Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Dharma of Sleeping Beauty

I love finding new meaning in things familiar. Many times these revelations are right under our noses.
   When I moved into my new house, I unpacked boxes and boxes of items that I had not seen in a year. The possessions I most missed were my books. One book in particular was a treasure rediscovered: an old Big Golden Book of Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty. It is over-sized and features illustrations from Disney's 1959 animated version of the centuries' old fairy tale.
   The first recorded version of Sleeping Beauty dates back to Charles Perrault's 1697 "Tales of Mother Goose." Of course, Disney made the story G (in the original 1700's version Sleeping Beauty is raped—perhaps the first recorded use of Roofies) and added woodland creatures and co-dependent fairies hovering about. Disney also gave the tale its hallmark and pat "happily ever after" ending since Sleeping and the Prince tied the knot before the finale. But Disney kept in two very important details: the menacing kill-joy/jealous femme fatale and the spell that sent the heroine into a very deep slumber, only to awaken at her "true love's kiss."
   The power of true love and, in particular, true love's kiss are recurring themes in fairytales, especially as retold by Disney & Co. I'll spare you my rant about how Disney single-handledly perpetuated the illusion of romantic love for the Baby Boomer generation. (You can read my previous blog post for more on that.) Yes, I had dismissed the saccharin tale as having no spiritual benefit whatsoever—until recently when I unearthed my faded, well-worn storybook, and it occurred to me that maybe I had gotten it all wrong. Maybe there was something to being awakened by true love? What if Sleeping Beauty was really a Buddha?
   Like Siddhartha Gotama (the man who-would-be Buddha), Sleeping Beauty was of royal descent. In both stories, the royal parents are visited by fortune tellers who predict that their royal offspring will follow a path that is less than ideal in the eyes of their respective parents. Siddhartha's father is told that Sid will either become a great king or a great spiritual leader—and the proud papa doesn't want a guru in the family. Sleeping's parents are warned that she'll prick her finger on a spindle upon her sixteen birthday and perish—clearly not what any parent wishes for their child. So, the good parents shelter their beloved children from the woes and suffering of the outside world, thinking that if they protect them and give them everything their little hearts could desire, Sid and Sleepy will stay content within the castle walls. Of course, we know there is no containing the desire of human longing. Siddhartha eventually walks outside the castle walls to experience life, and Sleepy creeps into the forest to sing and frolic.
  Siddhartha sets off on his vision quest to end suffering and the causes of suffering—ultimately to find happiness. Sleeping Beauty doesn't really have such a lofty motive, she simply wants to be happy.  Despite their parents attempts to change their karma, the prophecies come true for both Sid and Sleepy. Siddhartha becomes a great spiritual leader; while Sleepy manifests herself into a coma-like slumber. This is where the two tales take a departure, and where I believe the Sleeping Beauty tale is more reflective of the contemporary human condition.
   When most of us "come of age"—go away to college, get married, start our careers, have children—we think we are entering the bliss of the "real world," but like Sleepy, we often do not see reality...yet. We fall under enchantments of attainment, achievement and attachment; and we often spiritually check-out. We're alive, but not functioning on a deeper level. The problem is—like someone who is asleep and dreaming—we don't even realize our delusions. We often sleepwalk through life, sometimes perceiving that "something is missing" but not able to pinpoint what that allusive missing item might be. So we pull to us anything that might fill that void, and too often, we push away the one thing that would provide us with a sense of wholeness: our sense of spirituality.
   The tale seems to indicate that Sleeping Beauty is passively waiting for her awakening, but what if she—like Siddhartha—is experiencing her own version of deep meditation. Siddhartha fell into a deep meditative state under which he encountered Mara (or the devil) who tormented him (ala Jesus in the dessert) with all sorts of pleasures, fears and self-doubts. Only when he dispels the demons in his head with clarity and conviction, does he gain enlightenment.
   And so it is for Sleepy. Sure, the Prince comes along at the opportune time, but one might argue that it is her inner-beauty and goodness that draws him to her. Sleepy—like most of us—requires human relationships to test her convictions. By interacting with others we often discover what is missing in our lives. So, contrary to popular belief, Sleeping is not helpless. She effects her own karma and thereby her own redemption. She has made herself lovable, and thereby able to accept the kiss of true love—not romantic love or the fluff of Disney, but unconditional love without expectation or attachment. And the Prince who bestows the kiss of clarity is not a noble hunk, but the inner faith and acceptance that there is a Source of Love and Compassion that connects us all. When she is able to perceive reality, she—like the Buddha—awakens. And yes, then and only then, does Sleeping Beauty indeed live happily ever after. 

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