Abiding in the Retreat

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche

Abiding in the Retreat: A Nyung Nä Commentary combines several teachings given by Lama Zopa Rinpoche on nyung nä, a powerful two-day practice associated with Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion. Edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron. 

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore, 2016. Photo: Bill Kane.
1: The Benefits of Nyung Nä Practice
The meaning of nyung nä

Nyung nä means “abiding in the retreat.”6 In other words, you are retreating from negative karmas of body, speech and mind. When you hear, say or think of the word “nyung nä” don’t think only of fasting, of the physical practices involved. Don’t think a nyung nä is only about not eating—there is a much vaster meaning to think about.

Doing a nyung nä means your body is abiding in retreat, your speech is abiding in retreat and your mind is abiding in retreat. The essential meaning of retreat is retreat from nonvirtuous actions of body, speech and mind. Abstaining from negative karmas that harm others is the fundamental tantric practice.

Your body is in retreat from the nonvirtuous actions mentioned in the vows that you take in the Restoring and Purifying Ordination. And your body also abstains from food and drink. On the first day of a nyung nä you fast in the afternoon and on the second day you totally fast, not eating and not even drinking. You abstain from those physical activities.

You are also in retreat from the negative karmas of speech, such as chattering about subjects that increase ignorance, anger and the dissatisfied mind of attachment. On the second day of a nyung nä, by being in complete silence and saying nothing except prayers, you abstain from all negative karmas of speech.

Your mind is in retreat from the three poisonous minds—covetousness, ill will and heresy—and from the eight worldly dharmas. In particular, your mind is in retreat from ill will and anger. Cherishing others is the most important samaya of Chenrezig practice and the main practice during a nyung nä or any other Chenrezig retreat. If somebody criticizes you, you don’t criticize them back. If somebody is angry with you, you don’t get angry back. If somebody harms you, you don’t harm them in return. If somebody beats you, you don’t beat them in return. There are these four pieces of advice, but the essential point is that even if others harm you, you don’t harm them in return. These are the essential samayas of Chenrezig practice, especially when you do a Chenrezig retreat. This is the meaning of the line May I be able to abide in the samaya of Chenrezig.7

You also have to live in the yoga of the three transformations. For sentient beings, you transform your body into Chenrezig’s holy body; for sentient beings, you transform your speech into Chenrezig’s holy speech (or another way of saying it is that you use your ordinary speech to achieve Chenrezig’s holy speech); and for sentient beings, you transform your mind into Chenrezig’s holy mind, which means using your ordinary mind to achieve Chenrezig’s holy mind.

The benefits of nyung nä practice

Nyung nä is an unbelievably powerful practice of purification, purifying negative karmas and downfalls, and purification is the most important thing to do all the time, especially for us beginners. You can experience the heavy result of one negative karma for many lifetimes (for more on karma, see appendix 4). This is how karma works, and this is why it’s so important to do purification. There are so many negative karmas that we haven’t finished confessing and purifying or finished experiencing; however, all the past negative karmas we have collected during many eons can be purified in this life through a two-day nyung nä retreat.

Even though we can’t live our lives without creating negative karma, purification practice helps us to experience fewer obstacles, fewer problems, now and in the future, up to enlightenment. It lessens suffering, the sufferings of samsara in general and of the three lower realms in particular. It also lessens the experience of problems in the human realm. If we could experience one fewer problem, we would. We always want our problems to be fewer. We would like not to experience even one problem in our life. Therefore, it’s unbelievably important to do the practice of purification again and again. Doing a nyung nä stops our experiencing many lifetimes of sufferings and benefits us up to enlightenment.

It’s generally mentioned in the teachings that doing one nyung nä purifies 40,000 eons of negative karma. However, without talking about all the other practices in a nyung nä, even reciting each of the Thirty-five Buddhas’ names when doing The Practice of Prostrations to the Thirty-five Confession Buddhas purifies many thousands of eons of different negative karmas. For example, reciting De zhin sheg pa me tog päl la chhag tshäl lo (To Tathagata Glorious Flower, I prostrate) one time purifies 100,000 eons of negative karma. Simply reciting the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas with prostrations purifies unimaginable negative karmas.

Living in the Eight Mahayana Precepts also purifies heavy negative karmas. With each of the eight vows, we perform incredible purification and collect skies of merit, especially if we take the vows with a motivation of bodhicitta (see chapter 5 for more on the benefits of taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts).

Meditating on Chenrezig and reciting OM MANI PADME HUM are other practices that collect limitless skies of merits. And if you do them with a bodhicitta motivation, can you imagine how much merit you collect? With OM MANI PADME HUM you can purify the heavy negative karmas collected in past lives, such as the five uninterrupted negative karmas,8 which cause you immediately after death, without the interruption of another life, to be born in the lowest hot hell, Inexhaustible Suffering, which has the heaviest suffering of samsara and which is experienced for the longest time: one intermediate eon. There is then no doubt that the ten nonvirtuous actions collected during beginningless rebirths are also purified. I’ll explain more on the benefits of reciting OM MANI PADME HUM later (see chapter 6).

The essential benefits of nyung nä practice are explained at the end of the nyung nä text by Kelzang Gyatso, the Seventh Dalai Lama. The tantra The Dharani of the Eleven-Face Arya Avalokiteshvara says that reciting the Chenrezig mantra even one time can purify the heavy negative karma of a fully ordained person breaking all four root vows or of someone committing all five uninterrupted negative karmas. A fully ordained monk receives a root fall, or defeat, if he kills a human being, has sexual intercourse, takes what has not been given (in other words, steals) or lies about his spiritual attainments. So, a fully ordained monk who has broken all four root vows can purify them all by reciting OM MANI PADME HUM one time. The same applies to the five uninterrupted negative karmas—even these heavy negative karmas can be purified by reciting OM MANI PADME HUM just once.

It also says that if you recite the Chenrezig mantra, even cannibals and other harm-givers are hooked by the essence mantra and will generate loving kindness and compassion and be led to enlightenment.

If you chant Chenrezig’s name or mantra, your life will always go up, toward enlightenment, with no turning back. You will generate virtue with regard to many hundreds of thousands times one hundred billion times ten million buddhas. In essence, all the wishes of a person who chants OM MANI PADME HUM or does Chenrezig meditation will be completely fulfilled. (Chanting OM MANI PADME HUM can have these unbelievable benefits, but it depends, of course, on how you recite the mantra.)

The Dharani of the Eleven-Face Arya Avalokiteshvara also says that if you do nyung nä practice on the fourteenth or fifteenth,9 you purify 40,000 eons of negative karma. The duration of your stay in samsara will be shortened by 40,000 eons.

It also says that if you practice exactly according to the method, you will definitely achieve enlightenment—it’s in your hands.

Also, the text Detailed Method of Arya Avalokiteshvara with a Thousand Eyes and a Thousand Arms says,

On the fifteenth, if you take the eight vows,10 wear clean clothes, and either in front of relics or a stupa that contains relics or a Buddha statue, you draw a mandala of white sandalwood and then sprinkle various flowers and offer incense and light, generate faith in Buddha and then recite the mantra 108 times, Chenrezig will be there. No matter how many times you have committed the five uninterrupted negative karmas in the past, all those will be purified. All your negative karmas of body, speech and mind will also be completely purified, and you will complete the paths and bhumis.

The text also says that since the Arya Great Compassionate One is the embodiment of the compassion of all the Victorious Ones (which means all the buddhas), it is easy for the pitiful sentient beings, who have so much suffering, to achieve Chenrezig because of the power of Chenrezig’s compassion.

It’s also mentioned in White Lotus of the Holy Dharma, a sutra text from the Kangyur, that the benefits of just holding in mind or reciting Chenrezig’s name and doing just one prostration to Chenrezig are equal to having prostrated or made offerings to buddhas equal in number to the sand grains of sixty-two Ganges Rivers. It’s just amazing!

Here, Ganges River means the Pacific Ocean rather than the actual Ganges River in India. The great enlightened being Pabongka explains this when talking about the benefits of bodhicitta in his own notes on teachings received from his guru, Dagpo Rinpoche. However, Ganges River, or Ganga, doesn’t always refer to the Pacific Ocean. When you bless a vase, the vase water becomes the devas’ holy water, the Ganga. The outer Ganga is the Ganges River in India, but there are also an inner and a secret Ganga, which is not water but the transcendental wisdom of nondual bliss and voidness of the Highest Yoga Tantra path. That transcendental wisdom is the quickest way to cease defilements and to achieve enlightenment. In Highest Yoga Tantra practice, merit that would otherwise take three countless great eons to collect can be collected within a few years. You are able to finish collecting all those merits by achieving clear light and the illusory body, especially the illusory body.

White Lotus of the Holy Dharma also says that when you make offerings or prostrate to Chenrezig, you collect the same amount of merit as having made offerings or prostrated to all the buddhas. With each prostration you do to Chenrezig, you collect the merit of having prostrated to all the buddhas. You collect extensive merit, skies of merit, every time you make offerings or prostrate to Chenrezig.

With nyung nä practice, you also receive the blessing of Guru Chenrezig in your heart, which makes your mind softer. When you then meditate on guru devotion, doing analytical and fixed meditation on how the guru is buddha, strong guru devotion will arise. When you meditate on renunciation, impermanence and death, compassion or bodhicitta, you will feel it strongly. You recite the words and then you feel them in your heart. Otherwise, you recite the words but your heart is like stone; there’s no connection between your heart and the words. When you do the practice of nyung nä, collecting such extensive merit, doing powerful purification and receiving blessings, you feel very strong compassion for other sentient beings. It makes it easy to achieve realizations—the common realizations, the three principles of the path, and the uncommon realizations, the two stages of tantra—so it makes it easy to achieve enlightenment quickly.

It’s mentioned that if you have done one nyung nä very well, when other people see you, their negative karma is purified. If you’re on the top of a hill with many people down below, when they look at you, all their negative karma is purified. When you speak and your breath touches the bodies of other people, their negative karma is purified. The wind that touches your body is blessed, and when that wind then goes on to touch any being, whether human or non-human, fat or skinny, all their negative karma is purified. There are all these unimaginable benefits.

Experiencing difficulties

While doing a nyung nä, we may experience hunger, thirst, tiredness, pain and other difficulties. The more difficulties we experience during a nyung nä, the greater the purification. We should feel that all the difficulties we experience are worthwhile; that they are beneficial for us, helping us to obtain ultimate happiness. And we experience the hardships of a nyung nä retreat not only for ourselves but for the sake of the happiness of all sentient beings.

The hardships we experience in practicing Dharma, in doing a nyung nä retreat, are completely different from those generally experienced by people in the world. Look at them. Ordinary people experience hardships—difficulties of body, speech and mind—day and night, all the time. Why do they experience all these hardships day and night, working from one Sunday to the next? Check up. All the work they do and all the tiredness and other sufferings they experience are to obtain the temporary happiness of only this life. There is no thought of obtaining the happiness of future lives or the ultimate happiness of liberation or enlightenment. There’s not even a single thought of that. All they think about is the small, temporary happiness of only this life—of a few years, a few months, a few days. That’s all. You can see that their whole life from beginning to end is spent on that.

Even though they spend this life in that way, it would be different if they had some success and happiness, some peace in their mind. But, no, they don’t. In fact, they experience all these great hardships to continually circle in samsara, to accomplish works that will again cause them to be born in the lower realms and experience the resultant suffering. Again they will have to be reborn in their previous home, the lower realms, and experience suffering, the result of those negative karmas.

This doesn’t happen only in the West; it is also similar in the East. Even around Lawudo, the Sherpa people don’t have time to practice Dharma. When you think of this, it makes you cry. When you see how sentient beings are suffering in samsara, it really makes you generate compassion.

There is a big difference in the way we experience difficulties and suffering to practice Dharma and in our reasons for doing so. The advantages that we receive from this as a Dharma practitioner and the advantages that those who don’t practice Dharma receive are complete opposites. Their experiencing difficulties is completely useless. All their difficulties cause them to accumulate negative karma. There’s not a single result of happiness or peace from that, just misery. The hours of hardship that we experience practicing Dharma, doing nyung nä retreat, have so much advantage, granting us both temporary and ultimate results.

Transforming your body

When you think about your body, when you look at and feel your body, it is just blood and bones and lots of other pieces wrapped in skin. There are many interesting things inside the stomach; and there’s marrow inside the bones. When you look at this body, it seems kind of hopeless. When you don’t think about it well, you might wonder, “How is it possible to achieve enlightenment with such a body? How can we use this body to free ourselves from samsara? How can this body, this piece of flesh, even be beneficial?” It’s almost unimaginable. You feel kind of hopeless. When you think of the result, the qualities of a buddha, you almost can’t mention this body. Superficially, that’s how it looks.

However, it’s not like that. As the great bodhisattva Shantideva said in A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,

The impure body we have taken
Can become the priceless holy body of a Victorious One.
Therefore, you must always firmly hold what is called “bodhicitta.”11

Our body is full of impurities, no different from a sack full of excrement covered by skin. But if we train our mind in the graduated path to enlightenment, if we practice bodhicitta, this impure body full of thirty-six impurities, which we might think is hopeless, can be transformed into something priceless. (This is without needing to talk about how this body can be transformed through tantric practices.) You could not finish describing the good qualities of a buddha’s holy body even if you talked in the past, present and future. Even each pore of a buddha’s holy body does great work for all sentient beings.

Your body can be transformed into the priceless holy body of a buddha and then effortlessly accomplish great work for other sentient beings. The essential cause for that is bodhicitta. Therefore, by understanding its advantages, you must always firmly hold bodhicitta; you must always remember and always practice bodhicitta. And if you have already generated bodhicitta, you should try not to lose it.

We should rejoice that with this body, through doing nyung näs, we can accumulate so many causes to be born in the Potala pure realm, where we can actually meet and receive teachings from Chenrezig and achieve Chenrezig’s enlightenment.

Don’t miss the opportunity

Nyung nä is a practice that is very easy to do and yet has unbelievable power. There is extraordinary benefit in doing nyung näs. Everybody should definitely attempt to do nyung nä practice, this powerful method of purification. You shouldn’t regard nyung nä practice as unimportant and be careless about it. You must practice it, and from your heart you must recite OM MANI PADME HUM.

Doing this practice is an unbelievably powerful way to collect the most extensive merit and to purify the negative karmas collected during beginningless rebirths. It is a most powerful way to develop realizations, especially compassion for sentient beings. Doing Chenrezig meditation-recitation can really purify any negative karma and is the quickest way to achieve enlightenment. Don’t miss the opportunity to do this practice. And the harder you find it to do, the better it is, because you will purify more negative karma. As well as bringing powerful purification, however, it helps you to develop so much compassion for sentient beings.

Nyung nä practice is also very effective in healing sicknesses, even those that are difficult to cure, where other methods have been tried and haven’t helped. By confessing to the guru, reciting the Chenrezig mantra and doing nyung näs, people have been cured of such sicknesses. Nyung nä is very powerful.

If you do nyung nä practice and pray to Chenrezig, everything becomes easy. Because you purify any heavy negative karma you have collected in the past, it becomes easy for you to have realizations, to go to a pure land and to achieve enlightenment. It’s so easy to achieve enlightenment, without needing to undergo much hardship for many lifetimes or even eons. You don’t need to put in much effort. Just by doing prayers, and especially by reciting OM MANI PADME HUM, there’s no doubt that you will be able to go to a pure land.

If you make a request to Chenrezig one time, Chenrezig will then guide you in all your future lives. So there’s no doubt that this will happen if you make requests to Chenrezig every day. By doing Chenrezig practice, you don’t have to be reborn again and again in a suffering world and experience problems again and again. It makes it so easy to be born in a pure land and to finish all the problems of life; you won’t have to experience problems again.

With Chenrezig as your special deity, if you make prayers to Chenrezig, your life becomes so easy. You accomplish whatever you want to do, whether reflecting or meditating, without much difficulty or great effort. Without doubt, if you make prayers to be born in a pure land, just with the mere prayer you will be able to be born in a pure land.

In essence, we are most fortunate beings, having the opportunity to chant OM MANI PADME HUM, meditate on Chenrezig and do nyung näs. It’s so easy for us to achieve enlightenment. We don’t need to collect merit for many eons; we can complete all those merits within one life, in the brief lifetime of a degenerate time. So, we must take the opportunity to recite the Compassion Buddha’s mantra, OM MANI PADME HUM, as much as we can every day, and also to do as many nyung näs as possible. Our aim is to develop great compassion for sentient beings. Our main project should be to develop bodhicitta in this life. Since we need the blessing of Chenrezig for that, we need to do as much Chenrezig practice as possible.

If you can, it would be good to do one hundred nyung näs, especially at one time in a retreat of one hundred nyung näs or more, even a thousand. Of course, more is always better. Tenzin Namdrol, a Brazilian nun, has finished more than five hundred nyung näs, and is continuing nyung nä practice as she has accepted my request to do one thousand nyung näs. There are a few FPMT students who have completed more than one hundred nyung näs, including Ailsa [Cameron], who leads nyung näs quite often at Chenrezig Institute, where they have been doing eight nyung näs as a group at Saka Dawa for many years. But it’s best to finish the one hundred nyung näs within one year, I think. In the future, it could be done like that.12

I think everybody should do at least one nyung nä each year. But if you can do more, that’s very, very good as a nyung nä contains many preliminary practices. By doing nyung näs, you become a sincere, good-hearted practitioner. Since it’s an intense practice, it’s very helpful for realizations. Realizations come when we purify our defilements; otherwise, realizations don’t happen. The more we purify, the more realizations come. It’s like with a mirror: the more dirt you clean from the mirror, the more reflections come in it. Our mind is like a mirror. As we clean the mirror of our mind, it’s able to give more and clearer reflections. Like that, realizations, including enlightenment, come.

It’s also very good to learn how to lead a nyung nä well. I think that’s a very important way to help others; many people can then learn from you.

I want to inspire you, and I want to request you to do nyung näs. It’s such an incredible practice—so yum yum. To keep it very short, that’s the conclusion: yum yum!


6  Nyung does literally mean “fast,” but Rinpoche prefers to translate it as “retreat” to reduce the emphasis on this physical aspect of the practice. For a glossary of terms that occur in this book please go to the LYWA online glossary. [Return to text]

7  This line comes in one of the dedication verses after Offering an Ablution. [Return to text]

8  The five are: killing father, mother or an arhat, causing blood to flow from Buddha or causing disunity among the Sangha. [Return to text]

9  This refers to the Tibetan lunar calendar, with the fifteenth day being the full moon. [Return to text]

10  That is, the Eight Mahayana Precepts. [Return to text]

11  Ch. 1, v. 10. [Return to text]

12  The FPMT’s Institut Vajra Yogini, France, conducts 108 nyung näs every year. [Return to text]

Next Chapter:

2: Chenrezig »