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What is Tonglen?

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

What is Tonglen?

Most everyone these days has heard of mindfulness meditation. It’s meteoric rise as the primal wellness practice on the planet continues unabated. It’s everywhere: in schools and prisons, hospitals, government departments and the military. Its ascendency can be put down in part to the explosive growth of the wellness industry that is now three times the size of the global pharmaceutical industry. Mindfulness has also come to dominate, however, largely due to its secularisation back in the 1970’s by Jon Kabat-Zinn who stripped it of its Buddhist content and turned it into a modern mind-training with many, scientifically verifiable, therapeutic benefits. Its scientific credibility having given it the edge, the world has rapidly gone mindfulness crazy.

There is another Buddhist meditation that you should take note of, however. It’s called Tonglen. Tonglen has been called, with good reason, the nuclear weapon of developing loving-kindness and compassion. It’s one of the most powerful practices within the Buddhist canon and can build directly on to a good solid mindfulness practice.

Tonglen vs Metta

Metta (which means loving-kindness in the Pali language) is another Buddhist meditation, often practiced within the context of a broader engagement with mindfulness. The Metta meditation focuses on the development of genuine loving-kindness or appreciation for oneself and for all others without discrimination. The practice involves, firstly, feeling loving-kindness for oneself and then extends outwards to encompass a loved one, someone that is neutral (someone you see in the street every day or someone that serves you in a shop, for instance) and then finally to someone that you don’t get on so well with. It can also encompass groups of people such as your teachers, friends, work colleagues, extended family, people in war-torn locations etc. Eventually, just like the sun shines on all indiscriminately, we aim to embody Metta and radiate loving-kindness to all without exception.

Tonglen is of a different order to Metta, however, and requires that you have at least a modicum of self-awareness or stamina for deep spiritual practices and preferably not suffering from such afflictions as depression or anxiety or any other mental health disorder. Tibetan Buddhism is famous for its mind-training techniques, and this is one of the most powerful within the tradition. It’s also known as the giving and taking or sending and receiving meditation and uses the breath as a support for removing suffering and negativity and sending out happiness and wellbeing. Tonglen requires some patience and diligence to really feel that you are making headway and certainly, it requires a degree of fortitude.

Just like in the Metta meditation, Tonglen for self is a good place to start, which can then be extended out to encompass other individuals and groups of people.

How to Do Tonglen Meditation

How to do Tonglen meditation

The practice of Tonglen should become your core spiritual practice and can be done at any time that you are experiencing pain or discomfort, suffering of any kind, fear, or anxiety. Any time that life gets tough. It is a very advanced meditation that will reap extensive rewards if you stick with it. It’s important not to trivialise it. Essentially, the main focus of Tonglen meditation practice is the wish to free others from suffering and the causes of that suffering. We imagine during the practice that we are taking away their suffering and absorbing it into ourselves and then send back out happiness or whatever they need as an antidote to their suffering. This may sound very counterintuitive and when I have offered to take my students through a Tonglen practice, many have shied away because of the fear that they might genuinely absorb the other person’s suffering into themselves.

It is, of course, our default mode to push pain and suffering away because it can often be hard to bear. Certainly, we don’t want to be adding to our own suffering by absorbing the suffering of others. Many of us have been taught to breathe out our pain, worries, fears and anxieties and to breathe in positivity, wellness, health, and happiness. Tonglen tips this whole construct on its head and stamps all over it.

In the practice of Tonglen, we sit with our suffering and welcome it as a dear friend. We try to understand it and feel its inner core. It’s the sort of approach that any good therapist might advise you to take. On an inhale, we take in the pain and suffering of ourselves and others and on the exhale, we send out space, healing, compassion, and whatever other antidotes are appropriate for those whom we are focusing on. We are, in a sense, using our own experience of pain and suffering to develop compassion for others. As we experience our suffering and see that the suffering of others is of the same order as our own, we can spontaneously generate a field of compassion for those others.

There is, as I said, a need for a degree of fortitude in the practice of Tonglen. When we practice, we might begin with breathing in blackness or murkiness from someone that is suffering. We breathe in all their pain and suffering, but we mustn’t then simply move straight into sending out lovely fluffy waves of happiness. This trivialises the whole thing. What we are trying to do with great sincerity is to genuinely take on the suffering of another and, with great courage, deal with it as if it were our own. In other words, I make your problem my problem. So, when we breathe out, we are sending out the antidote to their problem, the very thing that will counteract it. This is what they need. Fluffy love, love, love doesn’t really work very well. What we are doing is not so different from what a tree does to sustain itself: taking in carbon dioxide and sending out oxygen.

When we take on the suffering of others, we need to let it settle inside of us, a bit like waves on the ocean after a storm. The suffering settles into the wide-open clarity of the mind, the emptiness or voidness of the mind which is where the mind’s innate bliss can also be accessed. It’s this quality of innate bliss that radiates outwards in the form of whatever it is the other person needs.

When we choose a target for our Tonglen practice, we might begin by working solely on ourselves. This is fine and a good place to start, especially for those who are new to the practice. Then we can move on to thinking of someone that is suffering from the same or similar experiences as ourselves and breathe in their pain and suffering as well as our own and breathe out compassion and healing and whatever else they might need (somewhere to live, better finances, healthy food). We can then, when we are ready, move on to thinking about all the people in the world who are experiencing the same or similar shades of suffering and breathe out the antidote to their suffering so that it encompasses all of them.

Why Bother with Tonglen. What are the Benefits?

Exchanging ourselves for others takes bravery, but why bother? In taking on all that suffering, we might ask: is Tonglen dangerous? It’s a lot of intense work and maybe we’d be better off just focusing on ourselves and getting as much pleasure out of life as we can. Do we really want to make all that effort to take away the suffering of people that we don’t know or that we might even hate? The Dalai Lama had something interesting to say on this score: “If you would like to be selfish, you should do it in a very intelligent way. The stupid way to be selfish is seeking happiness for ourselves alone… the intelligent way to be selfish is to work for the welfare of others.”

Is Tonglen dangerous?

Tonglen isn’t dangerous, of course, and there are many benefits that can come to us from doing a regular practice for others. Not only can it help reduce or stop our own pain, but it can also result in the following:

  • We expand our ability to generate true compassion and loving-kindness towards others.

  • We limit the effects of the ego and our attachments to pain and suffering.

  • We develop a much greater desire to be generous with others.

  • We can realise that our own pain and suffering is not personal and that there are many people in the world who are suffering in the same way right at this moment.

  • We develop the ability to be present for our own pain and that of others.

  • We find it much easier to feel genuine loving-kindness and compassion for ourselves.

  • We can create positive karma as we continue to give and take for others, bringing them ease from suffering.

It’s important to realise that when we practice Tonglen and deliberately take on the suffering of others, we are not taking on their karma. If it were possible to do this, it’s certain that the Buddha would have done this for all beings whilst he was alive. Jesus and Mohamed would likewise have done it and the world would be free from suffering forever.

A Tonglen Meditation

1/ Begin by establishing your meditation posture and moving into an awareness of the breath. Simply be present with the breath for a few moments, acknowledging any distracting thoughts as they arise and then returning to being anchored on the breath. Bring your mind to a state of open awareness, clarity, and spaciousness.

2/ Now we are going to work with different textures. On an inhalation, breathe in hotness, darkness, murkiness, claustrophobia, and negativity. On the exhalation, breathe out the light of goodness, a sense of coolness and freshness that alleviates all pain and suffering. Visualise that you are breathing in all the suffering through every pore of your body and that as you breathe out, all goodness and happiness is radiation from every pore in your body. Continue with this until you feel that you are fully synchronised with your in and out breath.

3/ Recall a situation that you are aware of where a person or an animal is suffering. Breathe in their fears, their aches and pains, their loneliness so that he or she is relieved of it. If this is too difficult to begin with or you are just not ready, it’s okay to do the practice for your own pain and suffering and anyone else you can recall that is suffering in the same way as you. Then breathe out calmness, stillness, ease, contentment, whatever is required to counteract the problem. You may wish to visualise this in the form of beams of light or warmth radiating out from your heart. See the other person feeling comforted and happy.

4/ Extend your meditation outwards to others who are in need. Breathe in the darkness and their distress. Breathe out freedom, peace, and joyfulness, imagining their relief and feeling of happiness. Keep extending outwards, encompassing others that are in need in some way. Breathe in suffering, breathe out happiness and the causes of happiness.

As you continue with the practice, you will find yourself increasingly able to be there for people in situations that you might have formally thought were impossible. Can you extend Tonglen out to your enemies or those that annoy you in some way?

5/ To end, relax into an open awareness meditation and sit with your breath for a few minutes.

Tonglen  vs metta. Which practice is best?

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