A few weeks ago I gave a talk on the Wizard of Oz. I think it is quite amazing how much is in the original book by Frank Baum that relates to Zen meditation practice. Here are a few points that stand out for me about the piece, which my dad first read to me when I was sick in bed at four years old. I remember not wanting to get better until he finished the whole book. For me it has stood the test of time. Here’s what stands out for me….
It starts out with Dorothy experiencing colorless (black and white) Kansas bleakness. Her parents have died and a mean old neighbor tries to take her dog, Toto, away from her. When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything.
Most of us who have come to Buddhist practice were propelled by some deep satisfaction in our lives. I can remember this was the case for me and for many of my friends. We weren’t particularly interested in Buddhism as a religion, but rather saw meditation as a possible vehicle for transformation from an internal bleakness and the bleakness of a culture that we experienced as somewhat stultifying.
And then, before she knows it, she, Toto, and her house are whooshed a way in a tornado and plunked down into a beautiful, Technicolor land. Her house lands on top of the Wicked Witch of the East. A good witch, Glenda, appears to her and tells Dorothy that if she wants to return home all she has to do is put on the ruby slippers on the feet of the evil witch. “Never let them off your feet for a moment and you will be able to return home.”
As with Dorothy, many of us who meet our spiritual teachers (mine were Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi), engage with them because we want to access a deep stillness within ourselves, which they and other Buddhist teachers referred to as “our true home.” However, instead of telling us to put on ruby slippers they show us how to sit still on black cushions and as Suzuki said to me, “Just get up and come sit with me every morning.”
Dorothy then asked Glenda if she could take her home, and Glenda replied, “No, l cannot do that. But l will give you my kiss, and no one will dare injure a person who has been kissed by the Witch of the North.” Then, “she came close to Dorothy and kissed her gently on the forehead. Where her lips touched the girl, they left a round, shining mark, as Dorothy found out soon after.” From that point on, although Dorothy doesn’t know, she is protected by the power of good. In my own case, although Suzuki never touched me literally, I felt kissed at the deepest level and protected in some fundamental way by the power of good which seemed to emanate from him.
Then Glenda the Good sends Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road to find the wizard of Oz who will help her get home. When I coach people to walk on the path, I talk about not worrying about or judging progress, but just take one small turtle-type step at a time. And I counsel them just as the Good Witch counseled Dorothy that, “It is a long journey, through a country that is sometimes pleasant and sometimes dark and terrible.”
This means that sometimes you will feel like you are on the wrong road. As Garcia Lorca says, “To take the wrong road is to come to the snow, to come to the snow is to get down on your hands and knees for 20 centuries and eat the snow of the cemeteries.”
When we give ourselves away like this, surrendering to all of life and even death, there’s a great opportunity to let go of our small chattering self and open up the vastness of the universe. To do this we need to move beyond our ideas about good and bad, up and down, to a land like Oz which as Frank Baum says is, “beyond rules and uncivilized.”
As Dorothy moves along the yellow brick road, she accompanied by three companions. We can see each of these of aspects of ourselves. We need the courage of the Lion to continually practice; the discriminating intelligence of the Scarecrow to sat on the path; the heart of the Tin Woodsman to stay open and available to whatever emotions we experience. And like each of these friends of Dorothy’s, we continue on the path even though we are plagued by self-doubt and feel incompetent and incomplete.
Even though threatened by the Wicked Witch, Dorothy and her companions often feel happy and hopeful. Sometimes they feel alone and afraid, but the dark moments always pass.
Like Dorothy, all each of us needs to do is stay true to ourselves and stay on our path, even if it seems rough or difficult. We can view Dorothy’s little group as a Sangha, who support each other regardless of what happens.
If we walk far enough,” says Dorothy, “we shall some time come to some place.”
Along the way Dorothy and her companions get waylaid in a poppy field. These flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever.
How easy it is for us to get seduced spiritual beliefs, practice, or ritual that makes us high or to think we have discovered, “the one true way.” This makes me wonder whether Frank Baum had been exposed to Karl Marx who died less than 20 years before The Wizard of Oz was first published. Here is Marx:
Religion is the opiate of the people—referring to “functions in society that were similar to the function of opium in a sick or injured person: religion reduced people’s immediate suffering and provided them with pleasant illusions, but it also reduced their energy and their willingness to confront the oppressive, heartless, and soulless.
In the poppy field Dorothy, as the smallest, falls victim to these opium-like flowers. “If we leave her here she will die,” said the Lion. “The smell of the flowers is killing us all. I myself can scarcely keep my eyes open, and the dog is asleep already.” “Run fast,” said the Scarecrow to the Lion, “and get out of this deadly flower bed as soon as you can. We will bring the little girl with us, but if you should fall asleep you are too big to be carried.”
The allegiance that the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion have toward Dorothy creates a supportive bond that enables her to keep moving along the path regardless of what happens. She only has a Sangha of four, but that’s plenty to sustain her even in the darkest time. Maybe Sangha is the most important component of a spiritual journey. But Sangha only needs to be 2 or 3 people who are willing to give and receive heartfelt support from each other through thick and thin.
Dorothy is able to awaken from the intoxication of the poppy field with the help of her friends and they finally enter the Emerald City. Each then meets the Wizard of Oz. To Dorothy, the Wizard appears as a giant head, to the Scarecrow, a beautiful woman, to the Tin Woodsman a ravenous beast, and to the Cowardly Lion, a ball of fire.
On your own spiritual quest each of us may see different deities, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Brahma, Buddha, or some other form of a higher power that seems outside of us.
The Wizard tells Dorothy and her friends must first defeat the Wicked Witch of the West before he can help them. And in the process of defeating the Witch, both she and her fellow travelers have to face themselves. The journey was beset by danger because the powerful Witch knew that they were coming. She tried to destroy them in a number of different ways. First she sent forty wolves to terrorize them; then a flock of crows to peck their eyes out, and finally swarms of black bees – but each of these were defeated.
To me this is reminiscent of Buddha’s sitting determinedly under the Bodhi Tree even as Mara sent army after army of threatening beings to get him to stop his meditation. But Buddha sat unflinchingly through it all.
Finally, the Witch sent the Winged Monkeys after the travelers. The sky was darkened, and a low rumbling sound was heard in the air. There was a rushing of many wings, a great chattering and laughing; and the sun came out of the dark sky to show the Wicked Witch surrounded by a crowd of monkeys, each with a pair or immense and powerful wings on his shoulders. The leader of the Winged Monkeys flew up to her, his long hairy arms stretched out, and his ugly face grinning terribly; but he saw the mark of the Good Witch’s kiss upon her forehead and stopped short, motioning to the others not to touch her.
“We dare not harm this little girl,” he said to them, “for she is protected by the Power of Good, and that is greater than the Power of Evil.” If you develop a deep relationship with a teacher, you may be protected by your teacher’s power of good in the same way, although it does not actually belong to him or to anyone.
During this part of the journey, Dorothy’s three friends manifest those qualities, which they believe they don’t have: the Lion behaves courageously, the Tin Woodsman extends his heart to Dorothy’s pain, and the Scarecrow call on his discriminating intelligence. Dorothy, herself, faces death.
Like Dorothy and her friends, if we continue on the path gradually we let go of self-doubt, let go of second-guessing ourselves, let go of running away from our inadequacies. Our minds begin to function spontaneously in harmony with the cosmos, so that our brains, heart, and courage flow easily and effortlessly and even death is no big deal.
At this point in the story Dorothy confronts the Witch and causes her to melt away. The monkey army that has been terrorizing her becomes her friend. In the same way, as our rigid mind set melts away in our spiritual practice, our wandering monkey-like thoughts no longer bother us and we can even enjoy them.
Having succeeded at killing the Wicked Witch, Dorothy and others return to see the Wizard only to discover that he is not beautiful woman, ravenous beast, ball of fire, giant head, but only a frightened human hiding behind an image of power and omnipotence.
The spiritual teaching here is that the perfect deity outside of you, whether it be Jesus, Moses, Buddha, a Bodhisattva, or guru is our own creation. The more anxious we are the more we turn toward an authority figure to save us, a phenomena which is happening on a secular level throughout the world in countries like Poland, China, Hungary, Egypt, Russia, and Turkey.
This reminds me of the comment my second teacher Katagiri Roshi, made after several trips to San Francisco after the death of Suzuki Roshi. “Every time I go there to help them, he is getting bigger and bigger.” We all want a Wizard to take care of us, forgetting that the only real wizard is within.
At this point in the journey, Glenda the Good reappears and tells Dorothy, “Your ruby slippers will carry you over the desert to your home,” “If you had known their power you could have gone back to your Aunt Em the very first day you came to this country.”
She returns to Kansas and discovers that Kansas/Oz (i.e. the phenomenal and the enlightened world) are not two. Waking up in her bed, she sees her uncle’s three farm hands are simultaneously the three friends that she has left behind.
She could have returned home from the moment she landed in Oz! Whether Frank Baum knew it or not, he was elucidating an ancient Zen truth, since your home is always right here. As the 17th century Zen master Bankei said, instead of trying to accomplish something in your meditation or transform yourself, “Abide as the Unborn.” “Don’t get born!” Your home is right here within you. Instead of falling into identification as a “me,” a “Buddhist,” “enlightened,” “unenlightened,” “young,” “old,” etc., simply realize that, “You are unborn.”
Finally, I would like to suggest that that there are four key Zen teachings in this American fairy tale:
First, Accept Your Friends for Who They Are
A true friend will help you on your life’s journey, quirks and all, and recognize when they need a little help too. You never know when you’ll need them around to rescue you from flying monkeys or when they will need you!
Second, Find a Teacher Who Will Kiss You
As Dorothy had Glenda, find a spiritual friend who will have your back and help you find your deepest courage, most discriminating intelligence, and heartfelt connection with the world around you.
Third, Follow Your Own Yellow Brick Road
Follow your own path, even if your sense of direction is not that clear stay on a path that deeply resonates with what’s most important to you, how, in your heart of hearts you want to be and where you want to go. And sing and skip through the journey!
Fourth, Look Within for Your Power.
As my own teacher said to me, “You have a great treasure within you, do not let anyone take it from you.”
Fifth, Remind Yourself to Practice
Remind yourself that, regardless of how confused or upset you are, if you stay with your meditation in non-judgmental awareness, at some point you will see that what you are seeking, you already are. Everything is as it is.
Let’s give Dorothy the final word on this:
“Toto, we’re home – home! And this is my room – and you’re all here – and I’m not going to leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all! Oh, Auntie Em, there’s no place like home!”
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher