We touch down in Kathmandu in the afternoon. To my great relief, the monk Phuntsok is there to greet me. He negotiates a taxi ride to Swayambu on the opposite side of the city and off we go, cutting through the suburb of Thamel, which is loud, animated and chaotic. We pass dark-skinned women in saris, thick black hair reaching down below their waists; chickens, goats, dogs, cows on the roads; trash everywhere; warm whiffs of rotting somethings; thin men in Newari caps; children all over the place. There is friendly noise, vibrant colors, bright flowers, hazy sky. I’m thrilled.
Phuntsok shows me to the top-floor room they’ve found for me close to Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche’s house. It’s pleasant indeed, with windows on three walls, mosquito netting, a terrace outside and a cold water shower and toilet all to myself. Water is piped in from the mountains and tastes good. It’s a luxury by Nepali standards, even if flushing means picking up a big bucket of water and slopping it in the toilet.
I first met Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche in France a couple of years ago. I found him powerfully inspiring, and when I saw him again last summer I asked if I could visit his centers in Nepal. I was honored with an invitation to stop in at his home before going to practice at his nuns’ monastery in the hills.
Phuntsok is Rinpoche’s nephew. He explains that everyone is quite busy getting things ready for the series of eight nyoungnes that begins the day after tomorrow at 4:00 a.m. In his twenties, he’s quite tall and good-looking. He sashays when he walks, strutting his tallness in this country of short men who are built for walking steep mountain paths. He disappears, then comes back to tell me that Rinpoche will see me now.
I have soup in Rinpoche’s room, talk with him a bit and then head for bed. In the morning I am invited to the house for sweet, spiced milk tea, then Tibetan tea, salted and buttery, and roti and soup. Activities in Rinpoche’s busy house are orchestrated by his sister, Ugyen Tsomo, whom I call Ajala (“Venerable Big Sister”). Many other people also stay there, including Phuntsok (her son) and Nyima Zangmo, a shy thirteen-year-old on school holiday who becomes my helper. She walks me up to Swayambunath Stupa, the Monkey Temple, where there are hundreds of mani wheels to be turned. We take the long way around and the rhesus monkeys are everywhere; the babies look the most wizened, as if they had aged backwards. On top, Western tourists catch their breath after the interminable flight of steps up. There are colorful shops in the bazaar and young men, some of them monks, gather around chessboards in the sun.
Back in Rinpoche’s neighborhood, the nyoungne momentum is contagious. I had intended to spend the first week enjoying the city, but I’m tempted to dive into the ambient energy. I ask to see Rinpoche and tell him I’d like to do three nyoungnes, if I can survive that long. He says, “Might as well do eight.” Then, on seeing the look on my face, he tells me that doing one is good, doing two is better and if you can do three, that’s great. Eight nyoungnes is the nyenpa (“complete practice”)—it’s excellent indeed to do them all. “But don’t force yourself,” he says with a smile.
Nyoungne (Tib., nyoung: to fast; ne: to abide; pronounced “nyou-nay”) is an intensive purification practice attributed to Gelongma Palmo, a tenth- or eleventh-century Indian princess who was ordained at an early age, contracted leprosy and was sent into the forest. An ardent practitioner, she had a vision there of King Indrabodhi, who told her to practice thousand-armed Chenrezi (Skt., Avalokiteshvara), the embodiment of compassion. Through the power and depth of her practice, she was healed and attained enlightenment. She spent the remainder of her days guiding disciples, especially in the nyoungne practice, which is designed as a direct path for purifying karmic veils and developing loving-kindness and compassion.
One nyoungne consists of two days of practice: on the first day one doesn’t eat anything after the noon meal; on the second, one is silent and fasts all day—no eating or drinking. Eight nyoungnes involves sixteen days, capped off with one added day of celebration. Altogether, one completes eight days of silence and fasting. During three sessions each day one sings, prays, recites mantras and does prostrations, while focusing on compassion in the form of Chenrezi, who has eleven heads and a thousand arms, and is standing. The uppermost head is that of Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light. The thousand arms represent the thousand buddhas to appear during our eon, whose compassion will guide beings from the darkness of ignorance into the light of liberation. The eyes on the palms of his hands represent his impartial, perfect love as he gazes upon every being that has ever existed and will ever exist. His ceaseless activity for the benefit of beings is the expression of his infinite compassion.
The practice is said to integrate every aspect of Buddhism: the strict ethical guidelines minimize our potential to be harmful, the hardships endured lead us to develop love and compassion toward all beings trapped in distress, and the use of visualizations and mantras puts the skillful means of Vajrayana into action. The visualizations, though somewhat involved, are accessible to the average practitioner, but if one finds the visualization process too much of a struggle one can simply pray or concentrate on the mantra recitation.
I had done one nyoungne in France and was quite sure at that time that I would never do another. I thought it was too strict, too literal, too exhausting not my cup of butter tea. I was wrong.
On day one, I walk two long blocks through the quiet streets to be at the temple at 4:00 a.m. I am the only paleface in the crowd of about 500 men and women from northern Nepal and Tibet. This part of Kathmandu is Manangi territory. I had never heard of Manang before; I learn that it’s a town in the Nyeshang region of northern Nepal. A popular trekking route on the Annapurna trail goes through it. Many of the Manangi who moved south from their icy ancestral land have settled here, and Rinpoche is their teacher. They speak their own language—Nyeshang ke—an elusive dialect with no written form.
Mingling with Tibetans and other Nepalis, Manangi women are recognizable by their necklaces: a huge chunk of turquoise with two huge chunks of coral on either side, strung on a strong, red string. Virtually all of the women are dressed in traditional full-length chubas, which are sleeveless, v-necked dresses with a big pleat in back starting at the belt, worn with light, long-sleeved shirts underneath. Their hair is always long, dark and beautiful, and is worn in an elegant twisted bun or braid. Some braids reach their upper thighs. Many have a cloth pinned to their left shoulders—a scarf or stole or even a towel—representing the zen, the burgundy shawl worn by monks and nuns which covers the left shoulder, leaving the right shoulder bare.
After purifying with saffron water, we crowd into the big upstairs temple, where hundreds of mats are already laid out, marking territory. The lower level is also full and at night serves as a vast dormitory. Why have so many people come here? What motivates them? It could be the rare opportunity to come together and join Rinpoche in intensive practice, it could be a special connection with Chenrezi, benevolent lord of the Himalayas, and it could be the knowledge that completing one full nyoungne practice cycle is said to definitively open the door to dewachen, the pure realm of great bliss. Chenrezi himself promised that whosoever completes a “white nyoungne,” or eight-practice cycle, can be certain that after death he or she will be reborn in dewachen, where suffering is unheard of and goodness is effortless.
Phuntsok finds me a place in the section reserved for nuns, or anilas. I’ll later understand that it’s a place of honor: at the head of the second row, right next to the throne of the Karmapa, the head of the Kagyü lineage. Seated across the aisle, Phuntsok will be head umdze, chant master of the services, for the first few days.
The temple is new, full of colorful frescos and statues and raw fluorescent lighting. As it fills up, people also gather on the terrace and in the hall below. I get the feeling everyone is looking at me: I’m the first Westerner to join in this yearly practice here. The nuns file in and I am given a “helper” neighbor, Ani Yangchen, who is twenty-four and constantly drowsy with a vicious cold or flu that I’m worried about catching. I feel even more conspicuous now that the anilas are here—they all have nut-brown skin, short hair and wear the traditional sleeveless tops. There are about fifty of them in the central rows and they seem to be seated according to age or rank—the youngest, in their mid-teens, are farthest from the shrine and statue. At the very end of each row an older nun sits to help the youngsters and keep order. The Sesame Street song “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others” will dangle in my brain repeatedly over the next fortnight.
The practice begins shortly after 4:00 a.m., but the first bathroom break isn’t until after 9:00 a.m. Everyone gets up and hurries toward the bathroom—a large room boasting about twenty toilets and a whole row of urinals for women, which are the first I’ve ever seen. Many Tibetan women don’t wear knickers and can pee on a dime—I reckon this is for them. Behind doors are gruesome, Turkish-style toilets, many of which lock better from the outside. This being Asia, toilet paper is replaced by the left hand and water, a practice I never get used to, despite the obvious ecological advantages.
I keep dozing off, due to jet lag and the barking dogs that kept me from sleep, but fortunately the ritual is frequently punctuated by an influx of women bearing salty Tibetan butter tea, sweet milk tea and hot water, beckoned by a noisy timer that I first mistook for a phone. The melodies are beautiful and the ritual easy enough to follow, thanks to Yangchen, who finds my pages for me. It will take me a couple of days to be able to memorize the mantras and do it alone.
After about eight hours of practice, including two half-hours of prostrations, we have a lightning bathroom break and come back to be served lunch. Men arrive with stainless steel plates and spoons for everyone, then buckets full of lunch. I try to communicate in Tibetan and learn to my surprise that many of them don’t speak it. Lunch is quickly over, our plates are gathered for washing, and it’s time for a real break.
I head for my quarters with a private toilet in mind. Later, as I am relaxing on the bed, Sherab Wangchuk, a pocket-sized bespectacled Bhutanese monklet from Rinpoche’s house, wanders in and very sincerely indicates his desire to inspect my breasts, a pleasure I firmly deny him. We lack a common language. When I later ask who brought him here from Bhutan, I am told he came alone. He’s six. I learn that he’s an orphan who was found crying on the ground in a crowded fair and subsequently brought here by an anila.
The ritual begins anew at 2:15 p.m. and ends about four hours later, followed by a condensed version of the Mahakala protector practice and interminable mönlams (“wishing prayers”) recited at breakneck speed. Afterwards, Rinpoche gives a teaching—none of which I understand because it’s in Nyeshang dialect—and then says something into his microphone to the practitioners downstairs. Suddenly, from nowhere, the air is filled with the most divine celestial singing—Nepali angels, chanting compassion. The temple vibrates with it. I go back to the house, stiff and sore from so much sitting and prostrating, but unexpectedly inspired. The next day will be total fasting and silence.
When day five arrives, I take a moment to jot down a few notes: Men and women don’t mingle much. Very few of the laywomen can read. They sit in the back and pray, incessantly turning prayer wheels. Some are very pretty. One group has nose rings through their septums, constellations of earrings, golden chains around their ears, and sari-like clothes. These women are Tamangs, a Tibetan people formerly known as horse traders who settled in northern Nepal centuries ago. Their language is noticeably different from the others, but most also speak Nepali.
The prayer-wheel-turning women in the back chatter like guinea fowl whenever they get the chance. When everyone rises for prostrations I see that a few of them are clothed in full Tibetan robes. The weather is quite warm, they’re about to do a half-hour of strenuous prostrations and there they are in wool: wool chuba, wool apron, wool blanket around the hips. One old woman with short-cropped hair is dressed in burgundy woolens, topped by a maroon Adidas vest. A few characters among the male practitioners grab my attention: an old, bearded yogi from the Tibetan border turning a huge prayer wheel that looks like a red, cloth-covered wheelbarrow tire; a clean-cut guy in white who recites mantras Ve-ry Loud-ly and Clear-ly, opening his mouth wide and gesticulating a lot; and the lay organizers, Manang Society Committee men, looking important and drinking beer in the office after hours.
Karma, a pudgy Sherpa monk who clearly would rather be something else, plays gyaling, a Tibetan trumpet, during the ritual. Twenty-four and sassy, he clowns throughout the ritual with his nun neighbors. He sits down next to me and murmurs, “You’re really fat! How much do you weigh?” He weighs 150 pounds and is shorter than me. In fact, while I’m here people constantly will be telling me I’m fat, from the tailor to the bus boys to the nuns to Lama Jigme, the angular young lama with a marvelous smile who cares for Rinpoche.
My buddy Ani Tcheuten sits in the row in front of me and turns her venerable old face around every so often to ask the same question, “Kousou depo yinpe“—Are you feeling well? Her spoken Tibetan is very limited, and so are our conversations. However, all of the nuns are aces at reading Tibetan—it’s the first thing they learn when they move to the monastery. They memorize all the daily texts and then some. They all know the nyoungne ritual by heart. An elite anila brigade, they are impeccably dressed, clean, well-behaved, adorned with their Karmapa badges. I feel very disheveled among them—although I dress in traditional burgundy lay robes, I haven’t had time to buy any clothes and my sleeveless T-shirts are inappropriate colors.
Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche is known for his kindness towards nuns. His ani gompa, nun’s monastery, where I am headed after the nyoungnes, houses over eighty nuns. Among other activities, he also oversees a men’s three-year retreat in Parphing, south of Kathmandu. Rinpoche is a tulku, an incarnate lama, of the Kagyü lineage. He’s an inconceivably kind man—I can’t imagine one kinder—with a totally unassuming air and an incredible intensity of practice. Now in his fifties, he did a three-year retreat many years ago under Bokar Tulku, whom he visits now and again and respects unreservedly.
Rinpoche is a Maniwa—a master of the Chenrezi mantra Om Mani Padme Hum—and nyoungne is one of his main practices. It is an amazing privilege to be here practicing with him. During prostration sessions, he starts the singing, then hands the microphone over to the voice-of-the-day nun who will lead the song until the session is over, and begins doing full prostrations in the heat. He is only a person or two away from me; the strength of his practice and the beauty of the song sustain me, and after a few days prostrations are my favorite part of the ritual. On days we can speak, he always asks me how I’m doing and if I need anything. He seems particularly concerned about my eating the same food as everyone else, and is surprised that it’s not a problem. I always tell him I’m fine—he has enough to worry about without knowing the details of my restless nights, coughing and stomach upsets.
In fact, I am fine. Almost every minor ailment I’ve had has been blown out of proportion in my mind by What Ifs, only to fizzle out when the What Ifs don’t materialize. What if I get really sick and have no-talking vows? What if I get the runs and have to leave the practice in the middle of prostrations for a visit to the Toilets from Hell? What if I get my period? What if I don’t wake up on time and miss taking the daily vows? What if rumbly guts become mudslide dysentery, queasy tummy becomes hepatitis, a sneeze becomes the flu, which becomes pneumonia, a sore knee becomes a case for crutches. I grow accustomed to the arising of panic, and train in recognizing it and letting it go.
By day seven I’m used to the daily rhythm. At a few minutes to four I go down the street and collect the tiny old Manangi grandma who lives on the ground floor of Rinpoche’s house. She gives me a funny smile and we head off through the dark streets together. Rather hard of hearing, she’s a sparky character with a mischievous streak. She often surprises me in the temple, slaps me lightly, taps my cheek, asks me what I’m up to with her hands. Sometimes we hold hands. We cross a few people in the sleepy street—the fried food guys are up making spicy samosas and vaguely sweet donuts; women are carrying vegetables from field to market in huge wicker baskets on their backs, held by a strap around their foreheads. I notice red circles in front of some doors, strewn with petals, which means a sacrifice has been made here, probably a rooster. It’s Hindu sacrifice season and the pious are offering their bloody gifts to Kali.
Soon we reach the temple. No one is speaking, but there’s a lot of spitting happening. We’re supposed to line up for a handful of purifying saffron water. This is impossible for Nepalis. Queuing up is about the only situation I’ll see where they actually become aggressive, elbow neighbors and try to get ahead. I won’t see a proper adult queue the whole time I’m here, although schoolchildren do manage to line up when necessary. Cutting the lunch line is high sport, and when the sangha realizes that I tend to let everyone pass, they all cut in front of me until someone in authority puts a stop to it.
After purification, we go into the temple. Once in place, we all rise and then kneel for the eight vows that are part of the practice. These are the five basic vows—no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sex and no intoxicants—plus the full or partial fasting and silence vow on alternate days, the vow not to sit or lie on an unsuitably high seat or bed and the vow not to wear jewelry, sing or dance. Although most of the women present are wearing jewelry, and although most of us do sleep on a bed, the vows allow us to practice letting go of our habitual desire to think of ourselves as seductive, important, or particularly worthy of consideration. These vows are the concrete expression of our commitment to dedicating all of our energy to purifying the veils that cloud our buddhanature.
If it’s an eating day, the liquid-bearing male servers will appear shortly after the vows are taken and the ritual begins. They bear bottles of water, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or a sweet hot lemon drink cut with hot glucose syrup. They’re not big on desserts here but they sure do drink sweet.
More prayers follow and the breakfast servers appear, wielding stainless steel buckets full of very tasty rice porridge with fresh buffalo cheese and cashews, or buttery tsampa soup, with chili pepper powder on the side. They generally make a mess of things while serving. When the tea servers come around we’re able to talk for a minute or two. For the first tea of the day, they bring floral bouquets for Rinpoche, in shades of violet or orange. Soon, beginning early in the morning, people come from outside for Rinpoche’s blessing, bearing fruit, ceremonial scarves and envelopes with money inside. It’s quite the procession: Buddhists from all corners of Nepal, Hindu families dressed for the holidays, Tibetans fresh from their Himalayan plateau, an old, distinguished Khampa in pale Western clothes with a bad limp and red-stringed braids who could have been a warrior, and a solitary, white-haired Frenchman. I yearn to speak with him, to have a fluent conversation.
During the mid-morning pause I discover the toilet upstairs, the anis’ toilet, and this has saved my skin. It is a dismal affair with dripping water, no toilet seat, no mirror, no hot water, no garbage can, but when I’m in there no one else is next to me spitting. After a pee I relax on the terrace in the sun and then peek in the girls’ dormitory. Teenaged nuns are silently spread out on the carpets looking at Indian film magazines. They motion me over to join them. The sexy Bollywood stars they’re reading about are bound for Venice, Switzerland, Hollywood. They have lovely plump bellies and are quoted saying things like, “I don’t refuse my sex-kitten image, but I’m waiting to meet the right man.” During the practice some young nuns lend me their practice books, and on the inside covers I read, “I love Shah Rukh Khan. Shah Rukh Kahn is Number One. Arjun Rampal Forever.” These are famous male Indian movie stars; I’ve seen them on screen and can empathize.
Lunch comes after eight hours of practice and takes a quarter of an hour to eat. I’m amazed at how quickly everyone eats. There is no conversation. We quickly ingest tsampa balls, huge piles of rice, dal, vegetables, achar (a spicy pickle sauce), and an apple or tiny bananas. Rinpoche’s cook comes down from the roof with his meal, which Rinpoche will share with other lamas or monks. He often sends over his plate of fruit, which I distribute to the girls around me. After noon break, the afternoon session begins at 2:15 and lasts until evening.
I’m recognizing more and more people, and getting used to the different body language here. Hand held out, palm up to say “no more tea, no more food”; a gesture like screwing in a huge light bulb, index finger extended, to say, “What are you doing? Where have you been? What’s your story?”; a sideways shake of the head, which would denote indecision or incomprehension in the West, to say, “Okay.” I’m learning that you never show your legs above the ankles, that you avoid offering food with your left hand, that you never step over food.
It’s day eight, and except for the lack of sleep and need of a good meditation cushion I’m holding up pretty well. Practicing near Rinpoche, I often think of Gendun Rinpoche, my heart lama and retreat master, who died in 1997. They share the same overwhelming compassion, modesty and strength coupled with utterly remarkable clarity and purpose. As I get to know Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche better, I discover that he also has a wacky sense of humor. I’m unbelievably fortunate to have spent time near these extraordinary, inspiring beings. As I prostrate and think of all the lamas whose great kindness has touched my heart, I find I’ve been blessed and my chronic discontent fades for a while, overshadowed by deep, enduring gratefulness.
People I have spoken with about nyoungne practice have mentioned how lonely they find it, but this is not my experience, perhaps because there are so many of us here. I am feeling increasingly light and connected, and less and less like my old reclusive self. I sometimes find myself dissolving into the movement effortlessly; the exotic flavor of my adventure has grown bland and I am able to relax into the flow and give myself entirely to the practice.
Nyoungne is particularly conducive to looking at how sensory input misleads us into believing we exist now and always will. We don’t eat, drink or talk, and as the days go by, dependency on outer distractions is replaced by a feeling of quiet fulfillment. Our own physical discomfort is transformed into compassion as we imagine alleviating the distress of other beings through our practice, and especially those that suffer from hunger and thirst, the hungry ghosts of the lower realms.
During lunch break, on day fifteen, I enjoy the sun from the upper story roof. Then it’s back to the temple. The girl who sings during prostrations this afternoon is powerfully off-key. Everyone is craning to get a glimpse of her between dips to the floor. She’s straight-backed and overconfident and it’s all I can do to contain my hilarity. Embarrassingly comical at first, her wailing becomes tiresome soon enough. But it’s nearly over! I’ve done it! I can bear the dissonance and just about anything else! Tomorrow, for the last time, I won’t be able to talk, so I ask a neighbor what will happen the day after tomorrow on Lha Bab Duchen, one of four big, yearly holy days. The nyoungnes always end on Lha Bab Duchen, and I imagine that everyone will take it easy, we’ll meander to the temple mid-morning sometime, and there will be a big feast.
Instead she tells me that we will all gather at 2:00 a.m.; that we won’t eat, drink or speak until we’ve finished our last nyoungne session, around 5:00 a.m.; that the Amitabha puja will begin shortly thereafter; and that the feast will take place in the afternoon. I’m convinced that she’s pulling my leg.
On Duchen, day seventeen, shortly after 2:00 a.m., the temple is nearly empty as Lama Jigmé, my gaunt friend, arrives with saffron water. The crowd charges him, so eager to purify themselves that you wonder what on earth they could have done between 7:00 p.m. yesterday and now, what with their fasting, silence and celibacy vows.
We do a final nyoungne session and then receive the initiation. Heaps of marigold petals are distributed to everyone as I watch, perplexed. Then we recite the final wishing prayers and at every tashi sho—may all be auspicious—we each take a handful of petals and throw them. There’s great glee throughout the temple as the flowers fly and land on the practitioners, eventually coating the floor with a pungent orange carpet.
The serving team comes through with hot lemon beverage and rice porridge with bits of dried yak cheese. More wishing prayers, tsampa and hot milk. The nyoungnes are over and the Amitabha puja will soon begin. I’m astounded that sixteen days have gone by. I feel profoundly happy, thankful, and eager for more practice; the longing is so strong it feels almost cellular.
At lunch we all line up in a festive mood outside, where tubs of food await us. Nuns are served first. I join them, and watch monks and tardy nuns try to cut the line where the serving team dishes out a feast: soup, curry, rice, papadams, vegetables, fresh pickles, red hot sauce, fruit. We eat outside in the sun, lined up in rows on mats on the ground.
Soon we recommence the puja in the petal-filled temple. After a while, a group of sweet-voiced nuns stands up and sings the tsok lou, a dakini (“female deity”) song urging the master, Rinpoche, to stay with us. The nuns recite the auspicious wishing prayers at the very top of their lungs, and by the time we approach the final prayer at the end they are positively shouting and throwing armfuls of marigold petals in the air. The temple is filled with exuberance, flowers, noise and elation—it is amazingly joyful! A great, long roar arises when the last petals are thrown accompanied by the words “Dzambouling dewar dze tou seul ”:
May happiness reign throughout the world.