Recently the annual Nyung Na purification and fasting retreat was held at Compassion Centre and for the first time I participated, with much trepidation. Trepidation? All right terror. Fasting? Forget it. Something however made me want to try. Was I mad? A whole weekend? Why punish myself in this way?
The two retreat sessions per day followed the sadana of eleven-faced Avalokiteshvara. On each day, eight precepts were taken early in the morning. (I’d tell you the time, but you might be alarmed.) Included in these precepts is refraining from singing, dancing, and more or less all distracting activities with an emphasis on Bodhichitta motivation. But how could I think of others when I was starving, and thirsty, and tired, and without distraction? What about me?
On Saturday, there was a large shared midday meal, cooked by Gen Sherab. Otherwise, no food. At the meal, I wondered how much I could possible eat. I’m a small person, but I was desperate. Desperate and afraid. On Sunday, if we opted in for the full fast, there would be nothing to eat or drink. Nothing until Monday morning. Those who know me, know that I often refer to myself as the Princess and the Pea, in other words, sensitive. I mind pain, discomfort, irritation. How could I live, I mean live, for one day without coffee?
And I haven’t even mentioned the prostrations. Over the two days there are 360 full-length prostrations recommended. (If you are not familiar with full prostrations you can go to You-Tube and see how it’s done.) Well l I tried. I wanted the full deal, didn’t I? What was I thinking? On day one I did as many full and ordinary prostrations as I could manage, no problem, I was so full of faithful energy and enthusiasm. On day two, I could barely walk.
Some sangha members I spoke to before the retreat mentioned the rigours of Nyung Na, as well as the belief that it was only for the most experienced practitioners as good reason to avoid it. Well it was rigorous, but you don’t have to be enlightened to join in. And rigour might be good. As Sherab explained, it gives you the opportunity to really look at your self-cherishing, your hunger, thirst, your distractions, your exhaustion. And let me tell you, it’s not a pleasant sight.
Incidentally, I chose not to hear, when Sherab, advised moderation for beginners; meaning, depending on our heath and fitness, we could opt out of the full fast and engage in normal precepts commitments allowing for a light lunch on day two and intake of water. If we needed to do only mental prostrations, we could do only mental prostrations. Even mental prostrations demonstrate surrender and respect. What is important is intention. What separates the wise woman from the fool, is intention.
The weekend is over, and yes, I survived. I survived with a feeling of accomplishment and a closeness, a comradery, with the others on the retreat, but moreover, with a strong sense of re-commitment to my practice. Where I was stuck, it is as if I have become unstuck. I have renewed my compassion, discipline and diligence. The very pettiness of my temporary hunger, thirst, tiredness, aches and pains, when many are hungry, thirsty, tired, aching all the time, shook me. I learned some very fundamental things about myself, and my needs. How important I thought they were; how difficult it was to do without; how I did without and didn’t perish; and how I felt empowered, stronger, surer, and humbler at the end of it all.