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!