Once upon a time there was a child whose heart and mind were as pure as snow. But she came under the power of a wicked queen whom we shall call Māra, ruler of illusion, greed, and hatred. To free herself from Māra’s huntsman, the child sets out on a journey through the dark forest. The journey leads to discovery and, despite Māra’s attempts to poison her, to awakening and true happiness.
There are many stories that come to us from Asia, called Jātaka tales, about the Buddha’s lives as a bodhisattva and applicable to all of us on the path to enlightenment. But some of our own fairy tales are like Jātaka tales too—like Snow White.
Forget, for a moment, Walt Disney. Bring to mind, rather, Dante’s opening lines—”Midway this way of life we’re bound upon / I woke to find myself in a dark wood”—as he begins his odyssey through the Inferno. Picture, perhaps, the path through the forest at Barre.
In essence, Snow White is the story of a girl bodhisattva brought face to face with suffering—the loss of the mother who loved her, and the prospect of her own death—and who is plunged into the journey as we set out on the path of meditation to freedom and awakening.
Snow White’s very name reflects the pristine purity of mind, pure like the snow. But this original mind which is pure, according to the Buddha, has somehow come under the power of Māra, the personification of greed, hatred, and delusion.
In this story, Māra appears as the wicked queen, willing to do anything to extend her control over the world. The queen spends her days looking into the mirror of delusion. Caught in the spell of her self-image, and believing that only by fulfilling her desire to be the most admired of all, she tries to get rid of everything and anyone who stands in the way—and this includes the child Snow White.
She sends Snow White out to the forest in her huntsman’s charge to be killed, and when the huntsman returns with a deer’s liver, she thinks Snow White dead. But actually Snow White is alive and well. It is what the Buddha tells us about ourselves: that despite appearances, underneath Māra’s seeming sovereignty, our true nature is alive and well. It’s just a matter of undertaking the journey of discovering this.
Snow White’s journey through the forest is what mindfulness meditation, particularly in an intensive retreat, is like. It’s a journey deeper and deeper through the forest of our mind. In this journey we get to know all the parts of our inner terrain, as Snow White got to know the dwarfs that lived deep in the forest. We get to know the faces of our different mind states and are able to call them by their names: Happy, Grumpy, Sad, Angry…We learn to greet them as they come and go, and begin to bring order to the house of our mind.
And we explore deeper and deeper levels of our being, the very depths of our mind—symbolized by the mines of the dwarfs deep inside the very bowels of the earth. In this exploration we, too, sometimes discover treasure and precious ore.
We have to also, however, cope with Māra’s visits. The Buddha refers to the kilesas, or negative forces and emotions which cloud our true nature, as “visitors” of the mind. And in the fairy tale, disguised under many forms, Māra keeps visiting. In mindfulness meditation as in the story, there’s not a lot we can do to stop the visits, but by being mindful and investigating, like the dwarfs, we can unhook or detach from what’s happening.
The three visits of Māra in the story represent the three root kilesas, the “three poisons” of greed, hatred, and ignorance. They also point to the attention to breath, thoughts, body, and movement we use in mindfulness meditation to free ourselves. In their role of liberating Snow White from Māra’s dark magic, the dwarfs might here be seen as representing the seven factors of enlightenment.
First, Māra, in the disguise of an old peddler, comes with pretty laces. Snow White desires their prettiness, but Māra ties them so tight around Snow White so that she can no longer breathe—just as we become constricted by the kilesa of grasping, greed, and wanting.
The second time Māra comes with a poisoned comb which she fixes in the child’s hair so that she become unconscious—all the thoughts that poison our mind such as anger, hatred, judgment, jealousy, blame.
On her third visit, Māra comes with a poisoned apple. The apple is the symbol of ignorance, the loss of oneness with the original spaciousness of mind, and the fall into duality and sense of being separate, found in the biblical story of Eve. It’s the poison that’s most deep and stuck: an ignorance we’ve swallowed and taken inside.
Investigating and observing closely the breath and its constriction, the dwarfs loosen the laces and free Snow White after the first visit. Exploring the head and hair (mental state and thoughts), the dwarfs are able to remove the poisoned comb. The last poison is a bit harder to overcome.
But at some point, after a long time spent by the dwarfs watching the body in the glass coffin and watching its movement as it’s carried by the prince’s servants, this third poison also becomes dislodged. And Snow White awakens.
In the fairy tale this final awakening happens—and the piece of apple dislodged from Snow White’s throat—as the prince’s servants stumble over some brushwood. (It’s comforting to know that awakening can come in the midst of a moment of stumbling as well as a moment of mindfulness!). For us, too, the moment of awakening often comes as unexpectedly at any step of the way. It can also happen gradually—at each step of the way.
So the story, which began with a dark forest, ends with awakening. And with a wedding to the king’s son, symbolic, in fairly tales, of union with our true Self (or, in this case, our true No-Self), with our true unclouded nature.