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.

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.photo by docklandsboy on flickr

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.


  1. Staying in My Cave – Rebel Buddha -…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

  2. avatar namkha says:

    Love the blog. Disciplining the mind when the body is not on the cushion is far more challenging. It calls upon what I have studied and contemplated. It questions the certainty I thought I have.

    Thank you for expanding your cave to cyberspace!

  3. avatar SvR says:

    “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.”

    That rather lovely description of the Buddhist path is a strong argument for avoiding the cave. What a loss to the world not to share all of that richness. Indeed, the hallmark of an accomplished practitioner is the arising of a natural desire to share oneself with others, even demons.

  4. avatar Tyler Dewar says:

    Mitra Lee Worley strikes again! Loved this blog, Lee. You rock!

  5. avatar Robert J. Bullock says:

    Very enjoyable post, Lee. Thanks!

  6. avatar Tino Ramirez says:

    From a little office in Honolulu, this worker bee thanks you, Milarepa and the lineage for this relevant, inspired teaching.

  7. avatar Inness says:

    Thank you Mitra Lee!

    Graceful and direct.

    What a helpful reminder in my nonstop dreamlike work week.

  8. avatar Tenzin Dorje says:

    Ah, what a great quote from Trungpa Rinpoche: The World is My Cave. Wow. We can strive to emulate Milarepa anywhere, even at work, in traffic, or in the kitchen.

  9. avatar Gloria says:

    In one version of the story about the raksha/Buffalo demon Mahishasuramardini i heard after Durgama cut off his head he became her greatest devotee. Unlike the notion of absolute evil (demons) and absolute good (angels) that i grew up with in some Catholic stories it was, at first, a shock to me to encounter this powerful practitioner that grew too attached to “his” power resulting in his developing a demonic approach to power who then went on to become one of Durgama’s greatest devotees. But to come to the realization that the head being chopped off (could be seen as Ego and thus Delusion) brought about the transformation of the practitioner into genuinely humble devotee was illuminating and instructive.

    Milarepa’s story taught me, for one lesson learned, that this power of redemption is great and can change the heart from one filled with ideas of revenge to a protector and teacher of Dharma. It is never too late. It is never hopeless. And yes…wherever we go (cave in isolation or walking across the busiest intersection in the world) there we are. Our mind is our constant companion?

    i enjoyed reading this article. Thank you for writing it and posting it. :oD

  10. avatar Jack says:

    I bet you have a very loving & caring song. I’m sure everyone would love to hear it.

  11. avatar phree says:

    This is just what I needed to hear today when too many demands are pressing on me as a mother and worker. Thanks!

  12. avatar hélène says:

    Dear Lee

    I really enjoyed your article. Yes facing the demons…until give up and finish in their mouth…easier to say than to do, but nevertheless why just give a try ????


  13. avatar hélène says:

    bad spelling..should say why not just try ?

  14. avatar bill s says:

    I think the real heart of “forgive us our tresspasses as we forgive those who tresspass against us” is more like forgive and you will be forgiven. We can never be forgiven as long as we can’t let go. Not forgiving, or being able to, or being poor at it, is a form of atachment.It is in learning to forgive that we are forgiven. Under this lens forgiveness provides an important and subtle teaching on cause and effect. And in the meantime, enjoy your practice as much as you can.