Experiences on the Pill
This article appeared in Wisdom Magazine, May 1983, pages 28-9.
Since the time of the Buddha, serious meditators have been renouncing the world and heading for the solitude of mountain retreats. It is difficult enough to give up the friendship and security of friends and jobs, good clothes, music and talking. But what about food? How to renounce that? Surely a person must eat.
The body does need sustenance but it is possible to cut down to the barest minimum the intake of food. Yogis over the centuries have developed the power to extract life-sustaining nutrients from the simplest materials. Milarepa, for example, happily lived on nettles.
Another source is a small brown pearl made from the petals of flowers, the recipe for which is in the sutras. It is known in Tibetan as chu-len and means, literally, “to take the essence.”
According to Geshe Jampa Wangdu, a Dharamsala lama who has spent periods of years sustained only by flower pills, they have many advantages. The body becomes light and incredibly comfortable. Renunciation is strengthened. Desire for food virtually disappears. And, of course, the hours normally spent thinking about, preparing and eating food can now be spent in meditation. The greatest advantage to meditators is that the mind becomes very strong and clear, able to penetrate deeply into meditation.
And, Geshe-la says, the pills are very good for the health generally. Wrinkles go and the meditator looks years younger!
Sounds inviting? But, Geshe Wangdu warns, these pills are not for city-bound heavy eaters. And living on chu-len pills is certainly not easy, according to Thubten Pende who participated in the first FPMT fasting retreat last year.
Altogether some thirty students spent some twenty-one days fasting on water and flower pills and meditating as Tushita Retreat Center in Dharamsala at the close of the EEC [the FPMT’s first Enlightened Experience Celebration]. Lama Yeshe had organized the making of the pills (using an elaborate recipe that contained not only flower petals but also precious metals such as gold and holy relics), and had requested Geshe Wangdu to supervise the retreaters.
Experiences of the practitioners were, of course, varied. Some did not complete the retreat, and others were happy to continue after the twenty-one days.
We publish here the reactions to the retreat of a young, newly-ordained nun.
In the instructions for the Flower-pill Fasting Retreat, three levels of motivation are proclaimed: first, for yogis and yoginis who already have strong renunciation of samsara, the wish to attain single-pointed concentration and tum-mo meditation; second, the wishes of those who are impoverished of food and clothing; and third, the lowest motivation, the wish to cure a serious illness. I had a very strong desire for the highest level, since I am a Dharma student; I was chronically concerned with the second problem; and definitely had to cure a serious disease.
So, in a little house in the forest, near Tushita Retreat Center, at Dharamsala, I started the retreat. Geshe Jampa Wangdu gave us the instructions, the lung, and the pills. One begins gradually by eating less and less for the first three days; then one starts to take the pills three times daily with hot water. Individually, people’s reactions are so different. Some experience great pain and difficulty and others do not. If you have been a heavy smoker or used drugs, the beginning may be hard for you.
During the first week, especially, I was very tired; I didn’t push myself, so I slept much. Sometimes I needed one or two hours just to get up in the morning after awakening. Or, I would sit down to do something, but then did nothing until I recognized what it was that I wanted to do—sometimes after about an hour. In the beginning I liked very much to sit down and do prayers and meditation sessions. Without food you really calm down, and everything becomes slow and light. Automatically, you become more mindful, carefully watching everything you do.
I had days when I was very depressed and dull-minded, feeling like I was in a foggy, musty space somewhere. Especially at the beginning of the third week, when I discovered that I had no renunciation at all, and I questioned myself—what was I doing this for, with this mind of attachments and desires for samsaric pleasures? At the same time I felt like vomiting from incredible aversion to samsara and the realization of being a prisoner in it. No renunciation. No concentration. No wisdom. No nothing.
At that time an American monk took care of me. He had previously done the retreat for thirty-five days. It showed me how important it is to have the guidance of someone who has experience. First of all, he said that I seemed successful to have discovered all these non-qualities, but how selfish and stupid to stagnate in that understanding. Just to be concerned with my own enlightenment, instead of rejoicing in the happiness and development of others. So, he dug me out of my self-pity cave and taught me some kind of pure Dharma.
There are exercises that are taught when the rlung is given, or you can use the exercises from the Six Yogas of Naropa if you have been introduced to them. I found the exercises very helpful, for meditation and physically. Even if you think you cannot do them because you are too weak, when you make a volitional effort, it will certainly take the weakness away. Just as in sports, when you train you get more and more power, instead of wobbling like a pudding or hanging around like a sandbag. So, it is good to do the exercises in the morning and before going to bed—otherwise you might easily miss the bliss.
Sometimes I felt so blissful living on flower-pills and water, so awake and clear in meditation—like flying through a clear sky. But, you should not expect too much from meditations—not if you are a beginner or doing the practice for the first time. After about ten days I lost all ability to concentrate and, therefore, I didn’t like to meditate anymore. I just did my prayers in the morning and one short session in the evening until the end. Occasionally I would spontaneously do more. I took long walks because my mind liked to look outside, what I couldn’t look at inside.
In general, I see my retreat as a purification of those hindrances that I suffered most from—great lack of renunciation, great lack of concentration, and so on. That doesn’t mean that I have gained renunciation and concentration now, but there are changes, even if they are slight. It also purified heavy tiredness and indolence, which symbolize a kind of rough ignorance. After this retreat I discovered that I could be happy with four or five hours sleep a night, which I could never imagine before.
I did not stop after twenty-one days. I still had a happy mind and I had completely given up expectations of gaining any realizations in my meditation practice. I have been eating food for countless eons; it hasn’t brought me everlasting happiness. This is such a precious practice and it sometimes makes me very light and blissful. So, why stop?
After twenty days I began to drink black Tibetan tea with a little salt. Geshe-la recommended this for digestion, and it gave me back some strength. But, during the nights of the 28th and 29th days I did nothing except visualize the most precious food that I could imagine. It made me quite excited, and I couldn’t sleep at all. It was the middle of October and some cold days had begun. I could not keep warm for days. In the beginning I did not mind too much because the bliss of my light transparent body prevailed. I tried to do the seed-syllable meditation but it did not work at that time because, of course, I expected to get warmth from it. So, I wrapped myself in blankets all the time, telling myself that it wasn’t as bad as the cold hells, that I should be happy to purify eons of cold hell karma. But, after the 29th night I definitely got the feeling that this was enough. After this decision I fell into warm dreams. On the 30th day I went down to the village to eat.
It is said that the dakinis like people doing the pill retreat. I guess it is less disgusting for them, so they hang around at this time. Watch out for the ladies you meet when you do this practice. I am sure there are some dakinis to be found among them—at least one. Seriously. It is said in the instructions that you will certainly be loved by all and guided by the assembly of dakinis, the sky-goers.
Geshe Wangdu once said that one could begin with twenty-one days, then three to six months, then three years, and after that to do for a lifetime is possible. A little glimpse, I can imagine that this must be incredibly blissful.
It is important to look for the right time and circumstances to do your pill retreat. When it is too cold or the environment lacks conducive qualities, the mind gets depressed and then it is difficult to continue. It is most important to do the practice with a happy mind. Lama Yeshe organized another pill retreat at Istituto Lama Tsongkhapa, in Italy, for both new and older students. Lama said that it is for those with chronic mental problems, overweight, depression and menstrual problems.
There is much to tell about the experiences I had after the retreat, but you better have your own experiences. One thing though, if you are motivated to do the retreat only because you are overweight—be careful. After I finished I was so greedy for food that I became fat like never before. Other people have told me the same thing happened to them. Individually, there is great variety in the reactions to the retreat and the time after. It depends on karma, and your connection with the practice. Some people even had to stop after two, eight, ten or fourteen days, and that is all right as well.
May all those who engage in this practice realize perfect renunciations, bodhicitta and shunyata, and be carried away to the pure realms by the sky-goers.