Valerie Neal is FPMT’s South-Asian regional coordinator and lives in Dharamsala, India. Formerly the spiritual program coordinator at nearby Tushita Meditation Centre, she lives with her husband Jimi Neal and occasionally helps with discussion groups at Tushita.
Last year the conditions of my world conspired to put me into retreat. My husband was away for three months, I was in a nice house with someone pleasant to cook and clean and shop for me, and it was monsoon, which means every time you step out of the house you get very wet, not to mention the snakes and over-abundant vegetation growing from every surface. Much better to be inside and read through those lam-rim topics a few more times. It never ceases to surprise me how topics that on the surface seem quite straightforward continue to reveal deeper, extraordinary meanings. Their directness and simplicity become the most refreshing clear nectar.
One day the topic was on eight worldly dharmas. I was trying to find a part of my life that was not mixed up with these, and in a moment of extreme frustration at not being able to locate such a place, I wrote, “I feel just like Cinderella with her horrible stepmother.” This made me laugh because it was so true. Nag, nag, nag. No peace from the wish for praise, the avoidance of pain, the desire for good reputation, the dislike of any criticism and all the rest.
This image of living in the same sack of skin with the worst of all stepmothers became uncomfortably strong. I decided to look up the story of Cinderella for more understanding of how to deal with this unwanted mother. Many times the images of yaks, high mountain peaks and butter tea just don’t work for me, and so I try to work creatively with the images from my own culture that arise in my mind to reflect on the truths of the Buddhadharma. The image of a nagging stepmother was working very well to express my relationship with the eight worldly dharmas.
A long, long time ago, in a land far, far away there lived a girl named Cinderella. Her mother had died and her father had remarried a woman with two daughters of her own. The father then went away and Cinderella was left with her stepmother. Cinderella became a servant, is given very little food and is ordered about to do all the work for the others.
She has the name Cinderella because she is always covered with the ashes and cinders from cleaning the chimney. One gets the immediate impression that her primary work is with fire. Fire is associated with transformation, purification by fire, the tummo fire. She is cleaning the fireplace daily. If the chimney pipe is blocked with soot and ash, the fire won’t flare up, because the air won’t draw up into the chimney. That about describes the state of my central channel.
She is doing lots of other work as well, which reminded me that I was late to start my prostrations. The daily toil of preliminary practices was a bit like her chores and – like her – the “rewards” were serving the needs of the eight worldly dharmas. I did so many prostrations, made so many tsa-tsas, I can be proud of myself for being in retreat for so many months, blah, blah, blah. One tries for pure motivation but deep down it is clearly all mixed.
So I tried to get an idea of what she did in her situation. It seemed she just kept cleaning; she didn’t try to argue with her masters, nor did she adopt their attitudes. She just kept working, cleaning and sweeping. She didn’t seem to have any choice except to live with these horrible people.
There is a lot of wisdom in that. These eight worldly dharmas are not going to suddenly disappear overnight just because I finally see them as not being very pure. Cinderella doesn’t identify herself with them, she doesn’t tell them off or condemn them; neither does she run away, or live in a fantasyland. She quietly bears their company and keeps her mind on her chores without getting caught up in an emotional drama about her situation. And she does this for a long time.
I see Cinderella as that aspiring part of ourselves that has the potential to achieve enlightenment. For most of us, that part of ourselves is still covered over with soot and ash, and the heat of the fires we burn serves to keep the worldly dharmas more comfortable; meanwhile Cinderella sits in a cold room at night, waiting for her day to dawn. We give her all our sympathy, but the conditions haven’t ripened yet to get her into the main living room.
Then the story tells us that the prince of the land will hold a ball and the prince will choose his bride. The worldly dharmas are all in a flap, they want desperately to be chosen: money, praise, fame, reputation, yes, yes, yes! Cinderella is told she will not be allowed to attend and they lock her in the cellar. Wow, now she is underground, as if it wasn’t bad enough before! Sometimes the eight worldly dharmas blaze at full voltage, especially when we’re around the guru, when the best and worst come out of us. Somehow the guru sees through the drama, loves us and comes to our aid when we really need it.
In the story Cinderella is weeping in the cellar because she would like to attend the ball. Sometimes tears are the most cleansing water. Then something wonderful happens. Her fairy godmother/guru deity comes waving her magic wand, like a feminine version of Manjushri’s wisdom sword, saying, “Daughter, things do not exist as they appear! This pumpkin is now your carriage, these mice your horses, these rags your gown and jewels. But you must be back by midnight. Go and meet your prince, but be back by midnight!”
Sound familiar? Things don’t exist as they appear, but keep your pledges or all is lost! In the tantric ball one meets one’s prince (or princess), one is introduced and falls in love. But now one must go back to the kitchen and do all the work in absolute secrecy. On the outside everything looks just the same, but inside she has met her prince. Who knows how long this will take, but at least there is now some meaningful context to the work for Cinderella.
The divine prince then goes searching for Cinderella, holding in his hand a glass slipper that she left behind when she ran from his arms at the stroke of twelve. I don’t yet fully understand the meaning of the glass slipper, but perhaps because our feet are where we meet the ground – does she walk the earth in clear light wisdom? The glass slipper is the only way the divine prince can find her.
The images move me with a promise of future understanding. In time he finds Cinderella, though not without the usual trials and obstacles. And when he does, stepmother is speechless. The worldly dharmas are silenced. The marriage is made.
They lived happily ever after in the happiness that is everlasting. It seems that the West has been talking about enlightenment since “a long, long time ago.” The Cinderella in us knows this is true, and it’s the stepmother that tries to deny it. The guru-deity wisdom mind knows things don’t exist as they appear, and that happily ever after is our birthright.