Darkness retreat (Yangti Nagpo), also known as "mun mtshams" in Tibetan Buddhism, is a spiritual practice in which an individual retreats in a completely dark space for a period of time, ranging from a few hours to decades. The practice is believed to be conducive for navigating the bardo at the time of death and for realizing the rainbow body. It is a restricted practice, only to be engaged by senior spiritual practitioners under appropriate guidance.
Some notable practitioners of dark retreat include Ayu Khandro and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Ayu Khandro was a prominent female practitioner and yogini of Tibetan Buddhism in Eastern Tibet, who was known for her extensive pilgrimages throughout Tibet, long periods of dark retreat practice, her mastery of the practice of the yidam Senge Dongma (the Lion-Faced Dakini), various forms of Chöd, and her lifelong dedication to spiritual practice. Ayu Khandro dedicated many years to darkness retreats in her life. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was a renowned Vajrayana master, scholar, poet, and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, who was the head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism from 1988 to 1991, and was considered an eminent proponent of the Rime tradition. He was recognized by many as one of the greatest realized masters of his time and was also known for his long periods of dark retreat practice.
The dark retreat environment is particularly conducive to the practice of certain visionary yogas such as the “six-limbed yoga” of Kalachakra and the Dzogchen practice of Thögal. These techniques lead to the experience of spontaneously arising visual experiences, which are said to occur without deliberate effort or conceptual imagination, and which appear before the practitioner’s eyes.
In the Kalachakra system, the six yogas instruct the yogi to spend lengthy periods either gazing at the blank sky or residing in a dark room specially prepared to seal out all light. Both of these are forms of sensory deprivation and result in a series of unstructured appearances of light—like sparks, fireflies, and so forth—that ultimately coalesce into a vision of deities, or the appearance of a luminous goddess known as the Great Seal (mahamudra, phyag rgya chen mo).
In the Dzogchen tradition, the Great Perfection contains a diversity of visionary yogas, their basic format bears many similarities to Kalachakra’s six yogas: an organizing theme of dark and light, the use of dark-retreat and sky-gazing, a sequence of visions that progresses from unstructured spots of light to encounters with fully formed deities, and a tendency to use these visions as the basis for philosophical discussion. However, Dzogchen also presents a unique system of luminous energy channels that traverse the body’s interior and give rise to vision, a feature that is absent in Kalachakra.
The dark retreat practice is discussed in the various Kalachakra works, such as the Stainless Light Commentary and the Dzogchen tantra titled Tantra of the Blazing Lamps (sgron ma 'bar ba’i rgyud), one of the Seventeen Tantras. Similar practices are also discussed in the Advice on the Six Lamps and its commentary by Drugom Gyalwa Yungdrung, which are part of Bon.
However, it should be noted that dark retreat is not for everyone and should only be attempted by those who have received proper guidance and training from a qualified teacher. It also requires a certain level of stability in the natural state and is considered suitable only for advanced practitioners.
Overall, dark retreat is a powerful and ancient practice that can lead to profound spiritual experiences, but it should be approached with caution and proper guidance. The practitioners of dark retreat such as Ayu Khandro and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche are examples of individuals who have dedicated their lives to this practice and have achieved great spiritual realization.
In addition, dark retreat can also be compared with other practices such as isolation tank, Ganzfeld effect, Phosphene and Prisoner's cinema, which also aims to achieve the state of sensory deprivation. These practices have been used for a variety of purposes, from personal growth to therapy. However, it is important to note that dark retreat is mainly a spiritual practice, which is unique to the Tibetan Buddhism, and the other practices have different purposes and objectives.
In conclusion, dark retreat is an advanced practice in the Dzogchen and Kalachakra lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and Bön, that is based on the techniques that lead to the experience of spontaneously arising visual experiences. It is a restricted practice, only to be engaged by senior spiritual practitioners under appropriate guidance and is considered conducive for navigating the bardo at the time of death and for realizing the rainbow body. The practice is said to be a powerful tool for spiritual growth and advancement, as it allows practitioners to focus solely on their spiritual practice, free from the distractions and stimuli of the outside world.
Here in Norway, it was Professor Stein Erik Johansen who introduced me to, and guided me through, my first dark room in 2008.
From January 17 to February 17 (2023) I will conduct a Darkness retreat in Oslo, Norway.Here are some photos taken during the final hour before I began my first dark retreat in 2008:
You can explore about the Darkness Retreat on our separate website here.
Someone has brought an IR to a Week in the darkness: