I have recently read an interview with the Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo who is well known in Buddhist circles for having spent more than twenty years in retreat in the Himalayas practising tantra, living in a cave house in a valley that is cut off for nine months of the year by heavy snow. She now lives near to Assisi in Italy and has founded a nunnery for women who wish to leave ordinary life and continue the tradition of the same kind of tantric practices. Is this not wonderful?
One of the most telling points in the interview is where she talks about the time when her food supplies did not arrive and were delayed many months without her knowing whether they would arrive at all. When asked how she responded to this, her first remark as, "Well, I got very thin!" It is a real spiritual lesson that she took the matter in this practical way which puts it on a par with anything else that might happen in existence. In Buddhism, we 'undergo' life and death. They happen. Freedom is to be in the state in which whatever happens is just whatever happens. We are physically dependent - the monk wanders with his bowl and maybe it gets filled, maybe it doesn't. It is important to recognise this kind of dependency. At the same time there is liberation beyond all conditions.
When pressed a bit more she said that she could see her rations getting smaller and smaller and so she prayed to die in the cave just as she knew that the great teacher Milarepa had prayed to die in a cave. She said that this prayer gave her great joy. Here, therefore, is a second wonderful spiritual lesson.
There is a lot of talk about meditation and mindfulness these days, framing them as cures for worldly conditions or aids to worldly effectiveness, but the essence of Buddhist samadhi is complete willingness to die. In samadhi, even if one is in a hall with a hundred people, one is as alone, just as at the point of death, and one is completely willing. That is samadhi. If it were to make one more effective in worldly life, that would be completely incidental. Whatever our role or function in the world, we are all going to die.
When one has this kind of relationship with death - has, in a sense, already died many times in samadhi - then one is liberated, because although the physical dependency of the body continues one is not actually dependent upon it so it does not fundamentally matter to oneself what happens. This gives one complete freedom to decide what is best without any element of 'taking it personally'. This is what is meant by being a bodhisattva.
Of course, reflecting upon this, one might realise that one does not have such equanimity. One recognises one's deficiency. One can pray to be helped to become like Tenzin Palmo, or like Milarepa, or like one's guru, all the while recognising that one has not arrived at such a liberation. This recognition of the gap is itself enormously important. It is in that gap that spiritual practice takes place. This, in Pureland, is called recognising one's bombu nature and praying for assistance from the Buddhas.
In the history of Buddhism we have many spiritual heroes. They are all odd characters. They did not do the ordinary conventional things. They broke the mould. They were able to do so because they were, in varying degrees, liberated and they were, in varying degrees liberated because they did so. It is a cycle. There is the cycle of samsara in which we become more and more trapped and there is the wheel of the Dharma that the Buddhas set turning.
Find your own cave in the snow, whatever it may be, and when the worldly world stops supporting you, pray to die there. Miracles may then happen. And if you cannot, then recognise the gap and practice there. If you do so in faith and with sincerity, then your cave will appear naturally.