Monthly Archives: February 2016

Milarepa’s Caves

Well I am off to visit Milarepa’s caves. Got my backpack and won’t be back until I am enlightened…..naw, not really….just dreaming…. I always thought it would be so cool to visit those caves that Milarepa stayed in high in the Himalayas. Let’s step back a bit. Milarepa is one of the most remarkable figures among all the world religions. I am not going to go over the details of his incredible life here–that’s readily available. I was looking at photos of the caves and the area in which Milarepa practiced his intensive meditation and solitude. What an amazing place! The thing is that he apparently spent time in a bunch of different caves, but as far as I know these two are the only ones publicized/known–but I bet the local people there know exactly where he spent time but it’s not meant for outsiders to know. Anyway, what I am wanting to get to is nothing of this spiritual tourism thing but the meaning of this “cave” thing. So let us ponder this a bit.

For Abhishiktananda the word “cave” also had a deep significance. The cave has such a profound archetypal resonance as it implies much more than just a physical surrounding. It points to a deep interiority and also at the same time a kind of circle of limitation around one that is in fact one’s life.   The physical symbolism of the “cave” points to this enclosure which is in fact the enclosure of all that limits you–your life circumstance: physical limitations, psychological limitations, all the facticity of one’s predicament as given. So this symbolism of the “cave” then presents this inner/outer “map,” if you will, of precisely the demarcation of where one is to do one’s spiritual work. This is THE “place” where your spiritual work will unfold–or it will not happen if you simply dream of escape in some fashion or another (You know, those self-indulgent daydreams like “if only such and such were not the case,” or “if only I weren’t here but rather there,” or “if only I had this resource rather than this lack of resources,” and so on, and so on.) Yes, there is that person for whom the physical cave is precisely where they are to be(like Milarepa); but there is also the “cave” in which most of us discover ourselves to be but perhaps resist all along–even for “religious” reasons. That “cave” is in fact the inner meaning of the circumstances of our actual life–or as some would put it, it is “the cards we have been dealt.”

Let us consider the Christian equivalent language for all this: the cell. In the early monastic literature of the Desert Fathers, this term was one of the absolute keys in understanding what they were all about. Merton wrote a truly beautiful essay about this entitled, “The Cell”; and we will be following the path he laid out. He begins by relating one of the great Desert Father stories–I will add just a small editorial touch to it:

“A brother asked one of the Elders saying: What shall I do, Father, for I work none of the works of a monk but here I am in torpor eating and drinking and sleeping and in bad thoughts and in plenty of trouble, going from one struggle to another and from thoughts to thoughts. Then the old man said: Just you stay in your cell and cope with all this as best you can without being disturbed by it. I would like to think that the little you are able to do is nevertheless not unlike the great things that Abba Anthony [Milarepa] did on the mountain, and I believe that if you sit in your cell for the Name of God and if you continue to seek the knowledge of Him, you too will find yourself in the place of Abba Anthony.” [Milarepa]

So first of all this story is about life as lived in actual physical solitude and meant for the kind of person who is drawn into that “cave.” It is not going to be a “joyride” to say the least, certainly not until a certain awakening takes place. But the solitary one is also only an iconic figure pointing a way that both a person living in community or with a spouse has to journey on also. The solitary one is an explorer of sorts who shows us what the “cave” is all about, how the very limits of our life is a kind of “cell” in which we dwell and in which we may at times feel a revolt of nausea and wanting to flee from. So the next thing we learn from this story is that the spiritual path, the “gate of heaven,” is right there in front of our nose as it were, right in the circumstances of our life.


Merton’s comment on this story–as it pertains to the actual monastic solitary life:

“To ‘sit in the cell’ and to ‘learn from the cell’ evidently means first of all learning that one is not a monk. That is why the elder in this story did not take the admissions of the disciple too seriously. They showed him, in fact, that the disciple was beginning to learn, and that he was actually opening up to the fruitful lessons of solitude. But in the disciple’s own mind, this experience was so defeating and confusing that he could only interpret it in one way: as a sign that he was not called to this kind of life. In fact, in ANY VOCATION [my emphasis] at all, we must distinguish the grace of the call itself and the preliminary image of ourselves which we spontaneously and almost unconsciously assume to represent the truth of our calling. Sooner or later this image must be destroyed and give place to the concrete reality of the vocation as lived in the actual mysterious plan of God, which necessarily contains many elements we could never have foreseen . Thus ‘sitting in the cell’ means learning the fatuity and hollowness of this illusory image, which was nevertheless necessary from a human point of view and played a certain part in getting us into the desert.”


Another story from the Desert Fathers: “A disciple complained to his Abba: ‘My thoughts torment me saying you cannot fast or work, at least go and visit the sick for this also is love.’ The Elder replied, ‘Go on, eat, drink, sleep, only do not leave your cell. For the patient bearing of the cell sets the monk in his right place in the order of things.”

A truly remarkable story as Merton points out: “Afflicted with boredom and hardly knowing what to do with himself, the disciple represents to himself a more fruitful and familiar way of life, in which he appears to himself to ‘be someone’ and to have a fully recognizable and acceptable identity, a ‘place in the Church,’ but the Elder tells him that his place in the Church will never be found by following these ideas and images of a plausible identity. Rather it is found by traveling a way that is new and disconcerting because it has never been imagined by us before, or at least we have never conceived it as useful or even credible for a true Christian–a way in which we seem to lose our identity and become nothing. Patiently putting up with the incomprehensible unfulfillment of the lonely, confined, silent, obscure life of the cell, we gradually find our place, the spot where we belong as monks: that is of course solitude, the cell itself. This implies a kind of mysterious awakening to the fact that where we actually are is where we belong, namely in solitude, in the cell. Suddenly we see, ‘this is it.’”

And so it is also for every person. The cell, the cave, is the interior dynamic of the spiritual journey and also at the same time the locus of the essential spiritual work which we try to escape with all kinds of strategems and mental gyrations. The work at hand is always right there no matter what the condition of our life; every place is as good a starting point for the spiritual journey as any other. Even if our whole life is nothing but dung, dung serves us by enabling the ground to yield beautiful flowers and healthy vegetables. Recall the thief nailed to the Cross next to Jesus–only then in a sense does his spiritual life begin. And of course the profound and paradoxical thing is that we are to journey into this deep “loss” of identity (or better, a kind of image we have of ourselves), into a kind of extraordinary nothingness which we fear above all else. For the solitary one this is very clear; but even for everyone else this holds even as they may still have a plethora of credentials and identities that are simply part of social existence. They walk through all this without holding on to any one of them, and therefore they walk in peace, serenely. The example of Milarepa and the great Desert Fathers is there to help us keep focused on the work at hand.

But there is one more great point about this cave/cell thing–at least from a Christian point of view. Recall from the first story that the Elder says the disciple should “sit in the cell for the Name of God.” But this is like no other name because the Absolute Reality cannot be localized or delimited or defined. Let us listen to Merton on this point:

“The Name of God is the presence of God. The Name of God in the cell is God Himself as present to the monk and understood by the monk and understood by the monk as the whole meaning and goal of his vocation…. The Name of God is present in the cell as in the burning bush, in which Yahweh reveals Himself as He who is. Hence the solitude of the hermit is engulfed, so to speak, in the awareness of Qui Est [He Who Is]. This in fact becomes the true reality of the cell and of solitude, so that the monk who begins by invoking the Name of God to induce Him as it were to ‘come down’ to the cell in answer to prayer, gradually comes to realize that the ‘Name ‘ of God is in fact the heart of the cell, the soul of the solitary life, and that one has been called into solitude not just in order that the name may be invoked in a certain place, but rather one has been called to meet the Name which is present and waiting in one’s own place. It is as though the Name were waiting in the desert for me, and had been preparing this meeting from eternity and in this particular place, this solitude chosen for me. I am called not just to meditate on the Name of God but to encounter Him in that Name. Thus the Name becomes, as it were, a cell within a cell, an inner spiritual cell. When I am in the cell…I should recognize that I am ‘where the Name of God dwells’ and that living in the presence of this great Name I gradually become the one He wills me to be. Thus the life of the cell makes me at once a cell of the Name (which takes deeper and deeper root in my heart) and a dweller in the Name, as if the Name of God –God Himself–were my cell.”


But God is infinite reality, no boundaries. So in fact, whatever your “cell” or “cave” be, you are “sitting” in infinity and there are no bounds or boundaries there. A lot of neurotic states of minds, a lot of anxiety and fear, stems from this feeling that there are these “walls” around you, that you are being limited in some profound way; and of course death is the “biggest” such threat! The Tibetans are real good at analyzing and deconstructing this epiphenomenal experience and leading one into a breakthrough into infinite space whatever be the physical conditions of one’s life. So even if a wheelchair is your cell/cave (or a jail cell), you can dwell there within the Name in Infinite Space and you are much closer to Milarepa’s cave than you realize!





Stonehouse in Lent

It is the Christian season of Lent when Christians are supposed to renew their spiritual life, monks included. This is not the weird stuff that pop religiosity focuses on; rather it involves an intensification and refocusing of one’s spiritual path. I can think of many “helping hands” for this work, but this Lent my favorite is this Chinese Zen monk from many centuries ago who went by the name of Stonehouse.

So Stonehouse is the name of a Chinese poet and Zen monk who lived in 13th Century China. Unlike my favorite Chinese Zen-poet monk, Han-shan, Stonehouse is very little known even among the Chinese. Over the centuries his poems appear in a few anthologies, and he is mentioned by more than one literary figure as “someone special.” But it is somewhat of a miracle that so many of his poems have come down to us considering so little is known about him. He was born in 1272 and received the traditional Confucian education; he was headed to be an official of state. But when he was 20 he quit his studies and became a novice Zen monk. After 3 years he was ordained a monk and sought further instruction. In 1312, at the age of 40, he left established monastic life and became a hermit living in a mountainous wilderness.


Interestingly enough, unlike other Buddhist monks and Indian sadhus, Chinese Zen monks refused to beg for food but worked for their upkeep. Life was hard in the mountains, but Stonehouse lived there almost 20 years as a hermit when his reputation caught up with him and he was talked into becoming an abbot of a monastery temple. He did that for 7 years and then returned to his wilderness abode and the hermit life. He died at the age of 81.


Red Pine, who had done such a splendid job of translating Han-shan (and others), is the one who makes Stonehouse somewhat accessible to us. Not easy to do, but many thanks to him! Stonehouse does not appear at first glance as vibrant, as acute in his observations, and as “poetic” as Han-shan (I don’t know if that would be true in the original Chinese.) In fact at times he seems almost dull. But when you give him time his poetry begins to reveal an especially acute spiritual sensibility and a depth of heart that is hidden in the “ordinariness” of life. Let us listen to him a bit. (All translations are by Red Pine.)


“Don’t think a mountain home means you’re free                                                                                      

a day doesn’t pass without its cares

old ladies steal my bamboo shoots

boys lead oxen into the wheat

grubs and beetles destroy my greens

boars and squirrels devour the rice

things don’t always go my way

what can I do but turn to myself”


Comment: Stonehouse is nothing but down to earth–again and again he is that in his poetry. He is also at the same time very subtle. His list of problems in living in the mountains is simply a metaphor for all the aches and pains of life. “Being spiritual” will not necessarily mean that things go well for you; quite the contrary. The Gospel puts the same view in its own Semitic language and imagery. But regardless of what happens the road inward is always open, and in certain circumstances it is the only road available!


Stonehouse again:

“My hut is at the top of Hsia Summit

few visitors brave the cliffs and ravines

lugging firewood to market I slip on the moss

hauling rice back up I drip with sweat

with no end to desire less is better

with limited time why be greedy

this old monk doesn’t mean to cause trouble

he just wants people to let go”

Comment: Here he sounds very much like that earlier remarkable hermit, Han-shan. Slight echoes of the Desert Fathers here also. There is a very nuanced dialectic of inner and outer here–solitude and company; slipping, struggle, endless desire and greed. The solution: simplify and see into your situation.


Stonehouse again:

“The streams are so clear and shallow I can see pebbles

my gableless hut is surrounded by vines

gibbons howl at night when the moon goes down

few visitors get past the moss by the cliffs

the bamboos in my yard bend with spring snow

the plum trees on the ridge are withered by frigid nights

the solitude of this path isn’t something new

but grinding a brick on a rock is a waste”

Comment: The last line of this remarkable piece refers to a famous story in Chinese Zen. A Zen master walking outside came upon a young monk meditating. The master asked him what he was doing; he said he was trying to become a Buddha. The master sat down and started grinding a brick on a rock. The young monk asked what he was doing. The master said that he was trying to make a mirror. The lesson hit home with the young monk. In this tradition meditation is not some external tool or technique to “get” something; neither is solitude another “means” to some spiritual end. Again, very much in keeping with the spirit of the Desert Fathers.


Stonehouse one more time:

“A white-haired Zen monk with a hut for my home

the wind has torn my robe into rags

down by the stream I rake leaves for my stove

after a frost I wrap a mat around my orange tree

ultimate reality isn’t created

ready-made koans aren’t worth a thought

all day I sit by my open window

looking at mountains without lowering the shade”

Comment: A lot here. But I just want to point out Stonehouse’s subtle critique of his contemporary monasticism. It is prevalent in a lot of his poems, and it shows his very sober assessment of the spiritual life. Being a monk at a comfy monastery/temple does not impress him; and most of all he is critical of formulaic spirituality. Rather deal with what life brings you–this is the real matter of the spiritual journey.



“My home in the cliffs is like a tomb

barren of even one worldly thought

although I eat food and wear clothes

it’s as if I were dead but not yet cremated.”

Comment: Again, echoes of the Desert Fathers.


“I saw through my worldly concerns of the past

I welcome old age and enjoy being free

rope shoes a bamboo staff the last month of spring

paper curtains plum blossoms and daybreak dreams

immortality and Buddhahood are merely fantasies

freedom from worry and care is my practice

last night what the pine wind roared

that was a language the deaf can’t hear.”

Comment: The “deaf” here are of course “worldly people”–which includes monks also. Thus, when he says that he “saw through my worldly concerns” that also includes his monastic life. And it is not only a decadent kind of monastic life that he is referring to, but also to what one Tibetan lama called “spiritual materialism”–this penchant for turning the spiritual journey and one’s spiritual identity into another kind of possession or a concept in the head. Again and again Stonehouse returns to what’s in front of his nose.


Stonehouse again:

“I was a Zen monk who didn’t know Zen

so I chose the woods for the years I had left

a robe made of patches over my body

a belt of bamboo around my waist

mountains and streams explain the Patriarch’s meaning

flower smiles and birdsongs reveal the hidden key

sometimes I sit on a flat-topped rock

late cloudless nights once a month”

Comment: Stonehouse tries to hide the depth of his realization–doesn’t do a good job of that! He drops hints and clues to those whose heart is ready.


Stonehouse again:

“There isn’t much time in this fleeting life

why spend it running in circles

when my kitchen is bare I go look for yams

when my robe needs a patch I consider lotus leaves

I’ve put down the elk tail and stopped giving sermons

my long-forgotten sutras are home to silverfish

I pity those who wear a monk’s robe

whose goals and attachments keep them busy”


Comment: So obvious. But just to point out: the elk tail and the sermons refer to his time as abbot.


Stonehouse one last time:

“From outside my round pointed-roof hut

who would guess at the space inside

all the worlds in the universe are there

with room to spare for a meditation cushion.”


Comment: Recall the Desert Fathers: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” Happy Lent!









Cat Stevens.

Someone of my age would remember this rock singer from the ‘60s. But now he goes by this name, Yusuf Islam — he converted to Islam in 1977. A very remarkable fellow. With all the bad news associated with Islam and with all the negative feelings toward Islam on the part of so many both here and in Europe, it is a joy to read this:

Yusuf Islam is of course right in pointing out that most of us are ignorant of the power, beauty and depth of Islam and that so many of its adherents have so much to contribute to the human family. I might add that for all practical purposes there are many Christians who are almost as ignorant about their own Christianity also. I would venture to say that there are even more distortions of Christianity than of Islam. But it is more subtle and more immersed in the fabric of our culture and so less obviously visible.



Here is a wonderful story about trees. Yup, trees. I have never thought much about trees; I mean I am against deforestation and all that, but I never bothered to think about trees except in how they impact us. Apparently I have been missing out on a lot. This story just blew me away about the wonder of it all:


We walk, live, breathe, suffer, grow, rejoice, and die within a web of life that we are hardly aware of. This also makes me think of the Buddhist sense of the connectedness of all reality, much more deeper than the article’s “social network” metaphor; and also I recalled that Buddhist expression: “all sentient beings”–which I always thought was a bit too encompassing in its scope, but maybe not…. It’s also striking how in the mindset of the modern West, both secular and religious, there is so little conceptual ability to express this interconnectedness and inner connectedness of “all sentient beings.” Rather we seem doomed to think of ourselves and all reality as these individual entities with some external connection and relationality. Thus we are all wrapped up in “saving our souls” rather than in saving “all sentient beings.”

Then, another thought, reminding me of Tolkien’s famous work, The Lord of the Rings. As a young man Tolkien had witnessed both the growth of industrialization and the savagery of World War I. As just one aspect of all this, he saw also the deforestation and denuding of Europe, the magical forests of Europe destroyed either by war or by the greedy need of industrial power. So in this epic story we see at least one episode where the evil forces are destroyers of trees in order to make their weapons of war, and where the trees of the forest actually come to the aid of the good guys.


Chinese Zen Story.

Here is a Chinese Zen story I picked up from Red Pine. Love it. Lots in it if you pay attention:

“Tao-hsin was the Fourth Patriarch of Zen and his disciple Fa-yung was the founder of the Oxhead Zen lineage. Fa-yung was called lazy because he never stood up or bowed to greet visitors. One day while Tao-hsin was in Nan-ching, he saw birds flocking around a mountain to the south. When he went to investigate, he found Fa-yung meditating and the birds dropping flowers on him. But he also saw wolf tracks and tiger tracks and feigned fright at such a sight. Seeing this reaction, Fa-yung said, “There is still that in you?” Tao-hsin responded by drawing the character for ‘buddha’ in the dirt in front of Fa-yung. When Fa-yung expressed embarrassment, Tao-hsin said, “There is still that in you?” After this meeting, the birds and wild animals stopped visiting Fa-yung.”

This reminds one of several Desert Father stories–it takes a special eye to see true attainment, never mind the external features that attract the populace (or even animals!).


Signs of the Times.

I saw a recent news item about the Chicago Archdiocese. Since I grew up there I was curious what was going on in that city religion wise. I remember as a youngster that each parish used to have two or three or more priests. Apparently no more. The Archdiocese is planning to consolidate and even close many parishes. They are projecting that by 2030 there will be only 240 priests for 351 parishes. Amazing shrinkage! And what is the explanation for all this? I am sure that there is some “safe” institutional answers for this “lack of vocations,” but the whole re-imaging of the priesthood is probably not one of them. It’s not until they get away from this privileged “holy” sacred pedestal of the priesthood (JP II’s kind of approach) and see this person as a servant of the community and within the community that progress will be made. Actually it is the monk who is the holy person…..only kidding!


A Final Thought

I hardly ever see any TV, but last Sunday I happen to catch a bit of the Super Bowl. What a spectacle that has become. It rivals anything that the Roman Emperors used to throw up to lull the masses into docility–minus the obvious cruelty. It’s sad to see what America has become, though of course we never were the “city shining on a hill” that the early colonial propagandists made us out to be. But looking at this spectacle, the mega-hyped game and those commercials, it is a picture of a country sinking ever deeper into a pathological fantasy. Sad.