On March 4, 2015, Gelongma Losang Drimay interviewed Carolyn Sigstedt, a work-study resident at Land of Medicine Buddha, who was just beginning the last of a series of eight Nyung-nay’s, running during the first two weeks of the Tibetan new year. Nyung-nay is a type of retreat focusing on Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara), the embodiment of enlightened compassion.
Drimay: Is this the first time that you have ever done a Nyung-nay?
Carolyn: It is. So I had no idea what I was getting into. But I went into it with good intention and excited about immersing myself in the Dharma completely. Usually I balance work with my practice and often I’m exhausted. Now, I’m just exhausted with Dharma. [laughter]
D: Before you began, I warned you that there would be a lot of fasting and prostrations, and what was especially intimidating was going without water [every other day], so how has that been working out?
C: Actually, better than I ever imagined. I’m an older woman, well over 60, and so at this stage in life, I’m not sure what I’m capable of anymore, because our bodies change so much year to year. I hadn’t fasted in quite a while, and I had never done a fast without water. I had just done fasts including liquid, and so I was nervous about that. I told our Spiritual Program Coordinator [SPC] that I would do the Nyung-nay with the understanding that I would be doing one session at a time and we would just see how it went. And the first session I think I did amazingly well, so that was a great start. Now I’ve done seven sessions [i.e., Nyung-nays] with one to go, and I’m kind of excited about our little group. We’re all “one taste in the essence of emptiness” now. But there have been periods of difficulty. I think on the third Nyung-nay, I thought I might have pulled a muscle in my back, and so I thought, Oh darn, I may have to pull out. But I went to bed and I woke up perfectly fine, so there I was back again. So that was wonderful.
I’ve appreciated the dream world – I won’t go into my experiences, but it’s been full. I carry this practice into my sleep, continually. Another thing is I have a chronic problem with my toe, so I thought I might have a problem with doing prostrations, but my toe is getting better. The practice is healing my foot, so that is very wonderful. I’m so grateful.
D: What about the practice itself, apart from the hardships, the actual Chenrezig sadhana? Is that something you were familiar with at all before?
C: I wasn’t familiar with Nyung-nay in particular, but my beginner Buddhist practice has always focused on Chenrezig and the Dalai Lama, so in my beginner way I’ve been offering my practice and my life to Chenrezig all along. So this, what a gift to make my practice a much fuller experience led by these masterful teachers and then the full sangha of us all supporting each other. I’ve recently taken the bodhisattva vows, but at most stages of my life I have been aware that this is what I’ve wanted to do, to benefit others.
D: Do you think you could do this by yourself?
C: I could do parts of it by myself. Here at Land of Medicine Buddha, Venerable Samten does a puja each day which I do with him. He does the puja in Tibetan, so I tend to meditate on emptiness and compassion while he’s doing that. … I will now be incorporating elements of the Nyung-nay into my regular practice. For example, now I am doing prostrations with a sense of power.
D: I’m wondering about the difference between a Nyung-nay by oneself versus doing it with a group. There were so many different parts that people were helping with, for example, you were helping with the tea and porridge and other people were helping with the altar. It’s a lot for one person to do.
C: First of all, you are speaking to a group gal. I am all about the interconnection of people on all levels of society. And then to actually do this in the Dharma practice on this level is unbelievable. And I’m very grateful. Yes, I understand the power of the group, and how we all hold up each other and bring a strength that no one of us has. The cumulative value is much larger.
D: As somebody who did my first Nyung-nay over 25 years – and I don’t keep track of how many Nyung-nays I’ve done, but every now and then I am coerced into doing one – still, when I join the group and I see it’s all organized, I’m thinking, What would it take for me to do this from scratch? Let’s just say I had to do it all my own, or a little study group asked me to lead a Nyung-nay, I would have to grab Venerable Steve and Venerable Tsomo all over again and ask, When do you stand up? What needs to go on the altar? What’s in that water? When does the porridge happen? and all these things. The book is an evolution as well. We didn’t use to have that book. And this is the third or fourth iteration of that book, and it keeps getting improved with more and more notes and appendices, but it’s just a lot to keep track of. This is what I’m thinking when I ask about the advantage of the group.
C: Absolutely. There is no way I could do all that. And I recognize and appreciate all the little pieces that each of us contribute to make this whole. That said, I believe that’s how all of life should be. And where it isn’t that way, if someone is truly hosting something, that is the way it should be. That’s healthy.
D: What would you say to someone who has never done a Nyung-nay before?
C: I would say that it’s a profound experience. You can’t even imagine what it can bring to your life and practice until you’re actually there. I’m just very grateful that I had this opportunity and experience. ♦