By Linda V. Lewis
Atisha understood what the Buddha meant by the mind being “the wish-fulfilling jewel,” for within our own mind we already have what we need to be truly happy—the ability to put others before ourselves. But because most of us have spent decades putting our own ego first, we need mind training to reverse the selfish habits that keep us miserable—for ego blocks us from seeing how this misery is self-generated.
Meditation and Atisha’s slogan-reminders provide insight into the radiance of our jewel-like mind. But both are given a huge boost by tonglen practice (tong being Tibetan for sending and len for taking or accepting). This is because tonglen supports the development of genuine compassion. In fact, in Sanskrit it is called maitri bhavana or loving kindness.
As in meditation, the natural breath is the initial focus of the practice, but this time it is used for reversing self-centeredness and training in open-heartedness. But tonglen is always preceded with mindfulness-awareness meditation to rest in openness or, at the very least, to unwind a bit and let the body and mind settle for ten minutes or so. In this way meditation is the launching pad for tonglen.
Tonglen begins with a pause to flash absolute awakened heart. As a beginner that lightning bolt of awake seemed too abstract, so I imagined that wherever I was, overhead was the vast blue sky, which could accommodate anything—sun, clouds, rainbows, crows, balloons, hang-gliders, supersonic jets, all kinds of thoughts, and the full range of emotions. Furthermore, that visualized vast blue sky was a limitless bank of energy.
Having paused to open to this vast resource, then synchronize the in and out breaths, visualizing taking in black, hot, and heavy air (exactly what the ego doesn’t want to do) and breath out white, cool, freshness. Breathing naturally, take in the dark and breathe out the white light over and over again (at least for a couple of minutes to stabilize the process). Absolute awakened heart, like vast, brilliant space, empowers us to do this, for as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to say, “Space is not sterile; it is pregnant with possibilities,”…charged with energy.
It is not just up to how much we as individuals feel we can take in or give out. We are hooked up to the limitless capacity of space. We are like battery boosters, able to jump-start ourselves even when we feel tired or ailing. The very willingness to take in whatever is dark, hot, and heavy is already an expression of how much bright freshness we have to exhale.
Next, beginning with yourself or someone close to you—your mother, grandfather, child, puppy dog, dear friend—any being for whom it is easy to love—with that being as the pilot light, take in that being’s weakness, pain, confusion, struggle, illness, or problem and send well-being, clarity, peace, and relaxation on the out-breath. Work with this situation for a few minutes. Whatever comes to mind as problematic, give out the breath of freedom from that.
Then expand this initial situation to include other friends, relatives, and neighbors who suffer in the same way. For example, if your grandmother is feeling bewildered, take that in and give out clarity. Then gradually expand to include all whom you know who feel confused, inadequate, or shaky, breathing out competence and confidence. Open your heart, wholeheartedly taking and sending for at least three minutes.
Then continue until even distant people or those whom we tend to dislike are included—say, someone who was recently angry or upset with you. The more you are able to breathe in, the more soothing light you are able to breathe out. Breathe in criticism and hostility, giving out patience and affection.
Whatever arises is included in the practice. If you lose your focus, take in your own mindlessness and breathe out mindfulness to yourself, then expand that out to others. If suddenly your knee starts hurting, breathe in the pain and exhale well-being, like moonlight, to everyone. In that way distractions become fuel for continuous practice.
If you find yourself about to breathe in someone’s arrogance and then stop, wondering if it is only your own projection, just go ahead and take it all in, and give out relaxation to both the individual and to yourself. Do not let the tricky ego bog down your practice, but use whatever comes up to awaken your heart further.
While practicing tonglen, continue to feel the vast space in which the process is flowing, even if you are practicing in a small room. What is happening is that the mindfulness on the breath with content is mixing with awareness of space.
For the final minute or at least the last few breaths of the practice, expand out to include all beings. Take in the dark, giving out sanity, peace, and kindness.
Tonglen is the main Buddhist practice for removing territoriality and for developing compassion—a useful rehearsal for exchanging self for other in daily life. In practicing tonglen we realize, experientially, that we have access to limitless goodness. This basic goodness is the working basis for being spontaneously kind. Tonglen cuts any clinging to a sense of private peace, such as may occur with just mindfulness or shamatha meditation alone. And post-meditation we give up staring ourselves in our own homemade movie. Instead, we develop warm heartedness without expectation.
Those beginning tonglen should practice it for ten minutes, sandwiched in between ten-minute sessions of meditation. To conclude, just drop all concepts and return to the simplicity of the breath and basic being. This makes for a fine half hour of daily practice.
This discipline counteracts the three “poisons” discussed in the previous article. In particular, tonglen counteracts passionate attachment and poverty mentality.
Resistance to practice, or cowardice post-meditation, may occur. Resistance usually indicates that at least one of ego’s main habits is being threatened, while the very awareness of cowardice—not reaching out to talk to a friend in distress, shying away from a difficult situation—still means your heart is awake and aware of your cowardice and that is the beginning of on the spot bravery. So when resistance or cowardice arises, breathe it in—and give out a sense of joyful courage.
Practicing daily for a half hour, small concerns and petty worries dissolve on the cushion and we discover more resourcefulness and the desire to be of benefit.
As with meditation, tonglen is best taught to aspiring practitioners, in person by a qualified meditation instructor. In this way students can ask the instructor questions about the steps of the technique, and the meditation instructor can ask questions of the student to see if some aspects need to be clarified, and to ascertain that the tonglen practice as a whole is understood.