As my children watched "Cinderella" the other day, I realized that the film could be a wonderful vehicle for Dharma lessons. In the Disney version they watched, Cinderella is cheerful and singing most of the time, the stepmother and step sisters are disagreeable and cruel all of the time, the animals talk and sing to Cinderella, and the fairy godmother is somewhat befuddled, but very loving.
Cinderella seems to be almost completely devoid of self-cherishing, except for the moment when it appears that she might miss the great ball. She accepts being banished to an attic room and forced into servitude without complaining. Indeed, she seems to perform all her tasks with a cheerful heart and lack of self-pity. Nor does she seem to resent the abuse afflicted on her by her stepmother and stepsisters. She never speaks against them.
The stepmother and stepsisters, on the other hand, present a perfect example of the dangers and downfalls of self-cherishing. They think only of themselves, are unattractive and untalented, fight amongst themselves, and waste time thinking of ways to torment Cinderella and deprive her of joy.
Cinderella's compassion extends beyond her stepfamily to the domestic animals, whom she feeds each morning before feeding herself, and even to the mice and birds who come into the house. She always saves food for the little creatures and protects them from the stepmother's mean cat. She even provides them with the opportunity to practice giving and helping others when they first construct a ball gown for her and then rescue her from the attic room where she's been locked.
The fairy godmother is a cheery stand-in for Buddha as she seeks to end Cinderella's suffering by fulfilling her wish to go to the ball. The fairy godmother is able, with her magic words, to transform pumpkin, mice, dog into coach, horses and footman, and rags into a ball gown. She is careful to warn Cinderella about the limitations of the illusion she has created by admonishing her to return home by midnight. When coaches, horses and ball gown become ordinary objects again, we are reminded of impermanence. With the happy ending, Cinderella is, of course, rewarded with marriage to the prince, and the stepmother and stepsisters with disgrace and disappointment. The laws of karma are neatly, if simplistically, illustrated in the space of 76 minutes.
When I first started looking for Buddhist films to show my children I was discouraged because I couldn't find any. When I realized that I could transform any of their amusements into Dharma lessons, I discovered a boundless supply.