Hermit-Yogi Caves and Fortresses (Part I): Jetsun Milarepa’s Twenty-Eight Sacred Places
“Though in deepest faith and devotion
We have never been apart,
Remembering the guru in my heart,
Such unbearable, tormented longing,
Chokes and suffocates me speechless.
Please relieve this man’s torment!”
སྤྲང་མོས་གུས་ཀྱི་ངང་ནས་འབྲལ་མེད་ཀྱང་། །བླ་མ་སྙིང་ནས་དྲན་པ་ཡི། ། འདོད་པས་གདུངས་ནས་བཟོད་གླགས་མེད། ། དབུགས་སྟོདེ་དུ་འཚངས་ནས་སྐད་མ་ཐོན། །བུ་ཡི་གདུང་བ་སོལ་ཅིག་བཀའ་དྲིན་ཅན།
“At Mount Yolmo Gangra in Nepal; in six well-known caves open to view, in six unknown caves, in six secret caves, and in two others, making twenty in all. In addition there were four widely known large caves and four unknown large caves. This includes all my places of meditation, except for some smaller caves where conditions were favourable. As a result of my meditation I have achieved total awakening wherein the object meditated upon, the action of meditating, and the subject who meditates merge into one, so that now I no longer know how to meditate…..”If you meditate at those, everything you need is at hand and the blessing of the lineage will enter, so meditate!”
Introduction – Isolated Hermits Meditating in Caves
For the New Moon today, I offer a short research post in the first of a series on the caves and isolated meditation places used by renowned yogis and yoginis to meditate. This first post considers the twenty caves and fortresses that the yogi and Kagyu forefather, Jetsun Milarepa listed. I have translated the names of these places into English (with Tibetan) and where possible, given place names and details.
The meditation cave (dragphug) is a common feature in the lives of realized Buddhist siddhas. Why a cave one might ask? Caves were chosen in isolated places in order to remove the person from ordinary worldly activities; the ‘hustle and bustle’ of ordinary life of mindless distractions. The Tibetan word used to describe such practitioners is jadrelwa (bya bral ba), which literally means ‘separate from worldly activities’. Another word used to describe such places of meditation is Dzong (rdzong) meaning ‘fortress’.
Famous examples of cave meditators, other than Milarepa, include Padmasambhava, Yeshe Tshogyel and Shakyamuni Buddha himself (who meditated for many years in caves, including one near Vulture’s Peak, Rajgir, India). There were no personal luxuries in such places, no bed, hot water, kitchen, fridge, internet, phone etc.
Many might wonder what is of real benefit to others by meditating in solitude for many years. As British nun and teacher, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo described her own experience of meditating for 12 years alone in a cave in Lahaul Vally (also recorded in a biographical book ‘Cave in the Snow’):
…to really be of benefit to others as the Buddha always taught, we ourselves must first get out of the swamp. One of the quickest and most effective ways to do this is in isolation, with very few distractions, working very hard at it and spending all your time and efforts at changing your mind.
Even if the hermits do not appear to benefit other beings with their presence or teachings, still they are enormously inspiring to many. Perhaps, in this lifetime, they were meant to work on their own practice, to try to purify their own mindstreams so that in future lifetimes (that will last a lot longer than this one), they will be fit vessels to give the teachings to others.
Meditation training has been an indispensable element of most Buddhist lineages in the Tibetan world. Both in pre-modern Tibet and today, such schooling has had to take place primarily outside of monasteries, which are generally viewed as inappropriate for retreat. 
While reading about and looking at the images of Milarepa’s hermitage caves and retreats, I was amazed at how remote and uninhabitable they are. Only accessible by foot and walking long distances and high altitudes. A world away from the 21st Century monasteries, retreat centres, luxury hotels and houses stayed in by contemporary lamas. The effort, determination and sheer passion of Milarepa is indeed still worthy of great veneration and devotion. A genuine ‘jadrelwa’, cut off from worldly pleasures, comforts, food, clothing and so on. He neither sought companions, students or renown. I have listed (and provided images where possible, some low quality) of the twenty-eight caves and fortresses, known, unknown and secret, listed by Milarepa in response to his student Rechungpa.
Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 8th August 2021.
The eleventh century yogin, Jetsun Milarepa (1040-1123) has long been used as an inspiring example of the hermit yogi who cuts himself off from all worldly activities and one-pointedly make efforts to attain enlightenment. These caves were lonely, and at times, scary places. Turek (2013) cites Milarepa as the prime example of the hermit-yogi not only in Tibetan, but also Western folklore . As an example of the difficult and lonely life of such a cave-dweller, in the opening song in One Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, Milarepa is alone without water, food or clothing tormented by a storm and isolation, up in one of the high places wistfully longing for the company and teachings of his root guru Marpa, and his wife Dagmema. The song is called “Thoughts of My Guru’, and I have reproduced the song below in full.
Marpa first imparted the lay and bodhisattva vows, granting Milarepa the name Dorje Gyeltsen (rdo rje rgyal mtshan). Milarepa then received numerous tantric instructions that Marpa had received in India, especially those of tummo (gtum mo), or yogic heat, the aural instructions (snyan rgyud) of tantric practice, and instructions Mahāmudrā. Marpa conferred upon Milarepa the secret initiation name Zhepa Dorje (bzhad pa rdo rje) and commanded him to spend the rest of his life meditating in solitary mountain retreats. Milarepa returned to his homeland for a brief period and then retired to a series of retreats nearby. Most famous among these is Drakar Taso (brag dkar rta so) where he remained for many years in arduous meditation. With nothing but wild nettles to eat, his body grew weak and his flesh turned pale green. He later traveled widely across the Himalayan borderlands of southern Tibet and northern Nepal, and dozens of locations associated with his life have become important pilgrimage sites and retreat centers. In the Life of Milarepa, Tsangnyon Heruka drew largely upon earlier sources in order to document dozens such locations, but he reorganized them to create a new map of sacred sites—many of which were designated “fortresses” of meditation—along Tibet’s southern border: six well-known outer fortresses, six unknown inner fortresses, and six secret fortresses, together with numerous other caves.
In Life of Milarepa (Part II, Chapter 8), these ‘Fortresses and Caves of Meditation’ were listed by Milarepa in response to a question from his student Rechungpa (ras chung rdo rje grags pa, 1083/4-1161) who asked, ‘Master, your principal places of retreat were Lachi and Chuwar. Besides the caves that you mentioned earlier, where else have you meditated?’
‘At Mount Yolmo Gangra in Nepal; in six well-known caves open to view, in six unknown caves, in six secret caves, and in two others, making twenty in all. In addition there were four widely known large caves and four unknown large caves. This includes all my places of meditation, except for some smaller caves where conditions were favorable. As a result of my meditation I have achieved total awakening wherein the object meditated upon, the action of meditating, and the subject who meditates merge into one, so that now I no longer know how to meditate.’
Then Rechungpa said,
‘Master, because you have completely eradicated the stains of discrimination, your humble disciples are deeply grateful to you for the joy of having achieved real understanding and authentic experience. For the spiritual benefit of future disciples, please identify each of these renowned, lesser renowned, and secret forts as well as the large caves.’
1. Drakar Taso Dzong (བྲག་དཀར་རྟ་སོ་དབུ་མ་རྫོང་།) White Rock Horse Tooth Central Fort in Tö, Mangyul. BDRC 317. Dragkar Taso Phug is also known as the Central Rock Castle or Üma Dzong (dbu ma rdzong).
3. Lingpa Dragmar Dzong (ལིང་པ་བྲག་དམར་རྫོང་།) Red Rock Hunter Fort. “In accordance with the lama’s instructions, and wishing to go to Mount Peybar in Mangyul and to Yolmo Gangra in Nepal, he passed through Gungthang. Attracted by Lingpa Cave, he stayed there for some time and sang a song to the Demoness of the Lingpa Cave (see images below).
4. Ragma Jangchub Dzong (རག་མ་བྱང་ཆུབ་རྫོང་ །) Ragma Bodhicitta Fort in Tö, Mangyul. “At Ragma Enlightenment Fort, to Mount Peybar, he sang the song that pacified the Goddess of Earth and a local spirit inhabiting the Ragma Cave.”
6. Dragkyo Dorje Dzong (བྲག་སྐྱ་རྡོ་རྗེ་རྫོང་) Grey Rock Vajra Fort. “While the Master was living in the cave Dagkya Dorje Dzong and was meditating for the benefit of sentient beings, his yidam predicted the coming of all his disciples, particularly of the disciple Rechung Dorje Drakpa, whose mission would be to bring the secret oral instruction of the dakinis from specified places.”
5. Betse Doyon Dzong (བེ་རྩེ་འདོད་ཡོན་རྫོང་།) Sensory Pleasures of Betse Fort in Lato. “When Rechungpa returned from India, Milarepa came here to welcome him. Sitting within the natural luminosity he saw the Rechungpa had developed prideful arrogance.’
2. Taphug Senge Dzong (སྟག་ཕུག་སེང་གེ་རྫོང་། ) Tiger Cave Lion Fort in Yolmo, Nepal. “From Kyangphen Namkha Dzong he went to Mount Yolmo Gangra and lived in Tagphug Senge Dzong in the forest of Singala, doing work beneficial to many human and non-human beings. Meanwhile he received a sign directing him to go back to Tibet, to meditate in mountain solitude and work for the benefit of all beings.” Milarepa is said to have meditated for three years in this cave. Currently, in the immediate vicinity of the cave is a small retreat center for the nuns of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche as well as a few individual retreat huts.
4. Laphug Padma Dzong (ལ་ཕུག་པད་མ་རྫོང་། ) Lhapug Lotus Fort in Domey (?). “Where Milarepa saved many animals who were going to be sacrificed for Bon Chog. He also brought Shingon Repa to liberation and ripening here.”
Two other Fortresses
1. Kyiphug Nyima Dzong (སྐྱིད་ཕུག་ཉི་མ་རྫོང་།) Happy Sun Cave Fortress in Tsang. “It is said that at the request of Lion-Faced Dakini, Milarepa came to meet Kamalashila here at Nyanang Tongla pass in order to test Kamalashila’s clairvoyance, he transformed himself into a bunch of flowers. Later Milarepa removed his own skull and brains and boiled them over a fire generated by the fire of tummo which they then made a feast offering. He also emanated seven bodies each of which stood on the tip of a stalk of grass.”
1 Nyanang Dropa Phug གཉའ་ནང་གི་གྲོད་པ་ཕུག, Belly of Nyanang Cave, Nyanang. He is said to have met Padampa Sangye there. Said to be “where Mila demonstrated the miracles of becoming substantial, insubstantial and both, and through the Dharma he overcame disabilities motivated by jealousy. He also told his own life story in detail and brought many students to ripening and liberation in this place.”
2 Lachi Dudul Phug (ལ་ཕྱིའི་བདུད་འདུལ་ཕུག) Lachi Demon-Tamer Cave. Lapchi is revered as the speech mandala of Chakrasamvara, while Mount Kailash is the body mandala, and Tsari the mind mandala. Marpa told Milarepa that Lachi would be a conducive and beneficial place for retreat. Marpa also confirmed that Lachi was one of the 24 holy sites of Chakrasamvara. Following his guru’s instructions, Milarepa spent many years meditating in the snow mountains of Lachi, especially a cave that became known as Dudul Phug,.
It was in this cave that Jetsun Milarepa subjugated a host of demons who had attacked him. It is also the place where, blocked by snow that had fallen for eighteen days and nights, he spent six months in complete seclusion, surviving on one measure of tsampa. There too, Milarepa performed many miracles and left nearby a footprint in a rock.
When his disciples came from Nyalam to look for him six months later, Milarepa manifested as a snow leopard lying on a rock. Until today, the body imprint of the snow leopard and imprints of claws on a rock near Dun-dul Phug are still vigible.
Milarepa also stayed in several other caves in this area. One is called Tak Tsang Phug (Tiger nest cave). There are imprints of claws outside the cave, probably left behind by Milarepa when he manifested as the snow leopard. Next to Tak Tsang Phug is Drang Chang Phug (Bee Cave).
Slightly above Dudul Phug is a small cave called Rechung Phug, where Rechungpa stayed. Rechungpa was a close disciple of Milarepa. He made the precious bronze statue of Milarepa currently kept in Chora Gephel Ling.
The Dudul Phug area resembles the shape of Vajrayogini’s body. There is a flat land here called Cho Jung Thang (The source of Dharma). This is the mandala of Vajrayogini. It is said that if one practices Vajrayogini in this area, one can easily connect to the practice.”
Milarepa practiced quite some time in Lachi (la phyi) where he left many signs of succesful practice such as his footprints; this is found in the Footprint Cave in the Nyalam valley, Nepal. An area mostly situated in Nepal, just at the border of Tibet and Nepal, north of Kathmandu. East of Nyanang (gnya’ nang) and west of Drin Chubar (brin chu dbar). Several Tibetan guidebooks (gnas yig) to Lapchi are available, one by g.yung ston zhi byed ri pa (15th cent.), one by the 6th Shamar Rinpoche, Garwang Chokyi Wangchug (gar dbang chos kyi dbang phyug (1584-1630)), and a popular one by the 34th throne holder (gdan rabs) of the Drikung Kagyu, Tenzin Chokyi Lodro (bstan ‘dzin chos kyi blo gros (1869-1906)), composed in 1901.
4 Tise Dzutrul Phug (ཏི་སེའི་རྫུ་འཕྲུལ་ཕུག ) Miraculous Emanations Cave of Tise (Kailash), lies to the southeast of Mt. Kailash, and is a few hours’ walk from the mountain itself. When Jetsun Milarepa constructed his meditation cave with a few boulders, he first found that the ceiling of the cave was too low. Stretching his body, he pushed the ceiling up, leaving the print of his head in the rock. Then he thought that the ceiling was too high, so he went outside and stepped on the rock from above the cave, leaving prints of his feet in the rock.
2. Rongi Osel Phug རོན་གྱི་འོད་གསལ་ཕུག Luminous Clarity of Ron Cave, in Tö, Mangyul. “In this cave he met Tsagphug Repa, and on going to Ragma Jangchub Dzong (Cave of Enlightenment), he met Sangye Kyab Repa (Enlightened Protector).” It is also said he met Rechungpa and gave instructions and brought him to liberation in this cave.
3. Ralai Za-og Phug ར་ལའི་ཟ་འོག་ཕུག Underground Goat Hill Cave. “When the Master was at Ralai Zaok Phug in Gungthang, he met his spiritual son, Rechung. Later Rechung went to India to be cured of an illness, and on returning, the Master and his disciple met again.”
Milarepa walled off this cave and put a lamp on his head, so he would not move his body, and meditated day and night here for eleven months. Marpa and his wife Dakmema (Bdag med ma) came to visit him and do a feast offering. Milarepa described his experiences and realizations. Marpa and his wife were delighted and each sang a song of praise.
“ONCE the great Yogi Milarepa was staying at Chong Lung Dzong absorbing himself in the practice of the Mahamudra meditation. Feeling hungry, he decided to prepare some food, but after looking about he found there was nothing left in the cave, neither water nor fuel, let alone salt, oil, or flour. “It seems that I have neglected things too much!” he:: said, “I must go out and collect some wood.”
He went out. But when he had gathered a handful of twigs, a sudden storm arose, and the wind was strong enough to blow away the wood and tear his ragged robe. When he tried to hold the robe together, the wood blew away. When he tried to clutch the wood, the robe blew apart. [Frustrated}, Milarepa thought, “Although I have been practicing the Dharma3 and living in solitude for such a long time, I am still not rid of ego-clinging! What is the use of practicing Dharma if one cannot subdue ego-clinging? Let the wind blow my wood away if it likes. Let the wind blow my robe off if it wishes!” Thinking thus, he ceased resisting. But, due to weakness from lack of food, with the next gust of wind he could no longer withstand the storm, and fell down in a faint.
When he came to, the storm was over. High up on the branch of a tree he saw a shred of his clothing swaying in the gentle breeze. The utter futility of this world and all its affairs struck Milarepa, and a strong· feeling of renunciation overwhelmed him. Sitting down upon a rock, he meditated once more.
Soon, a cluster of white clouds rose from Dro Wo Valley far away to the East. “Below this bank of clouds lies the temple of my Guru, the great Translator Marpa,” mused Milarepa, “At this very moment He and His wife must be preaching the doctrines of Tantra, giving initiation and instruction to my brothers. Yes, my Guru is there. If I could go there now, I should be able to see Him.” An immeasurable, unbearable longing for his teacher arose in his heart as he thought despairingly of his Guru. His eyes filled with tears, and he began to sing a song, ”Thoughts of My Guru”:
I, the mendicant, now sing you a fervent song.
Floats a cluster of white clouds;
Beneath them, like a rearing elephant, a huge mountain towers;
Beside it, like a lion leaping, looms another peak.
Who is now enthroned there?
Is it Marpa the Translator?
Though limited in reverence, I wish to see you;
Though weak in faith, I wish to join you.
Does your wife, Dagmema, still dwell with you?
To her I am more grateful than to my mother.
Though long the journey, I wish to see her,
Though perilous the road, I wish to join her.
The more I contemplate, the more I think of you;
At which you may be preaching the Hevajra Tantra.
Though of simple mind, I wish to learn.
Though ignorant, I long to recite.
The more I contemplate, the more I think of you;
You may now be giving the Four Symbolic
Though too poor to offer much, I desire it.
The more I contemplate, the more I think of you;
Though poor my perseverance, I wish to practice.
The more I contemplate, the more I think of you;
The brothers from Weu and Tsang may be there.
I wish to compare mine with theirs.
Though in my deepest faith and veneration
I have never been apart from you,
I am now tortured by my need to see you.
This fervent longing agonizes me,
This great torment suffocates me.
Pray, my gracious Guru, relieve me from this torment.”
No sooner had Milarepa finished than the Revered One, the Jetsun Marpa, appeared on a cluster of rainbow clouds resembling a robe of five colors. With an ever-increasing [[[celestial]]] radiance suffusing his countenance, and riding a lion with rich trappings, he approached Milarepa. “Great Sorcerer, my son, why with such deep emotion,” he asked, “did you call to me so desperately? Why do you struggle so? Have you not an abiding faith in your Guru and Patron Buddha? Does the outer world attract you with disturbing thoughts? Do the Eight Worldly Winds howl in your cave? Do fear and longing sap your strength? Have you not continuously offered service to the Guru and to the Three Precious Ones above? Have you not dedicated your merits to sentient beings in the Six Realms? Have not you yourself reached that state of grace in which you can purify your sins and achieve merits? No matter what the cause, you may be certain that we will never part. Thus, for the sake of the Dharma and the welfare of sentient beings, continue your meditation.”
 “There also exists an exclusively monastic custom of recurrent retreat, which, as tradition claims, dates back to the times of the Buddha and his sangha, described in English as “rainyseason retreat” (dbyar gnas). For the great distribution of monastics in Tibetan areas as well as the near monopolization of religious expertise by celibate renunciates, retreat has most often been performed by monks and nuns. It has also been observed by lay people or sngags pa practitioners; in these cases, celibacy is sometimes advised, with the exception of practitioners of a special yoga which involves the manipulation of sexual energy (las kyi phyag rgya), applied only by the most advanced practitioners in strict seclusion. On such occasions, the hermitage is completely closed to the world and the territory may be ritually sealed (bcad rgya) to protect the secrecy (gsang ba) of the methodology and of the transformation process; at other times, the practitioner will simply live and practice in a remote cabin (mtshams khang) or cave (sgrub phug) beyond the range of domestic economy and thus abstain from human company without the need for ritual confinement. Especially the latter, less formal type has often been chosen as a lifestyle for already accomplished meditators (currently referred to as sgrub thob in Eastern Tibet), who have especially exhibited the tendency to reside in power places (gnas). An acclaimed master may also retire into the privacy of his residence, located usually above the monastery grounds to lead the life of a hermit, choosing to occasionally leave retreat and perform ritual service or exchange teachings with other experts. In such cases, retreat surroundings may serve him not only for meditation, but also for instructing disciples in both esoteric and scriptural lineages, but also as venue for literary and artistic composition – and Tibetan hermitages have for centuries been significant sources of cultural production. Occasionally, especially in the case of lamas who functioned as important reincarnations (sprul sku), retreat was performed as an element of political discourse.” Turek (2013: 3).
 “The figure of Mi la ras pa the poet-hermit has been the foremost inspiration for Tibetan meditators for centuries. In the context of the living Buddhist tradition, Mi la ras pa (1052- 1135) should actually be seen as a far more complex figure than a mere historical personality….His influence on the later formation the bKa’ brgyud schools has been accounted for in several Tibetan sources. Nevertheless, he expresses much more than a historical presence. Due to the impact that the highly popular written and oral versions of his life and teachings have had on generations of practitioners until this very day, Mi la ras pa transcends the role of a lineage patriarch, and becomes the ultimate archetype of the assiduous practitioner, whose efforts are met with an absolute success “within one body and life.”(Turek (2013: 20).
 Rechung Dorje Drakpa (ras chung rdo rje grags pa, 1083/4-1161), known as Rechungpa was one of the most important students of Milarepa and founder of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage or Rechung lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. (The other student was Gampopa (founder of the Dagpo Kagyu). Rechungpa was particularly important in the transmission of the cycle of teachings of the Cakrasaṃvara Tantra known as the Demchok Nyéngyü (bde mchog snyan brgyud), Réchung Nyéngyü (ras chung snyan brgyud).