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The Zen of Oz, Ten Spiritual Lessons from Over the Rainbow

By Joey Green
Renaissance Books, 1998

Review by Mary Elizabeth Ladd
September 18, 2004

As all apes on Ape Culture love a good media morph, I was pleased to see this spiritual/media morph on the shelves of my local book store. How would this classic piece of Americana map to the Japanese meditative sect of Buddhism?

Joey Green attempts to analyze the characters of The Wizard of Oz, but particularly the 1939 MGM movie adaptation, not the 1900 source novel by Frank L. Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Green’s Oz/Zen mapping would have made an interesting essay; but drawn out into a book-length form, his plotting starts to feel very flimsy and his theories too far stretched.

It’s possible we’re entirely too familiar with Dorothy and the land of Oz to accept the exoskeleton placement of Zen philosophy on top of it. Is the Kansas cyclone really a manifestation of Dorothy’s inner struggle for self-awareness? Hmm. It’s possible, I suppose.

Undoubtedly, I am no honor student in Zen Buddhism; but I have managed to keep up with the bottom of the class, for what it’s worth. And it would seem Joey Green has a tendency to complicate what should be a simple thing; and in the process we see the main point of it slip right off the page.

For example, Green reminds us how in the movie Glenda the Good Witch is always surrounded by a transparent pink bubble. Green believes Glenda’s bubble is a symbol for Dorothy’s deceased mother with the bubble representing the womb. But then why is the mother in the womb? Green sees the coveted ruby slippers to represent Dorothy’s inner spark, and more universally, everyone’s special uniqueness. Never give up the ruby slippers. Never give up your inner spark. But doesn’t the Wicked Witch of the West have spark, her own bitter and twisted, yet unique spark? Maybe Dorothy is trying to hoard another Witch’s spark. I’m not entirely convinced the slippers represent spark in the first place or that pink bubbles represents wombs. I think the pink bubble represents director Victor Fleming’s high-tech vision of a fairy floating in the sky. And the slipper most likely represents power and the struggle for power.

We read that the Tin Man’s big lesson is to learn that a heart is “judged not by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.” By this rubric, the shallow, sleazy, fraudulent Wizard of Oz is in good spiritual standing by being inappropriately and mistakenly loved by millions of the ignorant little munchkins. That can’t be right.

His most humorous theory involves the Cowardly Lion, who Green sees as a symbol of sexual frustration. The Cowardly Lion, Green believes, is a gay lion, one homosexual cat. Note the limp wrist, his effeminate guffawing, his love of fabrics. His need of courage is to help him come out of the closet.

I kid you not.

Which then leads us to snicker and wonder if this means Miss Gulch is a dyke because she’s depicted as a masculine neighborhood ball buster?

But these interpretations, unbelievable as they may be, tend to overshadow some interestingly Zen moments Green does discover in the Oz story. For instance, when Glenda instructs Dorothy to “follow the Yellow Brick Road”, Dorothy takes off down a winding path without a goal other than to see where the road will lead. And to get instructions on returning home. But for the length of adventure, Dorothy has to take up small and concentrated tasks in order that she, for the moment, becomes detached from the end result. Green often uses supporting quotes to bear up his theories, such as this one by Seng-ts’an: “Saunter along and stop worrying.”

The characters of Oz continually present Dorothy and her gang with a series of koans, practically unsolvable puzzles to resolve together during their perilous adventures. Different teacher figures throughout the story set up obstacles for Dorothy, culminating in one ominous message written up in the sky: “Surrender Dorothy.” Finally, Dorothy breaks through the barrier at the moment she receives the admonition to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” At this point, Dorothy realizes she shouldn’t let someone else control her life, namely this celebrity Oz figure, and she understands she can now stop fighting irrelevant external obstacles. Soon after, she finds the key she has been searching for, “there’s no place like home.”

The fact that Green’s examples and analysis center strictly on the movie version of the story is ultimately problematic. He has to remember that the themes inherent in The Wizard of Oz come from the book, not the movie. Did a transparent pink bubble around Glenda even exist in the book? If not, it’s a completely moot detail.

Frank L. Baum’s book is actually an interesting study in itself. Children’s book scholars have recently rediscovered the surprisingly marginalized book. Baum's mother, Cynthia (Stanton) Baum, was a leading figure in the women's rights movement of the time, and a close associate of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Within the context of Baum’s support, the book has been reinterpreted. The Wizard of Oz is now viewed as one of the first books for children to exemplify a girl protagonist, one of the first “fairy tales” to showcase a girl in an extended role of leadership among her peers, solving a puzzle, although with the help and encouragement of her friends, ultimately by her own wits; and finally completing an adventure from the reserves of her own courage.

Personally, I’d be interested to delve deeper into character of the little dog Toto and his role in this fantastical adventure. Quite possibly, it was easer to face down an army of evil flying monkeys with your little brazen dog at your side. Was Dorothy really battling the Wicked Witch of the West for those silly glass slippers or was she simply trying to rescue her little terrier pal?

In any case, when we try of reinterpret minor details of a piece of work or attempt to force every aspect of it into another interpretive hole, everything falls apart into farce. It just doesn’t work. It feels forced, fraudulent.

And yet, at the end of the day, Oz can be seen as a Zen story. At the end of Dorothy’s very long journey, she finds she has traveled many, many miles to get to where she always was. And she goes all the way around the world without stepping a single foot outside her own front door.

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Is the cowardly lion light in his paws?


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