See also Heart Meditation
by Joseph H. Rowe
Tonglen: in Tibetan, it means "give
and take". Basically, you take in unhappiness, and you give
This centuries-old meditatitive practice of compassion for self and others has a universality which for me is the secret heart and meeting-place of Buddhism and Christianity. I have been practicing it for several years, and much more intensely during the last year. In my life, it has had a profound effect on many levels --- so much so that I am at a loss for words to describe it, except to say that it seems to me to invoke the highest order of magic that there is.
Preliminary background teaching which is the foundation of the practice:
Your true, authentic being is absolutely pristine, flawless wisdom-mind, known as "Boddhichitta" to Buddhists and as the "Holy Spirit" to Christians. It is your eternal, ever-present Source, beyond the grasp of the personal mind, yet intimately informing it. Like the Sun, however hidden it may be by dense clouds of thought and emotion and sensation in your personal skies, it is always There, shining brilliantly and effortlessly. In the following exercises, it is referred to as your True Nature.
The Practice of Tonglen:
(1st phase: environmental Tonglen)
Sit or recline in a comfortable position. Let your awareness come to your breath. Gently focus on your breathing for several minutes, just observing the inbreath and outbreath like the tide. Now, note the feeling-tone of your environment, both physical and psychic. Note the negativity that is there. The pain, the fear, or the anger --- the suffering. This suffering may be very subtle, disguised by thoughts and habits, or it may be flagrantly, painfully present. Don't judge this negativity, just allow it to be felt and observed in all its aspects. Now, with each inbreath, breathe in this negativity. Let it be breathed like a polluted cloud into your deepest core: your True Nature. Then let the outbreath, which emanates from this True Nature, send out pure, luminous calm, happiness, wisdom, and well-being back into this troubled environment. Breathe in suffering and negativity; breathe out calm and luminous well-being. When you breathe in the negativity, it passes through your personal being on the way to the core, and its effect is to cleanse and purge your sense of being a separate, isolated, ego-being identified with a specific body. It cannot hurt this body (on the contrary, it often has cleansing effects on it), it only attacks and gently, subtly corrodes and starts to break up the stubborn sense of selfish separateness which is so deeply-rooted in us. Continue this until you feel a very distinct change in the environment.
[Commentary: this, like the subsequent phases, may at first startle or even dismay you. Most breathing/visualization exercises have you breathe in clean, fresh energy and breathe out stale, negative energy. There's nothing wrong with those exercises, and they have their place. But this one is exactly the opposite in form, and works on a much deeper level. Have faith in the praises of this beneficial exercise by scores of generations of great practitioners. After some time in this practice, you will begin to notice what many call the "ambrosia effect" of the outbreath. Strangely, the outbreath seems more nourishing than the inbreath at a deep and subtle level. Some people experience it as suffused with a golden light, or a white light. This outbreath is the key to healing through Tonglen. In this phase, you are _allowing_ the outbreath from your True Nature to pervade and heal the negativity in your inner and outer environment. You don't have to "accomplish" this. Just allow the luminous outbreath to do its gentle work.]
(2nd phase: self Tonglen)
Now, imagine yourself as dual: self A and self B. Self A is your ordinary, familiar, worrying, fantasizing, suffering, confused self, both body and mind. Self B is your true Self, which is at one with your True Nature. Let Self B breathe in all of Self A's personal negative emotions and confusion, and/or painful or distressed regions of the body, physical sensations, etc.; and then breathe out calm, well-being, happiness, and wordless wisdom. Continue this until you feel a very distinct change in your body/mind.
(3rd phase: Tonglen for others)
Now, think of someone you know who is in physical or mental distress.
Feel their distress as a black, oily, noxious cloud of negativity and pain.
Breathe this cloud of suffering deeply into your True Nature, and breathe back out to them all of your happiness, calm, wordless wisdom, and love. Again, this noxious cloud of suffering cannot harm you, it can only attack your deep-rooted sense of separateness, and the blockages and delusions which arise from that sense of separateness. In my own case, I have even felt that it was helping to clear up my clogged arteries, like a kind of radical cleansing agent. Breathe in your friend's suffering, and breathe out your profoundest happiness, which emanates from your True Nature. Continue this until you have a vivid sense of your friend receiving this love, and a vast calm and well-being in your "local" bodymind system.
(Ultimate phase: limitless Tonglen)
(optional for advanced practice only)
Now, if you feel so inclined, allow your friend's suffering (which is not separate from your own) to expand its borders, and include other beings' suffering. It could start with those close to them, but it doesn't have to stop there. The sky is the limit: ultimately it could include a whole community, the whole planet Earth, or even all beings everywhere.
Breathe in the suffering and pain, breathe out happiness and the peace that passeth understanding.
[Overall commentary: phases 1 and 2 often come together as one exercise for me, but sometimes they are very distinct. I rarely if ever reach the ultimate phase! Often it's all I can do just to reach some sense of completion with phases 1 and/or 2. As for the visualization aspect: some people are much more visual than others, and see golden or white streams of light-energy streaming out to specific places in their own or another's body; but I am usually not this visual, and naturally stay with feeling-tones of peace, healing, etc. Each person finds their own way of doing this. Also, Tonglen is not really that different from prayer. In fact, you may want to think of it as a kind of prayer which uses breathing. The most important key feeling to keep in mind is that of the outbreath. If your mind wanders (as it surely will!), just gently bring it back to the
practice. Even if you completely forget the practice in a long fantasy or train of thought, just gently come back to it, and never indulge in self-aggressive criticisms for having "blown it". ]