Blog #3 - Tonglen, a Tibetan Buddhist Skillful Means for Developing Compassion and Alleviating Suffering
(with Guided Meditation)
Let’s be clear. Enlightenment is not about being perfect . . . more perfect than anyone else . . . the most perfect person in the world. It’s not about purifying the body or the emotions or the thoughts or becoming wholly spiritual and caring nothing for the material world. Enlightenment is realizing our oneness with All-That-Is, which means accepting what is, experiencing the totality of what is, being present and conscious of what is at any given moment.
And “what is” for us humans generally includes a lot of pain and suffering. No one escapes from life unscathed. Trying to squeak though life without suffering only makes you suffer more because it never works.
There are people who love to count up and treasure all the ways the world has hurt them, vying for the title of Greatest Victim, and others who feel they deserve everything they want and feel resentful when the world fails to provide it. Neither strategy works to alleviate suffering. The trick is to accept that suffering and pain exist in this world, for us and everyone else, to meet the suffering with compassion, and avoid using it to build an identity for ourselves.
This is a deep teaching. We who are alive in the world are part of the great Universe of form and things, the world of manifestation. This material world appears to require the tension of opposites to keep it in existence. As a simplistic example of this, we know we don’t appreciate warmth without knowing cold and vice versa; we don’t appreciate pleasure unless we know pain; we don’t appreciate order unless we know chaos, and so on. When we insist on seeing the world in “either or” terms, good and evil, us and them, right and wrong, we’re stuck in duality. We’re living in two-dimensions like cartoon characters instead of in three dimensions, like real living beings. To fully understand and accept suffering, we need to expand our minds in a third dimension to connect with the Awareness that’s always here, holding all aspects of reality at once.
In the same way that we overcome our fears when we face them, see them for what they are and realize we don’t have to be stuck in the thoughts and behaviors that cause them, we can transcend our sufferings by facing them. Seeing our sufferings in their entirety and accepting their existence creates space around them in which we can see their boundaries. We see that they don’t go on forever and that we don’t have to identify with them. There is more to us than the pain that previously consumed our entire sense of self, trapping us in mistaken belief that there was nothing else to be aware of.
Expanding our Awareness to share in the Great Consciousness, the Mind of God, whose thoughts create the Universe and whose Awareness includes the suffering of all beings, helps us see and accept the reality of suffering head on.
The traditional Buddhist “skillful means” known as tonglen is a good way to begin. The word “tonglen” is Tibetan for “giving and receiving.” It is a process for receiving the suffering of ourselves or another person by breathing it in to your heart, letting it dissolve the self-cherishing and self-grasping that’s there, and sending the brilliant, cooling light of peace, joy, happiness and ultimate well-being of your purified heart on your outbreath to yourself and/or the suffering other person.
When we perform tonglen with empathy and compassion, we’re facing the reality of pain and suffering in all its present-moment torment and ugliness, recognizing and accepting its reality. The tonglen practice includes expanding our awareness to see that the particular form of suffering we are working with is shared by many other beings in the world. We perform the practice for all of them as well as for ourselves or for the specific person whose suffering motivated us to start the process on their behalf. This appreciation of the universality of suffering allows us to experience its boundaries and realize the existence of a Universe of Awareness beyond the pain. Because we are connected with others through the Consciousness we all share, our acceptance of the present-moment reality of suffering when we do tonglen helps them accept it as well, transforming them as we transform ourselves.
There are many ways of doing tonglen. I like to start by bringing spiritual power into the process. Some teachers recommend connecting with a spirit guru, an ascended master, deity, or compassionate helping spirit as a first step in the process. Other teachers simply recommend bringing up a memory of a time when you felt open and free and loved to create a good atmosphere for the work. I prefer to connect my awareness with the divine Awareness of All-That-Is as a source of the joy, love, and openness to set the stage for tonglen, as more fully described below.
Mantras are often used in tonglen in coordination with the breathing for helping us stay focused on the process. Any appropriate words can be used, from traditional prayers to words that come to you from the Universe when you ask, or words you find through research and meditation. Mantras don’t need to be complicated; they can simply describe what we’re doing, e.g., “Receiving pain and suffering” on the inbreath and “Broadcasting love” on the outbreath.
When we have a friend or family member who is suffering, we naturally feel upset and want to help them. Through our faculty of empathy, we feel their pain and suffer with them. And we may also feel fear because we don’t want to have to experience their pain. For most of us, empathy is an instinctive reaction that happens automatically when we’re around someone who’s suffering. Empathy is necessary for doing tonglen for another person.
Compassion is also necessary. Compassion means caring about their suffering and wanting to help them. With compassion we feel love for the suffering person — love without fear or judgment. We don’t separate ourself from them. We know that although the other person is the one suffering right now, and not us, another time it could just as easily be us. As the Dalai Lama teaches, all human beings are the same, made of human flesh, bones, and blood. We all want happiness and want to avoid suffering. We have an equal right to be happy.
Empathy for someone’s suffering usually feels bad because we’re actually feeling their pain, and if compassion is absent, empathy actually makes things worse for the suffering one. Whether another person’s suffering is physical, emotional or mental, because we’re feeling their suffering in a physical way in our own bodies, it resonates with and magnifies their suffering. When they pick up on how their pain is affecting us, they may even feel guilty for putting out such bad vibes that nobody wants to be around them.
Compassion gives us the ability to feel their suffering without being totally overwhelmed by it — to feel love for them and respect for what they’re going through, to stay present with them without wanting to get away, and to have the will to do whatever we can to alleviate their suffering. With compassion added to our empathy, especially when there’s something, like tonglen, that we can do to help, we rise above the suffering that is empathically mirrored in our bodies from their pain and make them feel better.
One of my teachers was a Tamang shaman from an area on the border between Nepal and Tibet. She practiced Bön shamanism, the Tibetan tradition predating Buddhism. In one of her healing rituals, she and her client would sit crosslegged on the floor facing each other and she would sing a long song calling on various deities and spirits while extracting “bad energies” from the client by passing an egg over their body. I learned from her mostly by watching. She didn’t usually explain what she was doing even when a translator was present, but would answer questions when I knew what to ask. I noticed that while she was moving the egg down the client’s body, she would stop singing and breathe in, whisper a mantra, then turn her attention upward and breathe out over the client.
I had read about tonglen and it suddenly clicked. I asked if that was what she was doing. She recognized the word and answered yes. It seemed to help her clients. When I asked how to know when the treatment was finished she said, “Watch their face to see when it smooths out.”
The Practice of Tonglen
According to Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinopoche in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, the technique of tonglen began to be taught widely in Tibet by Geshe Chekhawa in the 11th Century. In a book his teacher had left open on a table, he came across the lines “Give all profit and gain to others, Take all loss and defeat on yourself,” and was so impressed he set out to find the Master who had written them. The Master had died, but had a disciple who told him, “Whether you like it or not, you will have to practice this teaching if you truly wish to attain buddhahood.” Chekhawa stayed with this disciple twelve years learning tonglen and going through much hardship, criticism and abuse. He was so dedicated that he completely eradicated any self-grasping and self-cherishing in himself and became a Master of Compassion.
At first he didn’t teach the practice widely, but many lepers who learned from him were healed. Chekhawa’s brother was a hard character who scoffed at all forms of spiritual practice, but when he saw that the lepers were healed, he began listening at the door to find out what the practice was and secretly practicing it himself. When Chekhawa noticed that his brother’s character was softening he realized what had happened and thought, if this practice can transform my brother, it can transform anybody.
Contemporary Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche teaches tonglen to his readers by instructing them to vividly imagine every aspect of another person’s suffering, pain and distress, and as they feel their heart opening in compassion toward the person, to imagine that all the person’s sufferings manifest together and gather into a great mass of hot, black, grimy smoke.
Breathe in this mass of hot black grimy smoke, he teaches, and as you do, visualize that this mass of black smoke dissolves, with your in-breath, into the very core of self-grasping at your heart where it completely destroys all traces of self-cherishing, purifying all your negativity and karma. When your self-cherishing has been destroyed, your pure desire to ease the suffering of all beings is fully revealed, and as you breathe out, imagine sending the other person the brilliant, cooling light of peace, joy, happiness and ultimate well-being from your purified heart and mind. Imagine that the rays of this light are purifyng all their negativity and karma and giving them precisely what they need to alleviate their suffering and bring about true fulfillment.
Modern Westerners are unlikely to be affected the same way as Master of Compassion Chekhawa by the words, “Give all profit and gain to others, Take all loss and defeat on yourself.” In our culture, we’re taught to avoid “compassion burn-out” and make sure we take care of our own well-being first, for if we don’t we’ll lack the energy and compassion needed to help others. When people first hear of tonglen, it usually strikes them as dangerous to breathe in all the negativity of another person’s suffering. They fear their vibrations will be lowered and they’ll become stuck in the pain and suffering they’re trying to heal.
Of course it’s true that when it comes to caring for our physical and mental health, we need to know our limits. But it’s not the case that voluntarily “taking all loss and defeat on yourself” will poison you. It’s not as if your “profit and gain” is diminished by taking on another’s “loss and defeat.” That’s a dualistic, two-dimensional way to think about it. Taking on another’s loss and defeat doesn’t have to result in diminishing your own profit and gain, and giving away your profit and gain doesn’t automatically cause you loss and defeat, and taking on another’s suffering doesn’t automatically destroy your well-being as though it were impossible for suffering and well-being to co-exist. These are abstract qualities, not objects. From a larger perspective, where we don’t have to claim either one or the other as “ours,” we can see that these “opposites” shade into each other on a spectrum, and that both can be present in our awareness in complex ways we can’t see when our viewpoint remains tethered to our little, separate selves, concerned only with inflating our separate identities.
When we do tonglen, we start the process from the larger perspective. It’s not as though our hearts were small garages we had to pack with suffering like a load of trash full of sharp-edged cans, broken glass and moldy furniture. If that’s what it were about we would be right to fear being stuck with the suffering we breathe in. But as contemporary Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron teaches, as long as we’re breathing we can never get “stuck.” We only fear that we can because we mistakenly see the world in terms of solid things, while in reality, everything is always flowing. When you breathe in the suffering, there is nowhere for it go to get stuck, because things in reality are not like rocks. There’s nothing to get stuck on. And when you breathe out, there’s nothing that can obstruct it.
When we see someone suffering and open our heart to their pain, Chodron teaches, going beyond our fear of suffering, and connecting with how the suffering feels, the open-heart feeling of freshness and openness radiates out of our back from our heart in all directions.
Her instructions for tonglen begin with opening the mind beyond attachment and aversion to “things” so that there’s no place for anything to get stuck. A way she suggests for doing this is to bring up a good memory of a time when we felt open and spacious.
Next, she instructs us to breathe in the dark, heavy quality of the suffering and radiate out light, freshness and coolness, giving equal time to the inbreath and outbreath. Work with a real situation that’s present at that time in a way that’s real to you, for example, work with a person you care about who’s suffering in a particular way. Also imagine that their particuar suffering is felt by many others. Breathe in the suffering from all these others as well, and breathe out love and space to give them room to be as they are.
If you start having a negative reaction to the particular suffering you’re working with, Chodron counsels, then switch to breathing in the specifics of your own negativity, such as resentment, stuck feelings, etc., and breathing out space and acceptance.
In my practice, I begin by trying to connect with the Greater Consciousness by first simply noticing that my own awareness exists and bringing up gratitude and a sense of awe that there even is such a thing as Awareness. I remind myself that this Awareness is what makes it possible for me to be aware of every particular sensory impression I’m receiving at the moment and that my little self isn’t creating the Universe of things around me that I’m aware of, and I bring up an intention to merge with the Greater Consciousness that is creating it all.
I breathe in, feeling the air enter my lungs, and feel that the Greater Consciousness is sharing in the feeling of this particular breath of air in my lungs. I notice my other sensations, the sound of a passing truck, the color of the visual field behind my eyelids, the temperature of the air against my cheeks, and knowing I’m not creating the world that gives rise to these sensations, I receive them as beautiful gifts from the Greater Consciousness, allowing my attention to flow easily among them.
Then I think of someone whose suffering I want to alleviate. If it’s a client, I engage my empathy to feel their suffering. Typically they have already told me something about it. I try to understand their suffering, the physical, emotional and mental aspects, the raw pain, the anxiety and despair, the mental judgments about being punished or unworthy of comfort. I form images of their suffering, usually seeing it as black, ugly, chaotic shapes or swirls of energy. I breathe these shapes and impulses into my heart, keeping in mind all the while that the Greater Consciousness is sharing my perceptions.
I feel the inbreath going into my heart, and my heart absorbing and accepting the suffering. To do this, I imagine empty space opening inside my heart in which the negative forms and impulses begin to dissipate, taking my own uncharitable thoughts and feelings with them. Then I move my attention back behind my heart and imagine the presence of the Greater Consciousness in the space opening up in my heart, providing comfort, acceptance and transmutation of all the suffering, and I breathe out that comfort and acceptance through my back with the intention of sending it to my client.
If, as can easily happen, I sense that I’m judging the client, usually for some bad habit of thought or resentment or sense of entitlement, I switch over to doing tonglen on my own feelings of annoyance and superiority, breathing them in, having them transmute in my heart, and breathing out love and comfort through my back.
In both cases, whether working with a suffering client or myself, after doing tonglen for that specific instance of suffering, I imagine how it is shared by vast, anonymous crowds of people around the world, and do the tonglen process for them all.
When learning the practice, you may want to start by first doing it on yourself, working with your own suffering, and then branching out to doing it for the benefit of all beings who are experiencing the same suffering. This way you can become proficient in the process before having to muster up the courage to breathe in another person’s suffering.
I recommend using a mantra to accompany the breathing to keep you focused. The mantra can be any suitable word or words you choose, in English or another language, or even a wordless melody.
Don’t worry about your breathing getting out of sync with your visualizing. Let your breathing be natural, and adjust your visualizing. You don’t want to hyperventilate or feel starved for oxygen. Intention is everything in this practice. You can do it for as long as seems appropriate. If you have only time for a few repetitions of the breathing process, just do it. It’s still effective — both for you and the person you’re doing it for.
Many spiritual healers are trained to observe the ethical practice of getting permission for the healing from those they treat. It’s considered unethical to interfere with another person’s autonomy and personal sovereignty. Most people readily give permission for spiritual healing methods.
Traditional Buddhist teachings don’t mention a need for permission. I personally feel there’s no need for permission to do tonglen because it’s such a benign practice, in no way interfering with a person’s autonomy or control over their own mind and body. They’re free to retain their suffering if they want. And tonglen doesn’t implant thoughtforms or energies in their mind or body. However, if you tell someone you want to do tonglen for them, you should be sure to ask permission, and if they refuse, respect their wishes. If people know you’re doing any kind of spiritual healing on their behalf, or have done it, without their permission, they’re likely to feel manipulated, and that their personal sovereignty has been infringed. It’s the same with any good deed you do. If you do it unselfishly and anonymously without mentioning it, you avoid creating a feeling in the beneficiary of obligation or a perception that you’re trying to make them feel inferior .
You can use the following guided meditation to learn the process and practice it. Once you’ve learned it, you can experiment with ways you feel might be more effective and comfortable. (I’d love to hear about them if you do.)
GUIDED MEDITATION FOR TONGLEN
Find a comfortable position for the practice, typically sitting or lying down. Breathe naturally and deeply. Close your eyes
Feel the sensations in your body. Notice how your upper eyelids feel as they rest on your lower lids. Become aware of your feet, the soles of your feet, the top of your head, the back of your head, your rib cage, your pelvic area, your legs.
Feel any tensions in your body, and shift as needed for comfort. Notice how the air feels coming into your lungs, how it feels against your skin. Is it cool, or warm? Breathe naturally and be aware of your breath without trying to control it. Sense the space around you. What noises are you hearing? Are there any smells? What is the feeling of clothing or furniture or fabrics against your skin?
Now it’s time to connect with the Greater Consciousness. Turn your attention to the Consciousness that makes it possible for you to be aware of all the sensations you’re feeling. Of course you can’t “see” it in your mind’s eye or even “think” it because it’s not separate from you. You are the one doing the seeing and feeling. In this moment you are the seeing and feeling. You are the life that’s experiencing what you are experiencing. You are an inseparable part of the “I am” of the Greater Consciousness. Something exists here and it is you — it is your awareness which is your true self and one with the Greater Consciousness.
Keep focused on the present moment and what you’re experiencing right now. Ask yourself if you created all the phenomena you’re aware of. Ask yourself if you created the awareness that allows you to know that you exist right here, right now. Ask yourself if this Awareness is real.
This Awareness is real. It’s what’s here.
Can you feel how amazing it is that you even exist, that you can be here as an Awareness experiencing sensory impressions as they come and go. Allow yourself to feel gratitude and awe that this right here, right now, even exists.
You know you didn’t create the world of things you’re aware of. You know there is a whole Universe out there that is beyond the reach of your bodily senses that exists even though you’re not aware of it at the moment. It exists in the Greater Consciousness, but you’re not presently aware of it. Form an intention to become one with the Greater Consciousness that is creating that greater Universe anew each moment so that you can communicate your compassion to others and help them transcend their suffering.
Breathe in and feel the air entering your lungs. Visualize that the Greater Consciousness is sharing your awareness of the breath coming into your body. Feel that the Greater Consciousness that created the air you’re breathing is giving you this experience as a gift, a gift It is sharing. Even though I’m calling the Greater Consciousness “It,” as if it were an object separate from you, know that it is only separate from what you typically think of as yourself. It’s not separate from the Awareness that is your real self.
Visualize that all your sense organs and nerve endings exist as the sense organs and nerve endings of the Greater Consciousness, which It created so that It can be aware of Itself. Notice the sounds around you as they arise, and know them as gifts the Greater Consciousness is allowing you to participate in.
Notice the sense of space around you, another gift the Greater Consciousness is sharing with you. Notice the color behind your eyelids and know it as a precious gift from the Greater Consciousness. Feel the love the Greater Consciousness has for you, Its gratitude to you for being here in the world to taste and feel and see and hear for It. Allow yourself to shift your attention from one present-moment sensation to the next, embedding these experiences in the Greater Consciousness as your gift.
Now, keeping the feeling that the Greater Consciousness is still creating and sharing your experience, turn your attention inside to notice any suffering that may be there. Notice if there is bodily pain. Notice if you feel fear or anxiety, or discomfort . . . perhaps a nagging worry that you won’t be able to do this practice, or a sense of resentment because there’s something else you feel you should be doing instead. Or perhaps you’re presently experiencing grief for the loss of a loved one, or anger at a situation causing you to feel loss or rejection. Whatever the suffering is, allow yourself to fully visualize and feel the presence of this suffering in a physical way. Have an intention to study this suffering like a scientist, noticing it’s shape, how it feels, how it moves, what emotions it gives rise to, what thoughts go with it. Be willing to pay close attention to it even though the pain may intensify as you do so.
When you feel you have taken this suffering into your understanding, visualize it as a mass of black, greasy smoke and imagine breathing it in to your heart, where its corrosive nature dissolves away all your self-cherishing and self-grasping, leaving your heart open and free. Still feeling the presence of the Greater Consciousness sharing your experience, breathe out from that purified heart, through your back, letting it radiate comfort, love, acceptance and all goodness around you in all directions, with the intention of breathing part of it in with your next inbreath.
Do this for several cycles.
. . . . [at least 5 cycles]
Now feel your suffering again and this time visualize that your suffering is shared by multitudes of others around the world, and breathe in the suffering of everyone, letting it dissolve away your self-cherishing and self-grasping. And, still feeling the presence of the Greater Consciousness sharing your experience, breathe out love, comfort, happiness, and goodness from your purified heart through your back, letting it radiate 360 degrees in all directions with the intention that the radiance of this out-breath will reach all beings suffering the same kind of pain everywhere in the world, bringing healing and comfort.
Repeat the tonglen practice for all those suffering in the same particular way you have been suffering for several cycles, breathing in the suffering of all beings suffering in a way similar to your suffering, and breathing out healing to all of them. Do this practice for several cycles, until you feel the suffering is diminishing.
. . . . [at least 5 cycles]
Now that you’ve had practice in the basic steps, and developed confidence that breathing in the suffering of yourself and others won’t get stuck in you, and feeling the presence of the Greater Consciousness sharing your experience, think of a person you love who is suffering, physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually, and do the tonglen practice with the intention of healing their suffering. Allow yourself to fully visualize and feel the presence of their suffering in a physical way. Have an intention to study their suffering like a scientist, noticing its shape, how it feels, how it moves, what emotions it gives rise to, what thoughts go with it. Let their suffering activate your empathy and compassion. Be willing to pay close attention to it even though it’s uncomfortable to feel their pain. Because we all share in Consciousness, your acceptance of their suffering will help them face and accept it in themselves.
When you feel you have taken their suffering into your understanding, visualize it as a mass of black, greasy smoke and imagine breathing it in to your heart, where its corrosive nature dissolves away all your self-cherishing and self-grasping, leaving your heart open and free.
Still feeling the presence of the Greater Consciousness sharing your experience, breathe out from that purified heart through your back, letting the openness and freedom radiate all around you with the intention of sending love, comfort, and acceptance to your loved one.
If you find that negative emotions and judgments are being triggered in you by the process of taking in your loved one’s suffering, notice exactly what negative emotions, thoughts, or bodily feelings are arising, and shift your tonglen practice over to your own suffering as a result of your negative reaction.
Continue the tonglen practice on your own suffering triggered by doing the practice for the loved one until you feel cleared, then resume the process for your loved one.
. . . . [at least 5 cycles]
If you feel your own suffering has been cleared, recommence the tonglen process for your loved one.
. . . . [at least 5 cycles]
When you have completed the process of tonglen for your loved one, repeat it for alleviating the suffering of not only the loved one, but this time also visualizing all the other people in the world who are suffering in the same way. Breathe in all this suffering, and breathe out love, comfort, acceptance and happiness with the intention that it reach all the other beings who are suffering in the same way.
Do this process for alleviating the suffering of your loved one and all other beings suffering in the same way for several more cycles
. . . . [at least 5 cycles]
When you feel complete, end the tonglen practice with a prayer that it may benefit all beings . . . and come back to ordinary reality.
Thank you for your courage in undertaking the tonglen practice. When you begin to see the good effects it’s having on your own ability to be compassionate and develop loving relationships with others, I know you will continue the practice, to the great benefit of the world and all its beings.
Chodron, Pema, “The Practice of Tonglen,” YouTube website, 2016: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNTpmlmRHWY&t=86s, accessed February 5, 2010.
Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, HarperSanFrancisco, 1992, pp. 201-208.
Suffering breathed into the heart dissolves all self-grasping, and healing breathed out from the purified heart benefits all beings.
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