hermit and 5 demons story
One evening Milarepa returned to his cave after gathering firewood, only to find it filled with demons. They were cooking his food, reading his books, sleeping in his bed. They had taken over the joint. He knew about non duality of self and other, but he still did not quite know how to get these guys out of his cave. Even though he had the sense that they were just a projection of his own mind – all the unwanted parts of himself – he did not know to get rid of them.
So, first he taught them the dharma. He sat on a seat that was higher than they were and said things to them about how we are all one. He talked about compassion and shunyata and how poison is medicine. Nothing happened. The demons were still there. Then he lost his patience and got very angry and ran at them. They just laughed at him. Finally, he gave up and just sat down on the floor, saying, “I am not going away and it looks like you are not either, so let us just live here together.“
And at that point, all of them left except one. Milarepa said, “Oh, this one is particularly vicious.“ (We all know that one. Sometimes we have lots of them like that. Sometimes we feel that is all we have got.) He did not know what to do, so he just surrendered himself even further. He walked over and put himself right into the mouth of the demon and said, “Just eat me up, if you want to.“ Then the demon left too. The moral of the story is, when the resistance is gone, so are the demons.
-“From Start Where You Are” by Pema Chodron (Shambala Publications)
The story is about fearlessness, courage, a willingness to be present and to open to what ever arises in our lives. To be curious (instead of fearful) about whatever comes up, and, actually to embrace it and get to know it intimately.
Our usual response to the demon is fear. (Unfortunately, modern demons are not easily instantly recognizable by their fangs and claws and bad smell.) They come in the more subtle forms… unwanted feeling, thought or circumstances. We want to get rid of them, so we resist them. There is an alternative approach, which can yield interesting results. It is, “Eat me. I am yours.“
When a demon, such as an unwanted emotion like craving, anger, depression etc. arises, instead of habitual response of acting it out or repressing it (methods of trying to rid ourselves of the uncomfortable feeling) we can just sit with the raw energy of the emotion, (the raw energy under the story line) and get to know it. Eventually, little by little, it begins to dissolve, so that when the resistance is gone, so is the demon.
“One day while in solitary retreat [the great Tibetan poet-yogi] Milarepa went to gather firewood, and when he came back there were demons in his cave. He shouted at them to go away. He tried everything he knew to scare them, and some of them left. But one of the demons wouldn’t leave. He threw sticks at it and tried magic spells. Nothing worked. Finally Milarepa said, ‘Okay, make yourself at home! Let’s sit down. We’ll talk about the teachings. Make yourself comfortable, and have some nettle soup!’ And the demon disappeared. Milarepa sang the demon a parting song, which you can write on a piece of paper and use as a slogan for yourself. ‘With compassion, I overcome the demons. All blame I scatter to the winds!’ This is what we learn to do with our fear. ‘Tell me about yourself. I’m genuinely interested. You’ve come a long way to find me. Have some soup!’
“When our heart is challenged, it’s difficult to stay genuine and true and to befriend our problems as they are. We long to go beyond them, instead of examining them to see what the issue really is. Based on our longing, the impulse to move away from our difficulties gets triggered very fast. But Milarepa’s advice is not to try to get away from experience. The warrior’s discipline is to lean into what frightens you. You can open to the fear or not, and you’re choosing to open up. Don’t look away. Even if you are afraid, don’t run away. Open to what you are feeling. Soften. Then go into the fear. When you do, you experience a shift. You may become aware of feeling cool and alone, and that sense of slightly cold aloneness makes you feel together and realistic. Now you are a 100 percent real person. You are calm from being real. Now you can use your intelligence and your heart, and improvise.
“You’ve just practiced the warrior’s discipline. You went into the fear, and in the process you transcended the obstacle. You came out the other side. The process is like opening a door and going in. The threshold where you were is completely transcended and you find yourself on the other side of fear. You are strengthened and confident. Rinpoche called it a practice of going in and coming out. When you go into your fear instead of ignoring it, you find you are already coming out on the other side. Put your awareness in the actual feeling of being afraid. This accomplishes more than 50 percent of the shift. Then the fear dissolves, and you are left with yourself. This is the tenderness. It is a pragmatic tenderness. Now you can pick up clues about what to do. Just seeing the obstacle very clearly, just using awareness once you really see the obstacle, your genuine intelligence arises by itself.”
In the language of Jung, Milarepa became enmeshed in the flight from his shadow at the onset of his spiritual journey. His training with the great guru Marpa was fraught with great hardship and misguided intentions, as Marpa exacerbated his troubled student’s neurosis. The most striking example came in Marpa’s command that Milarepa build a series of tall stone towers with his own hands. With each tower’s completion, Marpa insisted that Milarepa tear it down and return the stones to their original spots. Throughout this, Milarepa experienced great devotion, but never understood the great agony of the tasks his master set forth for him. Finally, as Milarepa contemplated suicide, Marpa gave him the teachings he sought and sent him to the remote and desolate caves of southwestern Tibet to do a lifelong retreat. Through this retreat, Mila successfully met his own shadow and reclaimed its offerings. While Milarepa dwelt in the Eagle Tower caves of Red Rock Jewel Valley,(7) he went out one day to gather firewood in the nearby valley. There a great storm arose, with strong and penetrating wind which blew the wood away as quickly as he could pick it up and which threatened to tear off his meager robe. Frustrated, he thought, “What is the use of practicing Dharma if one cannot subdue ego-clinging? Let the wind blow my wood away if it likes. Let the wind blow my robe off if it wishes!”(8) And so saying, he fainted. Upon reviving, he found the storm had abated and his ragged robe fluttered in a nearby tree.
Eventually he returned with firewood to his cave, and found it invaded by five horrific demons with eyes as large as saucers. Shocked, Milarepa politely introduced himself and asked them to leave. At this, the demons became menacing, surrounding him while growling, grimacing, and laughing maliciously. Milarepa was alarmed and attempted the most powerful of exorcism recitations, to no avail. The demons became even more threatening. Next, the yogin tried with great compassion to pacify them with Buddhist teachings, but they still remained, more vivid and horrible than before. Finally Milarepa realized that his approach was mistaken, and that he needed the most direct means possible. Supplicating his teacher Marpa, he acknowledged that the demons, and all phenomena for that matter, were of his own mind, which is of the nature of luminosity and emptiness. The demons were his own projections, and seeing them naively as external demons served as an obstacle to his practice. At the same time, their malicious nature was actually radiant and transparent, no different from awakening itself. If he could respondto them appropriately, he could reap great spiritual benefit. Milarepa then applied his guru’s instructions and sang one of his famous dohas, or songs of realization. In it he proclaimed his lineage of wakefulness and the mastery of his own mind. He prayed to Marpa, who had himself conquered the Maras, referring to him as a queen snow lioness, a golden Garuda (intrepid master of all birds), and as the king of fishes. Then, professing himself as Marpa’s son in each of these forms, he proclaimed his meditative maturity and unshakable fearlessness, leaping from the snowy precipices, flying in the lofty heights of the sky, or swimming the thundering waves of the ocean. Finally, he spoke of himself as a Buddhist meditator, son of his guru’s lineage.
Faith grew in my mother’s womb. A baby, I entered the door of Dharma; A youth, I studied the Buddha’s teaching; A man, I lived alone in caves. Though demons, ghosts, and devils multiply, I am not afraid …. I, Milarepa, fear neither demons nor evils; If they frightened Milarepa, to what avail Would be his realization and enlightenment?(9)
Having proclaimed the fearlessness which he had discovered in his practice, Milarepa followed the training given him by his guru. He invited the demons to stay with him and to receive his hospitality. He also challenged them to a friendly contest of teachings. Ye ghosts and demons, enemies of the Dharma, I welcome you today! It is my pleasure to receive you! I pray you, stay; do not hasten to leave; We will discourse and play together. Although you would be gone, stay the night; We will pit the Black against the White Dharma, And see who plays the best. Before you came, you vowed to afflict me. Shame and disgrace would follow If you returned with this vow unfulfilled.(10)
We may notice that when Milarepa invited the demons, he displayed several moods successively. This can be understood in terms of the Tibetan tantric expression of four enlightened stages of skillful, appropriate action, called the four karmas. These karmas are the strategies employed by the realized yogin when working with intractable situations, whether they be in practice or in daily life.(11) These methods are based on “not accepting, not rejecting” in the sense that the most threatening situations are excellent opportunities for practice.
The first karma is “pacifying,” in which one opens fully to negativity, with the line “I welcome you today!” When we open to the shadow in this way, we reverse the habitual tendency to ignore or hide it. Next, the yogin inspires the unacknowledged aspects with confidence by creating an atmosphere of celebration, free from aggression, in an action called “enriching” (“It is my pleasure to receive you!”). Taking the attitude of enriching, we affirm the power of the shadow rather than discounting it as we usually do. Then, with the third karma of “magnetizing,” the yogin draws the negativity toward him or her with an actual invitation: “Do not hasten to leave; we will discourse and play together … stay the night.” In this way, the shadow is charmed into relationship and its power is harnessed.
The last karma, “destroying,” is the final resort for an accomplished yogin like Milarepa. Often the shadow material does not require this final step, for its ferocity has rested primarily on our denial of it, and the inviting nature of the first three karmas removes its threatening qualities. However, when negativities are entrenched in conceptual justifications and defenses, we must employ “destroying,” in which we challenge and threaten the crystallized, residual negativity with extinction. Milarepa did this with the challenge, “we will pit the Black against the White Dharma, and see who plays the best.” Here he was referring to the black magic and sorcery of his past training, his central shadow, directly confronted by the white magic of Buddhism, which can accommodate and purify the black. Having challenged the demons, Milarepa arose and rushed with great confidence directly at them. They shrank in terror, rolling their eyes and trembling violently, and then swirled together into a single vision and dissolved. With this, the destroying was completed, and Milarepa the black sorcerer was reclaimed by Milarepa the white sorcerer.(12)
It is important, however, to understand that in Buddhism the motivation to reclaim the shadow can never be in service to the ego, or fulfilling only one’s own personal potential. The “white sorcerer” Milarepa was the great Buddhist yogin who harnessed the powers of the destructive magician, who was interested only in egocentric ends, and brought them into the service of the Dharma, the egoless aspiration for the awakening of all beings. In his practice, following the tantric instructions, Milarepa transformed the power of his passions into blazing devotion to his teacher, dedicated service, committed retreat practice, and blissful realization. The intensity of these transmuted passions can be seen in the legacy of realization songs he left for his students. He summed it up in this song:
Previously, I was confused by delusion, And staying in the dwelling of ignorant confusion, I perceived gods who help and demons who harm as real.
Now, through the kindness of the jetsun siddha, I understand there is no samsara to stop, no nirvana to accomplish. Whatever appears arises as mahamudra.
With the realization that confusion is groundless, The water that reflects the moon of awareness is clear of murkiness. The sun of luminosity, free of clouds, Clears away the darkness of ignorance from the edges. Deluded confusion disappears. The true nature arises from within.
The precious thought that perceives demons Is the wonderful clarifier of the unborn bias.(13) With this, Milarepa acknowledged that perceiving external demons is a precious opportunity to open our minds to direct experience of things as they are.
The Red Rock Jewel Valley vignette closes with the explanation that the great Obstacle-Maker, the demon-king Vinayaka, had caused these apparitions and the storm preceding them. Blessing his guru, Milarepa acknowledged that Marpa’s protections and instruction had kept him from harm. And, the biographer finally concludes, “after this, Milarepa gained immeasurable spiritual progress.”(14)
NOTES (1.) Mara, a cognate of “mortal,” refers to death, pestilence, and most explicitly in Buddhism, vulnerability to the passions. The Lord of the Maras was depicted as leader of an army of denizens, a kind of demon in his own right. Maras are four, according to the Dharmasamgraha; skandha-mara, klesha-mara, devaputramara, and mrtyu-mara. These are detailed in many texts of the Tibetan tradition.