What does it mean to practice the discipline of meditation, when your kids or your co-workers are driving you nuts? When you keep making mistakes? If you can’t get away to a cave, how can you face your demons?
As a young and starry-eyed Buddhist, I thought Milarepa was the most romantic figure imaginable and that meditating in a cave and eating nettles would be the idyllic life. I was a single mom trying to make ends meet, trying to meditate, to clean and cook, and teach, and also have fun. I fantasized rejecting it all and leading the life of a wild yogi. At an interview with my teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, I complained, “I have all this stuff going on — child, work, and everything. I can’t get away into a cave like Milarepa, yet the lineage forefathers all say that this is the only way to attain enlightenment. What should I do?”
To this he replied, “You must view the world as your cave.”
Once Milarepa was hounded by demons who had invaded his rocky retreat. He tried every trick he could think of to get rid of them. He recited mantras, practiced mudras, meditated fiercely, praised them, tried compassion on them, and some vanished, but one particularly fierce one remained. Finally he just surrendered, and as it is said, “With friendliness and compassion he put himself in the demon’s mouth. But the demon could not eat him and so vanished like a rainbow.”
Every day I face some demons of cooking or cleaning or TV or driving or apologizing for something I was supposed to do but didn’t, or did but didn’t do well, or did well but so what? Our post-modern demons may not have bodies like thumbs and eyes like saucers, but they are no less ugly, stubborn, irritating and persistent.
People are always saying that they want to practice meditation but their lives are just too busy. They can’t get up any earlier or go to bed any later or there just isn’t a moment when something isn’t making demands on them, so how can they find any time to practice and still lead a “normal “ life? Life can appear demonic.
Is Buddhism a religion or a science? This seems to be a current topic in the west. Why must it be one or the other? I almost bought into that same either/or frame, but then I meditated and thought, why not both or maybe neither? Finally I concluded that for me Buddhism is neither. Buddhism is a discipline.
As a performer, Buddhism approached as a developmental discipline serves me best. I had a hard time with my first religion. I couldn’t get my questions answered. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Does this mean we want God to forgive us in the same manner as we forgive others? Since we don’t forgive very well, does that mean we don’t want God to do so either? No answer was forthcoming. Maybe the grownups didn’t know.
My parents were scientists. I was taught to ask, “What?” and “Why?”
However Buddhism as a science also gives me problems. My biologist parents seemed quite unhappy and concerned about my education. In order to please them I had to memorize the names of each kind of bird, tree, president, and musical composer. I had to spell perfectly and read above grade level. They couldn’t understand my attempts to say that naming a thing isn’t knowing a thing, that spelling a word isn’t understanding its meaning. I struggled to hold my ground in this war of science versus me, but failed to teach them how to listen to a tree or watch the empty sky.
Discipline has harsh connotations in our world. Parents discipline the naughty kid, the military disciplines young people so they are prepared for killing. Discipline means spending long hours practicing one’s skill, whether in sport, or art, or parenting. But also self-discipline is what makes a good athlete, musician or parent and is done best when accompanied with love.
Discipline means training done religiously and meticulously with both zest and patience. So in a way it has the perfume of both religion and science. True discipline must be done with intention—you can’t just come to it randomly or expect results without commitment. There may be all kinds of joyous disciplines; I guess it just depends on what brings one joy.
My discipline? To be as good an example of the human species in my body/mind, speech and actions as possible.
Buddhist discipline has everything to do with being a human. How can one make the best use of having a life? Buddhism is the discipline that keeps my body/mind supple and changeable and light of heart. It tames and trains and transforms my mind from self-centered neediness to openness. It lifts my acting from the prison of sad self-consciousness to dancing in the fresh space of interconnection and constant change. I delight in my discipline that keeps me clear and eager to understand the pulses of the world around me. Even if I will never accomplish labeling all the states of mind or ways the world is categorized, my song and dance can bring pleasure. Sometimes Buddhism is an authentic gesture, sometimes a scholarly pursuit, sometimes a prayer for peace, but always it is training in performance, a workout that carries me beyond my small and petty mind into the attempt to communicate with the heart of the mysterious.
Early on I realized the benefits of being nothing in particular except on stage where I could be anything I wanted: a sacred cat, a Pilgrim, a shepherd keeping watch over my flocks by night. It was clear that everything changes and there is nothing to hold on to, nothing to believe in. It was delightful to play and change roles and not take it all too seriously.
Perhaps the obvious reply to that either/or question is that for the religious person, Buddhism is a religion; for the scientist, Buddhism can be a science; for the philosopher, Buddhism is a philosophy; and maybe for a chef, Buddhism is a scrumptious feast.
In my cave today there’s a demon at my breakfast table popping multi-vitamins and another in my office explaining why I should give her a better grade. A whole gang of them are drinking coffee and crawling over each other at the department meeting, and on my way home a booming carful on cell phones cuts right in front of me. They aren’t going to leave. Maybe I have to accept that my mantras and gazes and recitations from the scriptures won’t do a bit of good, that my loving compassion will only quell some of the demons, some of the time. Maybe I will just have to give up and put myself in the demon’s mouth.
Today Milarepa is still inspiring us who walk on the path of dharma. Sitting in his cave and following his discipline, he shaped songs that the world still sings. If I let the world be my cave while I follow my discipline, the demons just might mosey over to listen to my song.
Mitra Dean Lee Worley has been an innovator and pioneer in the field of contemplative arts and education since Tibetan Buddhist practice communities appeared in the West. Her deep grounding in the practices of Vajrayana and Mahamudra support her experience-oriented teachings.