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17 Day Fasting Retreat (Nyungne)

श्री नागी गुम्बा
Budhanilkantha, 44606 Nepal

May 8 May 25

Every year, the nuns of Nangkyi Tongsel Ling (Nagi) Nunnery observe the 17 Day Fasting Retreat (Nyungne), starting on the 1st day of the auspicious month of Saga Dawa. The Nyungne is normally a 2 day practice but the nuns will follow an 8 Nyungne cycle back to back over 16 days plus 1 additional day of conclusion. The 8 Mahayana Precepts are followed (no killing, stealing, sexual activity, telling lies, taking intoxicants, eating after midday, singing/dancing/playing music, sitting on high seats). On the first day of each Nyungne, simple food and drink are taken before noon. However, on the second day, no food or drink (not even water) is consumed at all and silence is followed (except when reciting prayers/mantras).

The Nyungne practice has a rich and ancient lineage that can be traced back to its origins, directly from Avalokiteshvara (Bodhisattva of Compassion) to Gelongma Palmo (Bikshuni Sri), a renowned Indian nun. The lineage continued through to Jyangsem Dawa Shonnu and Yeshe Sangpo in India, and then passed to Bhalpo Benyawa in Nepal before arriving in Tibet with Jyangsem Dawa Gyaltsen. It was eventually transmitted to Gyalsey Thogmey, the revered composer of the famous 37 practices of Bodhisattva, from whom it spread throughout Tibet, becoming widely practiced and revered. These days, Nyungne is practiced mostly by the Himalayans and is followed in all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Tibetan word ‘Nyungne’ refers to a practice that involves reducing negative actions of the body, speech, and mind by remembering Avalokiteśvara and remaining in that state. Nyungne, when practiced with a pure heart, is a powerful and rigorous purification practice. It purifies negative actions of body, speech, and mind; helps to purify all four root downfalls; removes obstacles and appeases illness; and generates great merit. The ultimate purpose of Nyungne is the attainment of supreme Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Avalokiteshvara himself proclaimed that by completing 8 cycles of Nyungne, practitioners will be reborn in the Pureland of Amitabha Buddha after passing away. Even completing only one cycle of Nyungne will spare the practitioner from being reborn in the three lower realms (animal realm, hungry ghost realm, and hell realm). Thus, Avalokiteshvara inspires practitioners to engage in Nyungne.

At Nagi Nunnery, the Nyungne holds significant importance for the nuns and is therefore observed several times each year. The Nyungne text suggests that the best time to practice Nyungne is during Saga Dawa, the fourth month of the Tibetan calendar, and considered to be the most auspicious month of the year. The nuns of Nagi Nunnery begin their extensive Nyungne fasting retreat every year on the first day of Saga Dawa and conclude seventeen days later. The nuns also follow one cycle (but 3 days) of Nyungne each year during the Dashain festival of Nepal. Immediately upon completion of the three-year retreat, the retreatant nuns perform 108 cycles of Nyungne.  Additionally, it is believed that the three other months in the year which have days commemorating important events in the Buddha’s life (Chötrul Düchen, Chökhor Düchen, and Lhabab Düchen) are also ideal for practicing Nyungne. Moreover, the months which mark the 12 significant acts of Buddha’s life are also considered very auspicious for Nyungne practice.

When selecting a location to practice Nyungne, it is best to choose a place where Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have achieved enlightenment or siddhis. This could include monasteries, nunneries, or other sacred sites. However, if practicing at home is preferred, it is important to ensure that the practice area is clean and beautifully decorated.

Nyungne is a fasting retreat that is done in cycles, with each cycle lasting for 2 days. The first day of each cycle is a preparation day when the practitioners eat only one meal in the afternoon and are only allowed to drink after the meal. The second day is the main fasting day when the practitioners do not eat any food or take any drink at all (not even water) and silence is followed (except when reciting prayers/mantras). For the 17 day Nyungne, the nuns follow an 8 Nyungne cycle back to back over 16 days plus one day of conclusion, which is the Tsok day. It is recommended that one of the fasting days should fall on either the auspicious 8th day or the auspicious 15th day of the Tibetan month. The nuns have considered these requirements when scheduling the timings for their practice.  

During the Nyungne practice, there are 4 main lessons that are followed every day. Each of these lessons has a further 4 branches which makes 16 lessons in total.

The first main lesson is Ngöndro. It is a preliminary practice in which the practitioners first cleanse and purify their bodies and dress in clean clothing before entering the puja hall. Second, they offer mandalas to the Gurus, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and Lineage Gurus while reciting Refuge prayers and giving rise to Bodhicitta (the aspiration to attain Enlightenment in order to help all beings). Third, they chant confession and forgiveness prayers. Fourth, they take eight seals for one day for following the 8 Mahayana Precepts. 

The second main lesson is Ngo Shi. First, the practitioners clean and prepare mandalas with beautiful decorations and consecrate the object of the puja. Second, they recite Refuge prayers, give rise to Bodhicitta, and chant prayers to accumulate merit. Third, they do a self-visualization where they visualize themselves as the 1000 armed Avalokiteśvara and chant long, average, and concise mantras of Avalokiteśvara. Fourth, they perform a front visualization where they visualize Avalokiteśvara in the form of themselves and again chant long, average, and concise mantras of Avalokiteśvara.

The third main lesson, Thun Tsam, is a post-meditation activity between formal practices. First, Sagjhyong Topa is performed during which the practitioners accumulate merit, clear out obscurations, and praise Avalokiteśvara and the Gurus with melodious songs. The main praise is composed by Gelongma Palmo (Bikshuni Sri). While reciting her prayer, the practitioners prostrate and remember the qualities of Avalokiteśvara while also visualizing Bikhsuni Sri just above their heads, helping and motivating them. Second, the practitioners read supplication prayers. Third, pujas and tormas are offered to Dharmapalas, Nagas, and Bhumipatis (landlords) for protection during the practice. Fourth, 4 to 5 different types of Mönlam prayers are performed.

The fourth main lesson, Je Kyi Jya Wa, consists of the concluding prayers. First, the practitioners perform prayers to seek forgiveness for the mistakes of repetition, mispronunciation, and other errors made during the Nyungne. They also confess, regret, and ask for forgiveness for the times they felt dullness and agitation. Second, the practitioners receive the accomplishments or siddhis. Third, they perform prayers called ‘entering into and emerging from’ because the self and front visualization practice should emerge at the end of the puja. Fourth, participants perform dedication prayers and prayers of auspiciousness.

It is not necessary to be able to read the entire lessons of Nyungne to participate in this practice. Even a household practitioner who can only chant the six-syllable mantra of Avalokiteśvara can participate and attain equal benefits to the nuns who can perform the rituals fully. Practitioners are ranked in 3 levels. The highest rank is held by the perfect practitioner who possesses both lineage empowerment and permission to practice. The second rank is held by the average practitioner who has the empowerment but lacks permission. Finally, the third and lowest rank belongs to those who do not have the empowerment but have been granted permission to practice and are eager to follow the commitment or samaya.

May Avalokiteśvara grace us and remind us that the root of peace and happiness is Lord Buddha’s Teachings. In the heart of every being, may there be Compassion and Wisdom. May the Teachings flourish in the world!

Make an offering

If you are unable to make an offering but would like to be included in prayers the nuns will perform during the 17 Day Fasting Retreat (Nyungne) at Nagi Nunnery, please send your name(s) to office@monlam.org.