I didn’t realize I was practicing zazen when sitting suspended in a movie theater watching Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 3D glasses.
Turns out the whole movie is a buddhist teaching… it even has a koan: “why is a raven like a writing desk?”
Alice returns to Wonderland as a confused 19 year old fleeing from the proposal of an aristrocratic young man with red hair. He stands in a gazebo surrounded by a large victorian crowd awaiting her response. She escapes this harsh reality – the world watching and waiting for her to grow up; the stress of society – and once again rushes after the white rabbit wearing a waist coat and carrying a pocket watch.
In the rabbit hole she goes… to grow, grow, grow!
She undergoes transformation in Wonderland; literally growing tall and small before being just right. It takes time for her to realize that she has visited before. She meets them again: the Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter and the Caterpillar. It’s a lucid experience. She knows that she is dreaming, however, pinching her arm doesn’t get her out of danger. The only way out is through. Her mind is an underworld stronghold.
There’s a war being waged between two sisters: the White Queen and the Red Queen. The White Queen lives by a non-harming code of ethics and cannot kill. The Red Queen, of course, confronts her enemies head on, or “off” rather … “off with her head!”
The battleground is in the pattern of a chess board. Each Queen chooses her champion. Alice volunteers to fight on behalf of the White Queen. A jabberwocky is released by the Red Queen.
Before she rushes into battle, Alice encounters the blue caterpillar.
“You’re dying,” she says, breathless.
“No, I’m transforming,” he wisely corrects.
This is a moment of great awakening for Alice.
She is nervous as she heads for battle.
“This is impossible…” she says out loud.
The Mad Hatter, standing beside her, supportively retorts, “It isn’t impossible if you believe it possible.”
Alice channels her dead father’s wisdom at this point and says, “I used to believe in six impossible things before breakfast.”
“That’s a good practice!” cheers the hatter.
(this was one of the wittiest moments in the movie!)
To summon the courage for battle, Alice recites the six impossible things she believes in… the last one is “I can defeat the jabberwocky.” Coated in armour, she shouts, “off with your head!” as she beheads the jabberwocky which dethrones the Red Queen. Alice transforms into a champion for justice and peace, putting the White Queen in power.
Before ending the dream, she has a heartfelt moment with her friend, the Mad Hatter.
“Why is a raven like a writing desk?” she asks him.
Turns out he doesn’t have an answer!
In this scene, Alice tells him that he is only a figment of her imagination. This saddens him as he mentions, “you won’t remember me.”
When Alice awakens from her dream and climbs out of the rabbit hole, she is one who walks with an answer, a purpose. She declines the marriage proposal and instead becomes a voyager. A blue butterfly dances by her shoulder as she sets sail. A large glistening ocean spreads before her.
“Hello, Absolem.” she says, acknowledging the transformed Blue Caterpillar.
It was at this scene that I sighed and thought of my brother, my Blue Caterpillar. It was his death that served as a great awakening for me. I believe that he’ll be with me during my moment of transition. I imagined him as a mystical butterfly touching my shoulder from time to time… nudging me toward the vast sea of understanding.
The red and white queens in the movie made me remember the red and white roses at John’s funeral service. They were his favorite. Thinking back on this, I realize how deeply symbolic the color scheme was… Red for passion and love. White for light, patience and purity. His nature contained all of these qualities: patience for people and a passion for gardening. His soul cultivated much progress in this lifetime which earned him a peaceful transformation.
Alice in Wonderland is a buddhist film as it depicts Wonderland as this recurring dream for Alice to revisit, which is equivalent to samsara. This is where she encounters the crevices and creatures of her own mind. It is where she grows courageous to slay her inner demons. It is where she confronts dangers and deaths.
She awakens to an important truth: the people, places and plots of our lives are conjectures of a great Mind to grow our souls. Along the way, we will repeatedly encounter characters who both support and challenge us. Like a caterpillar who shows death as a great form of change or a hatter who bends the mind with a riddle. These boddhisattvas are here to help us see the ultimate truth: we are all buddhas!
The purpose of Zen, as is the purpose of Wonderland, is to go beyond the conditioned mind and body. To have a spiritual awakening, we must prepare to believe in the impossibilities… six before breakfast… would be a good practice!