Clear Motivation

"Be kind whenever possible. It's always possible" – The Dalai Lama

Lessons from the Compassion Buddha

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Nyung Ne Background

I recently participated in a series of eight Nyung Ne retreats at Tushita Meditation Centre, about a twenty minute walk uphill from Mcleod Ganj. Although this post is entirely a reflection on a Buddhist practice, I hope everyone can find something relevant and interesting in it. I’ll first give an overview of what Nyung Ne means and what its origins are. The term literally means “abiding in retreat” or “abiding in the fast.” Retreat here primarily means taking a break from deluded mental states, such as anger and desirous attachment.

Nyung Ne began some time ago in India with a transformation of adversity. At a young age an extremely well-disciplined and committed nun named Bhikshuni Lakshmi developed leprosy, losing the ability to use her hands (or according to another version of the story, losing her hands altogether). She was outcast and forced to beg.

Becoming totally distraught, she prayed with single-pointed faith for freedom from her torment. Through a series of dreams and meetings with people, she was led to a certain statue of Avalokiteshvara*, the Compassion Buddha. Through her unwavering determination and incessant practice, she quickly began to develop immense compassion and realizations. As a side-effect to her spiritual growth, within one year her hands were completely healed (or, as the other version would have it, redeveloped).

It’s taught that she attained the supreme accomplishment of full awakening through her practice focusing on Avalokiteshvara. One of the main methods she relied upon was a practice that we now call Nyung Ne.

The Nyung Ne Practice

Each Nyung Ne lasts for two days. The first day is called the preparation day – on this day we take the Eight Mahayana Vows. These vows last for 24 hours and consist of such things as refraining from naturally harmful activity like killing, stealing, and lying as well as other activities like viewing entertainment, sexual activity, and eating more than one meal. Holding these contributes to a deepening of one’s spiritual practice by serving as a counter-force to our usual tendencies to want to keep ourselves distracted and try to eek every possible drop of pleasure from the objects of the senses.

The next day is called the fasting day. On this day we take the Eight Mahayana Vows, but additionally make the commitment to refrain from eating, drinking, and speaking.

Each day consists of three practice sessions, lasting about three hours each. The first session begins at 4:00 in the morning and the last ends at about 6:30 in the evening.

The whole practice is centered around Avalokiteshvara. Practitioners familiarize themselves with the attributes of Avalokiteshvara through visualization and prayer as well as contemplation, where we take to mind the qualities of his holy mind – limitless compassion that reaches towards all living beings; the unimpeded power to benefit beings and remove obstacles; and perfected wisdom. We also recite the mantra – the most popular version of which is OM MANI PEME HUNG.

The practice is very popular in Tibetan Buddhism because of its renown for its power of purifying imprints of harmful actions done in the past and removing obstacles caused by those imprints.

An image of Thousand-Armed Chenrezig

An image of Thousand-Armed Chenrezig

Now that you have some idea of what Nyung Ne is, here are eight things I learned from eight Nyung Nes (wow, I’m learning to do the gimicky blog thing).

1. Eating and talking take a lot of time.

It may not sound profound, but when there’s several extra hours in the day for study, practice, and just resting in contentment, it really begins to dawn that perhaps I could be using my fleeting time a little more meaningfully.

2. I am so dependent on my body.
This again is not a jaw-dropping truth out of some mystical realm of deep inner experience. Still, it was interesting to observe what happens with just a little break from food and water (and let’s not forget our good friend caffeine): that which I think of as “I” – the personality, the states of mind and emotional slurry with which I most strongly identify – becomes like a faint cloud of memory that I strain to conjure up but can’t get fully clear. After only half a day of fasting, I begin turning into a narcoleptic boob.

3. The body is tough to please.
Likewise, it became obvious how difficult (nay, impossible) it is to satisfy this body. All day long – “I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I’m hot, I’m tired.” And then comes a magnificent feast! We were fed like royalty on the preparation days. Even with such excellent food, I finish eating and then the bubble pops – “That’s it? I spent a whole meditation session dreaming about this meal and now it’s all gone. And what’s more, I have a tummy ache!”

4. “Compassion Buddha” is not just a name.
When meditating on Avalokiteshvara, actively thinking about compassion and the suffering endured by living beings is definitely more effective for generating compassion than just visualizing and reciting mantra. But it’s still very effective to just visualize and recite mantra.**

5. The kindness of others is overwhelming.
There’s a verse that we recite each day as part of the food offering: “I contemplate all the causes and conditions and the kindness of others by which I have received this food.” A group of about a dozen like-minded, dedicated practitioners holding the space and the discipline of this retreat – which wasn’t particularly easy – bringing great joy and encouragement to the practice… A retreat leader who cared for all of us and guided us with few words that carried great power… A team of cooks that provided us with a constant stream of hot water and drinks and a heavenly array of delicacies on each of the preparation days… A center of spiritual practice imbued with the blessings of many truly holy beings having done intensive retreat, plus the results of efforts of countless builders, workers, launderers, and a committed staff. That’s not even scratching the surface.

6. Food is like medicine.
There’s another verse that’s part of the food offering: “By seeing this food as medicine, I will consume it without attachment or hatred, not to increase my arrogance, strength or good looks, but solely to sustain my life.” Though I recite it everyday, I’ve never actually practiced it! This retreat helped me change my relationship to food. When only eating one full meal every other day, I naturally began to think of my food in terms of dosage and not just shoveling it down for the sake of indulgence. I also recognized my habit of overeating out of fear of the sensations of hunger. But in these couple weeks I got used to feeling hunger and understood that it really isn’t so bad. Anyway, it passes.

7. Anger takes up a ton of energy.
Richard, our very sweet retreat leader, warned us from the very beginning: “Don’t expect to experience great compassion. A lot of people feel strong anger during this retreat. It’s very good – you’re purifying, so things will come up.” He wasn’t kidding. For a solid day and a half, I was imploding. I could hardly focus or enjoy anything at all. Every time I tried to put my mind back in the practice, thoughts of a person with whom I was angry and memories of what he said intruded into my mind, along with all of the witty and cutting retorts that I was dying to make to him. This chaos sapped the life from me. No wonder we say anger is the most destructive force in the universe. Have you seen something more devastating?

8. My suffering is minuscule.
One aspect of this practice is that it helps us to empathize with the suffering of others. But let’s face it – each day of fasting came with the reassurance that I’d have a nice cool glass of water with rehydration salts and a warm cup of cocoa in just a few hours. Many people have no such reassurance. The suffering in our world is great. Taking time to think about what real people – who are no different from me and you – endure, and opening our hearts to it has a powerful effect. The initial effort it takes to simply get ourselves to recollect the suffering of others brings returns exponentially more valuable in terms of the openness and sincerity that it creates within.

The group of my fellow Nyung Ne retreatants, with Avalokiteshvara in the back row.

The group of my fellow Nyung Ne retreatants, with Avalokiteshvara in the back row.

So of course, these words cannot really describe what it’s like to engage in this practice – for a real understanding, you must do it yourself! Honestly, I lost the sense of the retreat atmosphere – internal and external – the day after it ended. But throughout the practice there were a few things that struck me and the words came to mind at that time, and even though it’s tough for me to mentally “go back” there now, the words remain in my memory. Above all, it was fun and gave me a chance to deepen my faith and determination.

As for me now, the Nyung Nes ended on Saka Dawa (the holiest day in the Buddhist year which commemorates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and final passing into the state beyond sorrow). A couple days later I began a two-week course on the Buddhist systems of philosophical tenets with Geshe Kelsang Wangmo. Then I moved into my dorm at Sarah College, where I’ll be studying Tibetan.

And then I took a bus ride to Manali (this time I got the comfortable one!) where I now sit in a guest house, waiting for a 2am departure to Leh, Ladakh, where I will spend the next couple weeks with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and an expected 150,000 other people for teachings and the Kalachakra for World Peace. Monsoon season has begun. It’s no joke – like Jumanji and all. It’s the kind of rain where if you get caught without cover for twenty seconds you’re drenched head to toe.

Another little note regarding something I’ve been thinking – I’m quite pleased to have a revitalized connection to my “roots,” (my Jewish ethnicity). There are so many Israelis on India! In fact I can hear people just meters away speaking Hebrew, and in this town there’s Hebrew writing all over the shops and restaurants. There’s even a Chabad, and the young mother working there mentioned with extremely broken English as she coddled her baby that about 100 people come for Shabbat. I was disappointed when I was denied admission into the Taglit Birthright program because of being Buddhist, but now I come to India and find I can learn about Israel and Judaism here, at least a little. A common reaction when an Israeli hears I’m Jewish is, “Another Jewbu!” It’s quite funny.  Oddly, that’s not the only group that I fit in with – some Asians have been convinced that I’m Asian. A couple of my Tibetan tutors insisted that I was half Asian and half American, and a Japanese woman who was in the course I just completed told me she thought I was Chinese-American. More proof that there is no objective reality out there just waiting for us to go and meet – instead, each object appears uniquely to the mind of each person perceiving it.

More updates to come.

* In Tibetan, Chenrezig
** The idea here is that “going through the motions” brings inspiration and transformative blessings that then lead one to bring the mind to focus more directly on thinking about the meaning of compassion.


Author: Jonathan Owen

Just another human being.

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