still stunning today, in such scenes as the climactic storm, where the fall and splatter of each individual raindrop is hand-rendered with painstaking predigital craftsmanship. But most remarkable is how, out of the intensely concentrated awareness of some 1,000 collaborating artists (writers, animators, colorists, actors, musicians, and more) emerged a self-portrait of awareness itself: our pristine, snow-white inmost being, with its innate yearning to find fulfillment in the arms of the Prince Charming of enlightenment.
But enlightenment, in all its expansiveness, is an unfamiliar realm. So the film begins with the all-too-familiar constrictedness of unenlightenment, in the person of Snow White's stepmother, the Queen, closeted in the dark, claustrophobic recesses of her strangely uninhabited castle. Where are the King, the courtiers, the ladies in waiting? She dwells in isolation, just as we dwell (so it seems) alone inside a body, a tiny island of self lost in the wide sea of all that is not our self. Gazing into her mirror, she pronounces her famous incantation -
Magic mirror on the wall,
Who is the fairest one of all?
- just as we try to make ourselves less tiny by being the fairest (or the richest or strongest or smartest or coolest) one of all. But because it merely intensifies the sense of self, such self-aggrandizement is a losing game. Making our island more luxurious just reinforces the sensation that we're stuck on an island.
And all such improvements are temporary anyway; we can't stay the fairest one of all forever. The Queen knows her beauty is doomed, and in straining to preserve it - another self-defeating strategy - she has made herself grotesque. Her high cheekbones and flawless skin, exaggerated by the black cowl pulled tight over her hair and ears, are fixed in a frozen mask that is not beautiful but an ice-cold, Joan Crawfordesque parody of beauty: she's like a walking facelift with nothing beneath it. When she summons the Spirit for reassurance that she's still the fairest one of all, she addresses him as 'Slave in the magic mirror,' but she's clearly a slave of the magic mirror. The words narcissism and narcotic come from the same root, and the Queen is hooked, a mirror junkie with an expensive habit.
The plot is set in motion when the Spirit puts Mommie Dearest in a rage by revealing that Snow White is now fairest of all. Reflecting the Queen's frozen features, the Spirit is also drawn as a mask - the mournful mask of tragedy, the drama of inevitable loss. The Greek word for mask, persona, is the root of our words person and personality, implying that the 'person,' the self we work so hard to preserve and promote, is merely a mask and not what we truly are. That's good news. Working to earn more money, get a higher SAT score, or, for that matter, make ourselves more attractive is not the problem; it's the identification with these achievements, the illusion that weare our faces, brains, or money. Like the Queen, we're happy to be a made-up self as long as it's succeeding on its own made-up terms. But sooner or later others arise to challenge us. Then, because of our identification with the role we've been playing, our very survival seems to require that we eliminate the challenger. We lash out.
In ignorance, alienated and lonely, we are cut off from the world and other creatures by our belief that we are all separate entities. . . . Hatred or aversion is a direct function of the split mind. . . . [D]ue to the fear inherent in 'island-consciousness,' when any event occurs that is not exuding comfort and security . . . the conditions for a possible violent confrontation are present.
- The Flight of the Garuda
Here this spawning of violence occurs when the Queen summons her Huntsman to take Snow White into the woods and cut out her heart.
Fortunately, there's an alternative to isolation, fear, and rage. We can use the daily threats to our precarious security as opportunities for insight, to see that these challenges to the false self bring not doom but redemption. Instead of clutching at the mask with an ever-tightening grip, we can let go.
Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.
It is not dying, it is not dying.
- Lennon/McCartney, 'Tomorrow Never Knows'
That which overshadows us, we discover by relaxing into it, is not some outer menace but our own true being - represented here by Snow White.
Her name, her voice, her face all suggest that Snow White is more than a literal fairy-tale heroine, that she personifies something beyond the realm of human limitation. She is Disney's embodiment of 'that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us,' as pure as the driven snow. She was originally drawn with skin so otherworldly white that the female artists in the ink and paint department, it is said, had to go back cell by cell, applying rouge from their own makeup kits to her cheeks. Her voice, so nearly ultrasonic that it's painful, was not a casual choice. Disney, who had sound equipment specially installed in his office so he could listen in on auditions, rejected over a hundred singers before hearing nineteen-year-old Adriana Caselotti and exclaiming, 'That's the girl!'
The name Snow White is particularly suggestive. As snow blankets the entire countryside, it implies a beauty that can't be hoarded, a shared asset that's vaster than our island of self. Dharma texts use such terms as sem karpo ('white mind' in Tibetan) to describe that which underlies all our masks and is 'fairer' - more radiant, more real, more joyously liberative - than any of them. One popular exercise for cleansing the mind of impurities that obstruct this awareness, the Vajrasattva ('white scepter') purification, involves visualizing enlightenment-nectar 'the color of fresh snow in brilliant sunlight' pouring down through the top of one's head and flushing out the entire body. In fact, when we first see Snow White she is engaged in cleansing, scrubbing the outer steps of the palace, the Queen's fortress of self-imposed solitude and limitation.
Looking up at that massive obstruction, Snow White sighs with discouragement. She is dressed in rags, neglected by her stepmother, just as our inner being, with no family resemblance to the false self, is shunted aside like a neglected stepchild. Yet her beauty shines despite her rags. Our radiant essence, pure awareness, can never be tainted by the world of mundane experience.
How can that be? Here's an experiment that can help make it clear:
- Examine any two objects - say a penny and a dollar. Through your senses, you experience the penny as round, brownish, and smooth, the dollar as rectangular, greenish, and crinkly.
- Notice that these sensations of roundness, crinkliness, and so forth, are experienced within your awareness. You are aware of them.
- Now notice whether your awareness itself is brown or greenish, crinkly or smooth. (Take your time and observe closely.) Plainly it's none of these, since you can be aware of many colors and textures at once. Awareness itself is pure - it has no shape, texture, size, or any other sensory characteristic, but is an unchanging luminous clarity within which arises the ever-changing display of sensations.
So, underlying all perception is pure awareness, in the background of every mind-moment. It just needs to be promoted to the foreground. The neglected stepchild must take her rightful place as a princess.
Still sighing, Snow White carries her scrub bucket a few yards to a well, peers into its depths, and sings about her wish for 'the one I love' to 'find me today.' Our inner nature wants, as it were, to be found. It's not enough merely to be that luminous clarity; we must somehow come to know it. This knowing is not an idea or a feeling but a direct experience - in fact, the experience, satori, nirvana, rigpa, the peace that passeth understanding, the kingdom of God within. Here it's represented by the Prince, the one who can draw Snow White out of the background to which she has been relegated. Sages in all traditions say this ultimate experience cannot be adequately described ('The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao'), and fittingly, the Prince is the one character the Disney artists were never satisfied with. They couldn't find a way to make him visually embody Snow White's ultimate, supremely desirable destiny. Instead he wound up looking the way many descriptions of enlightenment misleadingly make it sound: bland and boring.
Because this enlightenment experience is not anything foreign to us but is the realization of our own basic nature, we're spontaneously attracted to it - the Prince is Charming. Snow White has never laid eyes on the guy, but he's already 'the one I love.' This preexisting affinity makes her confident that he's the one and that, sooner or later, he'll show up. And the feeling is mutual. Realization is spontaneously attracted to us; in a moment, the Prince will arrive on a horse that is also snow-white, implying that Snow White's own pristine nature carries him toward her. In this context, her Barbie-esque passivity makes sense after all. The essence of meditation - the most stripped-down, straightforward technique of realizing the pure nature of our awareness - is wu wei, 'not doing,' simply letting awareness be. All forms of spiritual doing exist to bring us to this point of not doing, where any exertion would merely overlay complications upon the perfect, snow-white face of what we already are. As a Zen teacher once put it, 'Enlightenment, when it happens, is an accident. Spiritual practice just makes us more accident-prone.'
This is the utter simplicity that makes even the word 'meditation' seem superfluous. Whether with eyes closed or open, whether cross-legged on a cushion after intoning mantras or lounging in the backyard after sipping morning coffee, we just let go, not following our thoughts or repressing them, not manipulating our experience or judging it. As with muddy water, if we don't stir it but just let it settle, the medium in which the mud is suspended spontaneously reveals its innate clarity. We simply sit, simply be, and, in its time, realization comes unbidden, 'as a thief in the night,' just as Prince Charming now comes riding onto the scene, scales the wall, and steals silently into Snow White's garden.
Oblivious of his presence, Snow White goes on singing, and through her eyes, in a point-of-view shot that's one of the film's most striking images, we see her reflection looking back from the bottom of the well. It's a vivid evocation of the meditative state: awareness simply resting aware of awareness.
In this there is not a thing to be removed,
Nor anything that needs to be added.
It is merely the immaculate,
Looking naturally at itself.
- Khenpo Jamyang Dorje
Oddly, the image recalls the Queen and her mirror, but with a crucial difference. The Queen strikes a rigid, imperial stance, issuing commands at horizontal eye level; Snow White bends in a relaxed, gracefully rounded posture, her head bowed as if in humble prayer, gazing with gentle acceptance into the vertical depths. And while the Queen glares at a hard surface that reflects her own rigidity, Snow White looks into living water, in which circular ripples (a spectacular artistic tour de force) gently radiate outward across her reflection, implying that the self she sees is not static and isolated but fluidly interconnected with everything else. The Queen would be furious if ripples crossed her face - they would have her running for the Botox.
A moment later, the Prince appears at Snow White's side - reflected in the bottom of the well. This, her first glimpse of him, reminds us that initially our inner nature can most readily encounter its own realization in the depths of meditation. But it's always available, right here and now, as the Prince indicates by singing back the last word of Snow White's wishing song in an ascending interval that makes it a triumphant declaration: 'To-day!'
In principle, this is all we should ever have to do: look into ourselves once, see what we truly are, and then live the experience. In practice, though, these glimpses (in Zen they're called kensho) are highly unstable, due to their unfamiliarity, as we now see when timid Snow White becomes flustered and runs away. To become permanent, inner illumination must be hauled up, so to speak, from the bottom of the well to the surface. In Judaism, where the Sabbath, or Shabbat, is set aside for such inner experience, a key prayer says, 'Help me to extend the joy of Shabbat to the other days of the week, until I attain the goal of deep joy always.' To live happily ever after (in 'deep joy always') with the Prince, Snow White must leave her sheltered garden for the outer world - a journey that will take her to the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs. . . .
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