A personal reflection on nyung-nye

I participated in the second annual fasting retreat with nyung-nye practice that was held at DNKL in Redding, CT. during Saka Dawa. I thought I’d share my limited experience with nyung-nye in order to encourage people to give it a try.

By way of introduction, nyung-nye is a powerful and profound practice focusing on purification and the cultivation of compassion. Gelongma Palmo offered devoted and extensive practice of One-Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara for twelve years. As a result, she overcame the severe illness of leprosy and attained enlightenment. She then taught the practice of nyung-nye. Numerous Buddhist masters have also obtained achievements by doing this practice. Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s explanation of the benefits of nyung-nye is available here.

Both monastics and lay persons from all Tibetan Buddhist schools do this popular form of intense practice. Part of its popularity is due to the fact that it only takes 2 days, so it’s very efficient!

The schedule we followed at DNKL was:

First Day: 5 a.m. May 24 to 5 a.m. May 25

Taking vows and commitments at the temple at 5 a.m.
Two session of practice in the morning and one in afternoon, finishing around 5 p.m.
Only one meal at 11:30 a.m., purely vegetarian. Drinking water and limited talking is allowed.

Second Day: 5 a.m. May 25 to 5 a.m. May 26

Taking vows and commitments at the temple at 5 a.m.
Two session of practice in the morning and one in afternoon, finishing around 5 p.m.
Abstaining from food, water and talk.

Third Day: 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. May 26
One final session. Breakfast at 6:00 a.m.

This was my second nyung-nye retreat at DNKL with Gyumed Khensur Rinpoche Losang Jampa and Geshe Losang Dhargye, and it was more beneficial than the first. Having experienced the pain of hunger and its effects the previous year, I was a little more prepared. I was also more familiar with the sadhana so the practice flowed more smoothly. Basically the practice entails meditation on One-Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara and that includes taking refuge, taking precepts, confessions to the 35 buddhas, extensive offerings, self-generation as the deity (if you’ve had the initiation), mantra recitation, chanting praises to the deity, the dedication and concluding practices and prayers.

The number of prostrations will vary depending on who is leading the retreat. For example, the praises to Avalokiteshvara contains nine verses and is chanted 21 times, each verse has four lines. We divided the group in half and each did 10 (or 11) sets of prostrations. We prostrated once for each verse for a total of 90 prostations per group. In contrast, an adorable, 78 year old Tibetan lady said that she usually prostrates once per line for a total of 756 prostrations. Likewise, the number of complete readings of the sadhana may differ.

What is more important that the number of prostrations and mantra recitations is, of course, whether there’s any change in one’s thinking. The second day, the mood was more sombre and we withdrew into ourselves. I found myself haunted by the faces of hunger and extreme thirst: the Somalian infants who starved to death in the recent drought, hungry ghosts, and the homeless scrounging for trash in Washington, D.C.. The hunger felt like something I’d experienced in the past, and I reminded myself that there is no guarantee that I won’t experience hunger again in this life or in the future. Any day I too may be homeless and hungry due to a hurricane, tornado, maybe even war.

Whenever the pangs of hunger arose, I tried to think that I was purifying the torment of all the animals around the world who are malnourished, the political prisoners at Guantanamo being force-fed, the skinny children I’d seen in India begging for food. It became easier to comprehend how mothers would turn to prostitution to obtain money to feed their families, and why so many resort to theft or murder out of desperation to end their hunger.

The power of the practice lies in our making a conscious effort to experience (even if only in a limited way) the horror of hunger and thereby to elicit a tangible, urgent drive to free all beings from it. Those who hold the bodhisattva vows are committed to leading sentient beings to enlightenment, yet most of us are unable to engage in advanced practices such as cutting off a hand. Nyung-nye is a starting point for making such sacrifices because one actively seeks to take on the sufferings of others. In contrast, usually we do tong len only after we already have some kind of health problem and then our motivation may partly be to make ourselves feel better.

For Americans who are used to eating whenever we please and who use food as a form of reward and as solace when we’re depressed, sacrificing a few meals for this practice can be a challenge. Yet many people, particularly Tibetans, do the nyung-nye practice for weeks or even months continuously.

The IMI Sangha is to be commended for undertaking 108 sets of nyung-nye. Prayer requests can be submitted here until June 8, 2013.


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