This Year I Turned Thirty-Eight
April 14th was my thirty-eighth birthday. As I grow closer to forty, I don’t have the same appreciation for birthday parties. In all honesty, I was never into birthday parties. So when I told my wife that I wanted to go on a compassion fasting retreat, it was just another day in the Minguez household.
In years past, I’ve engaged in fasting retreats but on a much smaller scale. This year, the fast was going to be different for two reasons. One of the most significant distinctions would be sleeping in a tent out in the middle of nowhere. “You better not get eaten by a bear,” my wife joked before I left.
The other difference – this year while fasting I would stay at a Buddhist temple with limited cell phone access. Let’s hope that the bear stays away!
In the Buddhist tradition that I belong to, April 15th marks the anniversary of Buddha Shakyamuni demonstrating enlightenment in 589 B.C.E. To say that April 15th is an essential date on the Buddhist calendar would be the most considerable understatement of the year. For context and comparison, this date would be like Easter on the Christian calendar.
On this particular day, our actions are 100,000 times more potent than on any other day. For this reason, we pay special attention to our actions of body, speech, and mind.
It’s because of the nature of this day that we engage in a purification practice called Nyungne (pronounced Nung-nay). Nyungne is a practice associated with the Buddha of Compassion. If you’ve ever heard the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM, then you know the Buddha of Compassion.
A (Very) Short Explanation on Buddhist Compassion
Compassion in Buddhism is a particular type of kindness that is motivated by the wish to free all living beings from suffering. It doesn’t matter if that being is white, black, gay, an animal or bug, rich or poor we work to bring all people happiness equally.
Often our compassion becomes mixed with other intentions which cause us to think only of ourselves. (I’m guilty of this too). Nowhere is this more apparent than when we look out at all the suffering happening in his world.
The other reason compassion in Buddhism is so extraordinary goes back to that motivation. When we have compassion at our hearts, we don’t feel overwhelmed or depressed by the suffering but moved to make a difference!
Off I Went to the Temple
The World Peace Temple is located in New York State about two hours outside of New York City. Situated on 80 acres of wooded land, you will not find access to the outside world in the way of Internet or cell phone connection. I was looking forward to cutting that cord.
There are dorms on the grounds, but I opted to set up camp and sleep in a tent. Sleeping in a tent also meant limited access to a bathroom and running water. The bathroom block has toilets and sinks but no showers.
I arrived on Friday afternoon to pitch my tent and settle in for the long weekend. The retreat would run until Monday evening. The schedule would comprise of a Friday night lecture, and then Saturday was a meditation retreat day while Sunday and Monday would be Nyungne days.
Awakening the Heart
On Friday and Saturday, Gen Samten who is the resident teacher at the Temple gave particular teachings on Awakening the Heart. These special instructions included the practice of Taking and Giving. Taking and Giving is a meditation where we imagine taking on the suffering of others and then giving them pure happiness.
Circling back to Buddhist compassion, we use empathy to take on the suffering of others joyfully. For example, we might imagine fully taking on the suffering of all beings who suffer from depression and bringing that suffering to our hearts where it destroys our self-cherishing.
Once we diminish our self-cherishing, we can take the practice to the next step. In this next step, we imagine giving all those beings suffering from depression our present and future states of happiness. No strings attached, we give freely.
When we are living from our hearts, remembering that the happiness of others is essential, we can begin Nyungne. As we go through the purification practice and as it becomes difficult, we recall all the suffering in the world and how we wish to take it on to benefit others.
Sunday was the first Nyungne day, and it began at 6:30 in the morning by taking Precepts. The Precepts are a promise we make to ourselves, and they include keeping vows for twenty-four hours, vows like not eating after lunch, not lying, killing, etc. Following Precepts, there would be three Nyungne sessions.
Nyungne consists of praying, meditating, and making prostrations. During the process, you chant the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM and engage in about forty minutes of full prostrations. Full prostrations mean you begin standing and you end up flat on the floor with your arms and legs out.
Monday’s schedule would repeat. Begin at 6:30 with Precepts and then three sessions of Nyungne. The only difference on Monday was that everyone engaged in a complete dry fast, meaning no water or food all day long. It’s at this point where the practice gets interesting.
Before I get into what it was like to do full prostrations with no food or water in my system, I have to address the issue I had with my tent. All weekend it rained, and my tent was completely soaked. It wasn’t wet from the top down but from the bottom up. The ground was over-saturated with water.
Also, since I was camping, I didn’t have access to a shower. I could brush my teeth and wash my face in the bathroom block, but there would be no long hot showers.
So the combination of being cold and wet, hungry and sore, and then not being able to reach out and connect with others made the compassion fasting retreat more meaningful.
Yes, on Sunday night I was having a tough time. On Monday morning I was hurting. However, by the second session on Monday, my attitude began to shift as I recalled how I made a promise to take on all the suffering of others joyfully. I made a promise to free all living beings from their pain and to give them happiness. This little bit of pain I was experiencing was nothing compared to what happens every day around the world.
The self-cherishing mind is a tricky son-of-a-bitch. It’s something that’s always with us even when we think we’re a kind and compassionate person; the chances are that we’re still operating with a bit of self-cherishing.
For example, we might have a date with a friend, and then our friend might get sick. Our friend tells us that they might have to cancel. We begin to wish for our friend to get better, but not because we’re concerned about their health, we’re concerned with only spending time with our friend. It’s such a little thing, but these small acts of self-cherishing add up to more significant problems.
If you want to get in touch with the self-cherishing mind, try doing forty minutes of prostrations with no food or water in your system three times a day. The self-cherishing mind will make itself known pretty quickly, and you’ll have a better understanding of how this mind impacts your daily activities.
At the beginning of the Nyungne sessions, I kept thinking about taking a shower and what it would be like to enjoy a cup of coffee. This attachment created pain in my body. By the end of the Nyungne sessions, I was thinking about all the people in the world who genuinely don’t have access to clean water and about all the beings who are starving. This pain I was feeling was nothing.
When the retreat came to an end, I felt different. Driving home with the radio off the world around me seemed to be shining. I also seemed to be moving slower and was more methodical with my thoughts. For the first time in a long while, I felt calm and relaxed.
I remember pulling into the driveway of my home and being excited to see my children knowing they were safe sleeping in their beds. After saying goodnight and tucking everyone in, I walked into my bedroom and collapsed onto the bed.
The next morning, I found myself in the kitchen ready to break my fast. I opted for a banana. I took one bite into the fruit, and I began to cry. Immediately I was overwhelmed by the incredible blessings I have in my life.
In America, how often do we say there’s nothing to eat in our homes, yet our refrigerators and cabinets are filled with food. How often do we stop and appreciate our homes and how they provide a safe environment for our families protecting us from the elements. Even just being able to get a fresh glass of water is incredible. We all have so much in our lives to appreciate.
How wonderful it would be if all living beings could have their needs met and no longer experience suffering! After engaging in the compassion fasting retreat, I’m hyper-aware of my surroundings and what goes into me enjoying all the blessings I experience.
More importantly, my heart has awoken, and I’m now hyper-aware of the suffering that happens all around me daily. I can make a difference and end this suffering, and I intend to do just that, and this is why I fasted on my birthday.