The nyungné (སྙུང་གནས་/སྨྱུང་གནས་) ceremony is a religious practice of austerity and fasting based on the worship of Avalokiteśvara. It is commonly practiced in Bhutan in groups especially during the holy months. The practice involves religious fasting, prohibition of speech, and other activities of prayers and worship. It is considered as an effective method to enhance the process of one’s spiritual transformation and overcome obstacles on the path to enlightenment.
The nyungné practice is traced back to Bhikṣuṇī Pelmo, who lived about a thousand years ago and is identified by some with Princess Lakṣmīkara of Oḍḍiyana. After she became a renunciate, she is supposed to have suffered from leprosy, which she eventually cured with rigorous and committed worship of Avalokiteśvara and the recitation of the mantras associated with Avalokiteśvara. The practice has since been passed down and has spread widely in the Himalayan world. Today, many Buddhist practitioners in Bhutan and the Himalayas carry out the nyungné practice as ritual of purification and merit making.
The core part of the nyungné practice involves the observance of the eight precepts to avoid taking life, taking what is not given, speaking falsehood, engaging in sexual intercourse, consuming intoxicants, using perfumes, ornaments and entertainment, eating after midday and sitting on high seats. This kind of observance is also found in the observance of the one day upavāsatha or nyené precepts in the vinaya tradition of monastic discipline. In the vinaya tradition of pratimokśa vows, a person can take a vow to follow the eight precepts for a day and night. However, the Himalayan masters claim the nyungné ritual to be a higher tantric practice falling within the outer tantric systems of action, conduct and yoga classes.
The practice normally last three days. On the first day, the participants take the vow to observe the eight precepts. Unlike the upavāsatha vows, the nyungné vow is taken from a master, if there is one available, or from some holy objects or Buddhas through visualization. The participants cultivate the thought of Bodhicitta and compassion to undertake nyungné vow and retreat. Thus, the vow is taken with an altruistic intention to reach enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings and to purify the impurities of all sentient beings.
On the first day, the participants have a good meal for lunch by midday. In the past in some parts of Bhutan, people were often served a ball of dough made from roasted barley or wheat flour with a cup of melted butter. This recipe is perhaps used because both the dough and melted butter are believed by people to have high nutritional value. As the ritual belongs to the class of action (བྱ་རྒྱུད་) tantras, materials such as garlic and onions are also avoided. People cannot eat any solid food after the lunch on the first day but can drink liquid including tea and juices. On the second day, the participants fast the whole day without any food or drink. They are advised to not even swallow their own saliva. They also eschew any conversation including both verbal speech and physical gestures, and only recite mantras and prayers. On the morning of the third day, the practitioners end their fast and silence by first consuming a sacred water. This is followed by a tshogkhor (ཚོགས་འཁོར་) feast.
While taking part in the retreat and observing the eight vows, the practitioners also engage in a rigorous practice of Avalokiteśvara in its form with eleven heads and thousand arms. The ceremony and worship is carried through visualization, prayers, prostrations, making offerings and recitation of the mantra spells associated with Avalokiteśvara. Thus, the nyungné retreat is not just a practice of austerity, fasting and avoidance of ordinary speech but a time to engage fully in the meditation and practice related to Avalokiteśvara. It is a time to engross in the practice of compassion and supplication to Avalokiteśvara. Participants in the nyungné retreat spend a much of the time reciting the om maṇi padme huṃ mantra and also singing it in melodious tunes.
Elder citizens who are free often take part in the nyungné retreats which are conducted in the monasteries and temples, led by a senior priest. People who can afford sponsor nyungné retreats as a part of their religious devotion. The nyungné practice is said to have great power to cleanse and purify negative karmic propensities and expedite spiritual transformation. The tantras and other literatures on nyungné discuss in detail the many benefits of observing nyungné retreat for both happiness and peace in the world, for cleansing the negativities and impurities of the body and mind and for speeding up the process of enlightenment. For these reasons, nyungné retreats remain popular today among pious Bhutanese Buddhists.
Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.