Hearts at Work – April 2012

Hearts at Work

A Column by James Tipton

“Eat Me If You Wish”


mahakaladetailLately I have once again been realizing how often I find myself “in the lion’s den,” whether that is facing in reality a macho and loco Mexican relative who is pointing his loaded .45 automatic at me and threatening to kill me, or whether it is facing something inside of me—which the immediate experience, whatever it is, gives me the opportunity to see—some old and unresolved resentment or jealousy or hope or fear…that, in its own way, is also threatening to kill me.

In the latest issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (Spring 2012), a wonderful writer, Aura Glaser, “a dharma teacher and psychologist,” asks the question, “How do we let life with all of its disappointments and sorrows soften our heart?”

Glaser then tells us a story about Milarepa, one of the most widely known Tibetan saints, “that illuminates the often bumpy road we travel in the process of releasing resistance and making peace with ourselves.”

The story is simple and straightforward. Milarepa lived in a cave and one day he went out to gather wood for his fire. He returned to find his cave “taken over by demons.” He first tried to chase them out with force, but “the demons are completely unfazed. In fact, the more he chases them, the more comfortable and settled-in they seem to be.”

Then Milarepa tries another approach. He decides to share his wisdom with them, to teach them the ways of Buddha, talking to them about “existence and nonexistence, compassion and kindness, the nature of impermanence.” The demons show no interest whatsoever in this and they continue to “stare at him with their huge bulging eyes.”

Milarepa realizes the demons will neither leave nor listen to him and so he bows before each demon and says, “It looks like we’re going to be here together. I open myself to whatever you have to teach me.” Suddenly all of the demons disappear—except one, the “huge and especially fierce demon, with flaring nostrils and dripping fangs.”

Milarepa knows there is nothing he can do but offer himself to the experience. Deciding to hold nothing back, he boldly steps over to the demon and says: “Eat me if you wish.”

Those demons come from all of the parts of us we have pushed down. When those parts—everything we have suppressed and rejected in ourselves—start to surface, they pay attention neither to our polite requests nor to our efforts to force them to leave. Milarepa’s first response to the demons (which Glaser points out may have been hiding in his cave for a long time) is to push them out. The direct attack does not work, so Milarepa tries manipulation in the guise of teaching, hoping that he can “fix them.” The author reminds us, “There is a lot of room for self-deception here.”

“True transcendence,” Glaser suggests, “is the deepest form of intimacy because nothing is excluded from its embrace.” Too often “we use spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and basic needs. Avoiding our full humanity actually stunts our spiritual growth and prevents real spiritual maturity.”

Milarepa gives up both the idea of forcing the demons out and of fixing them. He must now surrender and give himself to the most terrifying demon of them all. “Eat me if you wish,” he says, and then he places his head into the demon’s mouth. Suddenly the “demon bows low and dissolves into space.” What is happening here? Glaser tells us that in this final part of the story “Milarepa relinquishes his solutions and strategies and surrenders to the presence of the demons and to whatever they may have to teach him. At this point we begin to see everything that arises as an opportunity to deepen our understanding and to soften our heart…..We are willing to be with our experience, whatever it is, without judgment, without trying to fix it or get rid of it.”

When we reach this state of understanding, of willingness to give ourselves to experience, to stand before the biggest demon of all and place our head into its mouth, we discover that “the source of wisdom is in whatever is in front of us—it is in whatever is arising in this moment.”



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Ojo Del Lago
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