In Tibetan the word tonglen literally means "sending and taking." It refers to being willing to take in the pain and suffering of ourselves and others and to send out happiness to us all. Tonglen, or exchanging oneself for others, is another bodhichitta practice for activating loving-kindness and compassion. The bodhichitta teachings that Atisha took to Tibet included the practice of tonglen.
Although there are many ways that we can approach tonglen, the essence of the practice is always the same. We breathe in what is painful and unwanted with the sincere wish that we and others could be free of suffering. As we do so, we drop the story line that goes along with the pain and feel the underlying energy. We completely open our hearts and minds to whatever arises. Exhaling, we send out relief from the pain with the intention that we and others be happy.
When we are willing to stay even a moment with uncomfortable energy, we gradually learn not to fear it. Then when we see someone in distress we're not reluctant to breathe in the person's suffering and send out relief.
Starting with Stillness and Openness Moving On To Compassion
The formal practice of tonglen has four stages. The first stage is a brief moment of stillness or openness.. The second stage is visualizing and working with the texture, the raw energy, of claustrophobia and spaciousness. The third stage is the essence of the practice: breathing in whatever is unwanted and breathing out a sense of relief. In the fourth stage we extend our compassion further by including others who are experiencing the same feelings. If we want, we can combine the third stage and the fourth stage, breathing in and out for self and other at the same time.
So the first stage of tonglen is a moment of open mind, or unconditional bodhichitta. Although this stage is crucial, it is difficult to describe. It relates to the Buddhist teaching of shunyata — often translated as "emptiness" or "openness." Experiencing shunyata at an emotional level, we might feel as if we were big enough to accommodate everything, that there's no place for things to get stuck. If we relax our mind and stop struggling, emotions can move through us without becoming solid and proliferating.
Fundamentally, experiencing openness is having trust in the living quality of basic energy. We develop the confidence to allow it to arise, to linger, and then to pass on. This energy is dynamic, ungraspable, always in a state of flux. So our training is, first of all, noticing how we block the energy or freeze it, how we tense up our bodies and minds. Then we train in softening, relaxing, and opening to the energy without interpretations or judgments.
The first flash of openness reminds us that we can always let go of our fixed ideas and connect with something open, fresh, and unbiased. Then, during the following stages, when we begin to breathe in the energy of claustrophobia and unwanted feelings, we breathe them into that huge space, as vast as the clear blue sky. Then we send out whatever we can to help all of us experience the freedom of an open, flexible mind. The longer we practice, the more accessible this unconditional space will be. Sooner or later we are going to realize that we are already awake.
Many of us have no idea what flashing openness is supposed to feel like. The first time I recognized it was simple and direct. In the hall where I was meditating a large fan hummed loudly. After a while I no longer noticed the sound, it was so ongoing. But then the fan abruptly stopped and there was a gap, a wide-open silence. That was my introduction to shunyata!
To flash openness, some people visualize a vast ocean or a cloudless sky — any image that conveys unlimited expansiveness. In group practice, a gong is rung at the beginning. Just listening to the sound of the gong can act as a reminder of open mind. The flash is relatively short, no longer than it takes for a gong to stop resonating. We can't hold on to such an experience. We just touch in briefly and then go on.
In the second stage of tonglen we begin to breathe in the qualities of claustrophobia: thick, heavy, and hot. We might visualize the claustrophobia as coal dust or as yellow-brown smog. Then we breathe out the qualities of spaciousness: fresh, light, and cool. We might visualize this as brilliant moonlight, as sparkling sun on water, as the colors of a rainbow.
However we visualize these textures, we imagine breathing them in and out through all the pores of our body, not only through our mouth and nose. We do this until it feels synchronized with our breath and we are clear about what we are taking in and what we're sending out. It's fine to breathe a little more deeply than usual, but it's important to give the inbreath and the outbreath equal time.
We may find, however, that we favor the inbreath or the out-breath instead of keeping them balanced. For example, we may not want to interrupt the freshness and brightness of the outbreath by taking in what's thick, heavy, and hot. As a result the outbreath may be long and generous, the inbreath short and stingy. Or, we may have no trouble connecting with claustrophobia on the inbreath but feel we don't have much to send out. Then our outbreath may be nearly nonexistent. If we feel poverty-stricken like this, we can remember that what we send is not our personal possession. We are simply opening to the space that is always here and sharing it.
In stage three, we start doing the exchange for a specific person. We breathe in this person's pain and we send out relief. Traditionally, the instruction is to begin doing tonglen for the ones who spontaneously spark our compassion. As we breathe in we visualize our hearts opening wide to accept the pain. As we breathe out we send that bravery and openness. We don't cling to it, thinking, "Finally I have a little relief in my life; I want to keep it forever!" Instead, we share it. When we practice like this, breathing in becomes opening and accepting what is unwanted; breathing out becomes letting go and opening even further. Breathing in or breathing out, we are reversing ancient habits of closing to pain and clinging to anything comforting.
Some AIDS hospices encourage patients to do tonglen for others who have AIDS. This connects them in a very real way with everyone in their situation and helps to relieve their shame, fear, and isolation. Hospice workers do tonglen to create an atmosphere of clarity so that the people around them can find their courage and inspiration and be free of fear.
Doing Tonglen For Another Person
Doing tonglen for another person ventilates our very limited personal reference point, the closed-mindedness that is the source of so much pain. To train in releasing our tight hold on self and to care for others is what connects us with the soft spot of bodhichitta. That's why we do tonglen. We do the practice whenever there is suffering — either ours or others'. After a while it becomes impossible to know whether we are practicing for our own benefit or for the benefit of others. These distinctions begin to break down.
For example, perhaps we are practicing tonglen because we want to help our ailing mother. But somehow our own reactive emotions — guilt, fear, or pent-up anger — arise and seem to block a genuine exchange. At that point we can shift our focus and start breathing in our conflicted feelings, using our personal pain as a link with other people who feel shut down and afraid. Opening our hearts to stuck emotions has the power to clear the air and also benefit our mother.
Sometimes we might not know what to send on the out breath. We can send something generic, like spaciousness and relief or loving-kindness, or we can send something specific and concrete, like a bouquet of flowers. For example, a woman who was practicing tonglen for her schizophrenic father had no difficulty breathing in with the wish for him to be free of suffering. But she would get stuck on the out breath, because she had no idea of what to send him that could help. Finally, she came up with the idea of sending him a good cup of coffee, one of his favorite pleasures. The point is to use whatever works.
Opening To Whatever Arises
The practice is about opening to whatever arises, but it's important not to be overly ambitious. We aspire to keep our hearts open in the present moment, but we know it won't always be possible. We can trust that if we just do tonglen as best we presently can, our ability to feel compassion will gradually expand.
When we are practicing tonglen for a specific individual, we always include the fourth stage, which is extending the compassion to everyone in the same predicament. For example, if we are doing tonglen for our sister who has lost her husband, we can breathe in the suffering of other people who are grieving for lost loved ones and send them all relief. If we are practicing for an abused child, we can breathe in and out for all frightened, unprotected children and expand it even further to all beings who are living in terror. If we are doing tonglen with our own pain, we always remember those who have similar anguish and include them as we breathe in and breathe out. In other words, we start with something particular and genuine and then widen the circle as far as we can.
An On-The-Spot Practice
I recommend using tonglen as an on-the-spot practice. Doing tonglen throughout our day can feel more natural than doing it on the cushion. For one thing, there is never any lack of subject matter. When a strong unwanted feeling arises or we see someone hurting, there is nothing theoretical about what we'll use to practice. There are no four stages to remember and no struggle to synchronize textures with the breath. Right there when it's very real and immediate we breathe in and out with the pain.
Daily life practice is never abstract. As soon as uncomfortable emotions come up, we train ourselves in breathing them in and dropping the story line. At the same time, we extend our thoughts and concern to other people who feel the same discomfort, and we breathe in with the wish that all of us could be free of this particular brand of confusion. Then, as we breathe out, we send ourselves and others whatever kind of relief we think would help. We also practice like this when we encounter animals and people who are in pain. We can try to do this whenever difficult situations and feelings arise, and over time it will become more automatic.
It is also helpful to notice anything in our daily life that brings us happiness. As soon as we become aware of it, we can think of sharing it with others, further cultivating the tonglen attitude.
As warrior-bodhisattvas, the more we train in cultivating this attitude, the more we uncover our capacity for joy and equanimity. Because of our bravery and willingness to work with the practice, we are more able to experience the basic goodness of ourselves and others. We're more able to appreciate the potential of all kinds of people: those we find pleasant, those we find unpleasant, and those we don't even know. Thus tonglen begins to ventilate our prejudices and introduce us to a more tender and open-minded world.
Trungpa Rinpoche used to say, however, that there are no guarantees when we practice tonglen. We have to answer our own questions. Does it really alleviate suffering? Aside from helping us, does it also benefit others? If someone on the other side of the earth is hurting, will it help her that somebody cares? Tonglen is not all that metaphysical. It's simple and very human. We can do it and discover for ourselves what happens.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Shambhala Publications, Inc. ©2001, 2007.
The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times
by Pema Chodron.
Lifelong guidance for learning to change the way we relate to the scary and difficult moments of our lives, showing us how we can use all of our difficulties and fears as a way to soften our hearts and open us to greater kindness.
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About the Author
PEMA CHODRON is an American Buddhist nun and one of the foremost students of Chogyam Trungpa, the renowned Tibetan meditation master. She is the author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are, and the best-selling When Things Fall Apart. She is the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, in Canada, the first Tibetan monastery for Westerners.