Retreat has always been at the centre of the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions and it indeed remains an essential training for the monastics of Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling, representing perhaps their deepest level of spiritual engagement.
Monks enter group retreats for a period of three years at the retreat centre in Asura, Pharping. Some—depending on their desire, physical health, and available—stay in such retreats multiple times. Their days are spent in intensive meditation practice, rising at 3:00 AM and continuing on a strict schedule until 10:00 PM. Throughout the course of the retreat, participants cover the preliminary and almost all main practices associated with Vajrayana Buddhism. Upon completion of such a retreat, a monk becomes known as “lama” or “drubla” and has a deep familiarity with meditation and ritual, often capable of teaching and conducting ceremonies.
The tradition of staying in retreat for three years and three fortnights is said to emerge from the tantras such as the Kalacakra Tantra, which explains this exact length of time in relation to the purification of the body’s inner essences. The tradition was notably revitalized by the 19th C. masters Jamgön Kongtrul and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, who are both key figures in the monastery’s lineage of the Chokling Tersar. Many of the masters of this lineage have been known for their extensive retreat practice, as was Kyabje Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. From the time of his settling in Nepal, many monks and lay students also begin staying in retreat under his guidance.
An initial group of practitioners stayed for an extended retreat at Asura during the 1980s. After this, two consecutive groups stayed in retreat centered on the Dzogchen tradition at Nagi Gompa under the close tutelage of Kyabje Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. As the facilities at Asura improved, it was decided that monks would conduct their retreats there, while nuns began three year group retreats at Nagi Gompa.
At this point, Kyabje Tulku Urgyan Rinpoche decided upon a retreat program based on the Chokling Tersar. It includes the preliminary practices and focuses on the so-called ‘three roots’ practices of lama, yidam, and dakini. It also can be characterized by the inclusion of Maha, Anu, and Atiyoga practices, or by the so-called “la-dzog-thug-sum” or lama, Dzogchen, and practice of the Great Compassionate One or Avalokiteshvara. The arrangement of these practices can be described as both broad and intensive.
With the passing of Kyabje Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche in 1996, the retreat program now continues under the guidance of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, Chokling Rinpoche, and Phakchok Rinpoche. The retreatants also receive occasional instruction from the renown masters who often pass by the Asura cave on pilgrimage. The retreat is currently being conducted for the 10th consecutive time. Groups range in size from approximately eight to fifteen participants, and so far approximately eighty individuals have completed at least three years.