I’ve been thinking about “dragons” recently and thought I’d share this wonderful retelling of a Swedish fairy tale by dharma teacher Jack Kornfield from his wonderful bookAfter the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path.
We all have our own “dragons” in our hearts. May this simple tale help us see more clearly a wise and compassionate way of dealing with them!
The Dragon and the Princess
“A traditional Swedish story gives a sense of the next phase of the journey within.
Because of the mishaps of her parents, a young princess named Aris must be betrothed to a fearful dragon. When the king and queen tell her she becomes frightened for her life. But recovering her wits, she goes out beyond the market to seek a wise woman, who has raised twelve children and twenty-nine grandchildren and knows the ways of dragons and Men.
The wise woman tells Aris that she indeed must marry the dragon, but that there are proper ways to approach him. She then gives instructions for the wedding night. In particular, the princess is bidden to wear ten beautiful gowns, one on top of the other.
The wedding takes place. A feast is held in the palace, after which the dragon carries the princess of to his bed chamber. When the dragon advances towards his bride, she stops him, saying that she must carefully remove her wedding attire before offering her heart to him. And he too, she adds (instructed by the wise women), must properly remove his attire. To this he willingly agrees.
“As I take off each layer of my gown, you must also remove a layer.” Then, taking off the first gown, the princess watches as the dragon sheds his outer layer of scaly armour. Though it is painful, the dragon has done this periodically before. But then the princess removes another gown, and then another. Each time the dragon finds he too must claw off a deeper layer of scales. By the fifth gown the dragon begins to weep copious tears at the pain. Yet the princess continues.
With each successive layer the dragon’s skin becomes more tender and his form softens. He becomes lighter and lighter. When the princess removes her tenth gown, the dragon releases the last vestige of dragon form and emerges as a man, a fine prince whose eyes sparkle like a child’s, released at last from the ancient spell of his dragon form. Princess Aris and her new husband are then left to the pleasures of their bridal chamber, to fulfil the last advice of the wise women with twelve children and twenty nine grandchildren.
As in a dream, all the figures in such a story can be found within us. We find the scaly dragon and the attending princess, the wise grandmother, the irresponsible king and queen, the hidden prince, and the unknown one who cast his enchantment long ago.
What this story reveals from the start is that the journey is not about going into the light. The forces of our human history and entanglement are tenacious and powerful. The path to inner freedom requires passing through them. Receiving grace, opening to illumination, becoming wise has not been easy even for the masters. It is described as a difficult purification: cleansing, letting go, and stripping away. Suzuki Roshi called it a “general house cleaning of the mind.”
It is painful to cast of our own scales, and the dragons guiding the way are fierce. It requires the inspiration of angels; it requires diving into the ocean of tears.”