In the 11th century C.E., the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa began a personal retreat to master his body, a journey that would last until his death at the age of 84. Earlier in his life, Milarepa had already acquired many seemingly miraculous yogic abilities, such as the power to use “psychic heat” to warm his body in the harsh Tibetan winters.
After suffering the unbearable pain of losing his family and friends at the hands of village rivals, he employed his mystic arts for purposes of retribution and revenge. In doing so, he killed many people and struggled to find meaning in what he had done. One day he realized that he had misused the gift of his yogic and psychic abilities, so he went into seclusion to find healing through even greater mastery. In sharp contrast to the life of material abundance he had known before, Milarepa soon discovered that he needed no contact with the outside world. He became a recluse.
After exhausting his initial supplies of food, Milarepa found himself surviving on the nourishment of the meager vegetation near his cave. For many years, the nettle plants that grow in the arid expanses of Tibet’s high desert were all he ate. Without any substantial food, clothing, or companionship to interrupt his inner focus, Milarepa lived for years on almost nothing. His only human contact was the occasional pilgrim who stumbled upon the cave that sheltered him. The reports of those who did happen to find him by accident describe a frightening sight.
The little clothing with which he’d originally started his retreat had weathered into sparse shreds of cloth that left him virtually naked. Due to the lack of nutrition in his diet, Milarepa had shrunk to little more than a living skeleton, with his long hair, as well as his skin, turning a dull green from the overdose of chlorophyll. He looked like a walking ghost! The deprivation that he imposed upon himself, although extreme, did lead him to his goal of yogic mastery. Before his death in 1135 C.E., Milarepa left proof of his freedom from the physical world in the form of a miracle that modern scientists say should simply not be possible.
During a group pilgrimage to Tibet in the spring of 1998, I chose a route that would lead us into directly to Milarepa’s cave and the miracle that he left behind. I wanted to see the place where he breached the laws of physics to free us from our limited beliefs.
Nineteen days after this trip began, I found myself in the great yogi’s retreat, standing precisely where he had stood nearly 900 years before. With my face only inches away from the wall of the cave, I was staring squarely into the mystery that Milarepa left behind.
Milarepa’s cave is one of those places that you have to know how to find in order for you to get there. It’s not somewhere you would just happen upon during a casual jaunt through Tibet. I first heard about the famous yogi from a Sikh mystic who became my yoga teacher in the 1980s. For years I’d studied the mystery surrounding Milarepa’s renunciation of all worldly possessions, his journey throughout the sacred plateau of central Tibet, and what he discovered as a devoted mystic. All of the study led to this moment in his cave.
I stared in wonder at the smooth, black walls that surrounded me and could only imagine what it would be like inhabiting such a cold, dark, and remote place for so many years. While Milarepa had lived in as many as 20 different retreats throughout his time in solitude, it was his meeting with a student in this particular cave that set it apart from the others.
To demonstrate his yogic mastery, Milarepa performed two feats that skeptics have never duplicated. The first was moving his hand through the air with such speed and force that he created the “shock wave” of a sonic boom reverberating against the rock throughout the cavern. (I attempted this on my own, with no luck.) The second feat was the one that I had waited nearly 15 years, traveled halfway around the world, and acclimated to some of the world’s highest elevations for 19 days to see.
To demonstrate his mastery over the limits of the physical world, Milarepa had placed his open hand against the cave’s wall at about shoulder level . . . and then continued to push his hand farther into the rock in front of him, as if the wall did not exist! When he did so, the stone beneath his palms became soft and malleable, leaving the deep impression of his hand for all to see. When the student who witnessed this marvel tried to do the same thing, it’s recorded that all he accomplished was the frustration of an injured hand.
As I opened my palm and placed it into the impression of Milarepa’s, I could feel my fingertips cradled in the form of the yogi’s hand in the precise position that his fingers had assumed hundreds of years earlier—a feeling that was both humbling and inspiring at the same time. The fit was so perfect that any doubt I had about the authenticity of the handprint quickly disappeared. Immediately, my thoughts turned to the man himself. I wanted to know what was happening to him when he merged with that rock. What was he thinking? What was he feeling? How did he defy the physical “laws” telling us that two “things” (his hand and the rock) can’t occupy the same place at the same time?
In anticipation of my questions, our Tibetan translator, Xjin-la (not his real name), answered before I even asked them. “He has belief,” he stated in a matter-of-fact voice. “The geshe [great teacher] believes that he and the rock are not separate.” I was fascinated by the way our 20th-century guide spoke of the 900-year-old yogi in the present tense, as if he were in the room with us. “His meditation teaches him that he is part of the rock. The rock cannot contain him. To the geshe, this cave is not a wall, so he can move freely as if the rock does not exist.”
“Did he leave this impression to demonstrate his mastery for himself?” I asked. “No,” Xjin-la replied. “The geshe does not need to prove anything to himself. The yogi lived in this place for many years, but we see only one handprint.” I looked around for signs of others somewhere in the shallow cave. Our guide was right—I didn’t see any. “The hand in the rock is not for the geshe,” our guide continued. “It is for his student.”
It made perfect sense. When Milarepa’s disciple saw his master do something that tradition and other teachers said could not happen, it helped him break through his beliefs about what is possible. He saw his teacher’s mastery with his own eyes. And because he witnessed the miracle personally, his experience told his mind that he wasn’t limited or bound by the “laws” of reality as they were known at the time.
By being in the presence of such a miracle, Milarepa’s student was confronted with the same dilemma that everyone faces in choosing to free themselves from the limits of their own beliefs: He had to reconcile the personal experience of his teacher’s miracle with what those around him believed—the “laws” that they accepted describing how the universe operates.
The dilemma is this: The worldview that was embraced by the family, friends, and people of the student’s day asked him to accept one way of seeing the universe and how things work. This included the belief that the rock of a cave wall is a barrier to the flesh of a human body. On the other hand, the student had just been shown that there are exceptions to such “laws.” The irony was that both ways of seeing the world were absolutely correct. Each depended on how someone chooses to think of it in a given moment of time.
I asked myself: Could the same thing be happening in our lives today? As far-fetched as this question may sound in light of our scientific knowledge and technological advances, modern scientists are beginning to describe a similar irony. Using the language of quantum physics rather than evidence of yogic miracles, a growing number of leading-edge scientists suggest that the universe and everything in it “is” what it “is” because of the force of consciousness itself: our beliefs and what we accept as the reality of our world. Interestingly, the more we understand the relationship between our inner experiences and our world, the less far-fetched this suggestion becomes.
While the story of Milarepa’s cave is a powerful example of one man’s journey to discover his relationship to the world, we don’t need to seclude ourselves in a cave and eat nettles until we turn green to discover the same truth for ourselves! The scientific discoveries of the last 150 years have already shown that the relationship between consciousness, reality, and belief exists.
Are we willing to accept the relationship we’ve been shown and the responsibility that comes with such power so that we can apply it in our lives in a meaningful way? Only through the future that is on the horizon will we know how we’ve answered the question.
Also available as a 4-CD Set: The Spontaneous Healing of Belief
It will look like this: A Miracle Set in Stone