How To Cultivate A Compassionate Life: Tonglen.

Via on Mar 31, 2011

In center-less observation, chaos becomes order, hate is revealed to be love, filth is seen as beauty and conflict ceases to be.

Standing on our side of an imaginary line, we relate to or interact with a world that appears to be violently invasive. In its infancy, this is the ego’s point of view. There is the experience of this-and-that. But this is vague or naked. So, this needs to be confirmed or validated by an experience of that. The experience of this-and-that creates an hallucination of cosmic proportions. The spectrum of experience appears to be fractured, and this apparent crack creates operable conditions for collision or relationship. In other words, the experience of that-&-this was the birth of duality: deuce, dos, duplicity—a couple. Then, viewing the world through its broken glasses, the ego perceives this couple repeatedly colliding into one another. Being the resourceful little devil that it is, the ego uses these inevitable collisions to its advantage. Basically, the ego institutionalizes these encounters. These impacts are called relationship. This sort of relationship or contact is the second phase in ego’s development, and it serves as the cornerstone or foundation of the ego-centric empire.

Contact or interaction, is really nothing more than a conceptual consequence of dualistic thinking… But, from the ego’s point of view, it is a rudimentary form of self-confirmation. The ego established relations with thought, feelings, tactile sensations, images, sounds, tastes, and smells, but there were no names or labels for them; just simple contact. There was nothing intimate or open about this relationship; the ego simply wanted to fondle life. This basic form of contact or groping is just enough to re-assure the ego of its existence; if this can feel that, then this must be. It is the most basic expression of Cartesian dualism; I feel therefore I am.

From here, the world is transformed into ego’s personal theater. Life, in all of its diversity, becomes little more than a form of entertainment. It is the responsibility of that to amuse this. The theater is meant to provide us with an alluring distraction; a diversion that enables to ego to ignore the truth of selflessness.

When seen from the center, it appears to be the responsibility of life to supply us with relationship or non-stop entertainment. To make sure we are amused and comfortable. This is an essential point, because boredom is an intelligent message heralding in the truth of selflessness. The lack of entertainment or boredom, is little more than failure to acquire self-confirmation. If “enlightenment is the ego’s ultimate disappointment,” then boredom could be seen as a prophetic announcement of this unavoidable let down! The piercing sensation associated with boredom is how the ego feels when it sits beneath the Bodhi Tree! So, from ego’s point of view, entertainment is the cornerstone of its empire… Without it, the ego would not have a leg to stand on.

The ego leads endless campaigns into arbitrary and trivial pursuits, because much like the Caesar’s of Rome, the ego-centric mind would rather the faculties be mesmerized with the spectacle, than look inward and discover that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!

In this case, the spectacle is not the coliseum but the ridiculous number of superficial relationships that we collect. These relationships are superficial, because they are artificial affairs which, are created and consumed in self-interest. Ego only sought interaction with life in order to create a distraction… Something to tangle intelligence up in. There isn’t the least bit of genuine concern for other… The whole thing is a façade meant to maintain the appropriate level of ignore-ance by fragmenting awareness or as Plotinus put it, spreading awareness out in multiplicity. “Here, look at this… What did she say? Change the channel!”

The ego hijacks the organic need to open up and appreciate life… It transforms this natural inclination to openly participate in life into an endeavor that is totally selfish. When all the cards are down, the ego would rape, pillage, and plunder other in order to save its own skin… In other words, if need be, we would start a fight with our spouse to get their attention, put someone down so as to feel superior, or be deceitful to acquire something we think we need.

If we hope to topple this empire we must “restore balance to the force.” In this case, what is meant by “the force” is basic awareness. It was on the foundation of ignore-ance that the cornerstone of ego’s empire, relationship, was set in place. Through the filter of dualistic consciousness, awareness appeared fragmented or disconnected. Then, this dualistic state of mind was expressed and defended by the institution of relationship. We perceived life as though it were that— a million different things that were apart from or other than this… And managing our relationship with that, required that this play a million different games which were created and sustained by deception.

In order to rediscover unity, we must look beyond the spectacle and games—beyond duplicity—deep into the heart of the empire.

There we will find that the lines which appear to fragment awareness are really just illusory lines drawn in the sand by an imaginary finger.

The restoration of balance begins with the practice of calm-abiding. Then, through the practice of equanimity and selflessness the realization of spaciousness begins to emerge. In the practice of loving-kindness we discover open-mindedness, which brings with it an element of balance, as the network of division begins to be dismantled. At this point, the mind is realized to be empty, and an empty or open-mind naturally fills with the light or raw energy that is love.

Like a vacuum, an open mind is a receptive mind.

Suzuki Roshi said, “In the experts mind there are few possibilities. In the beginners mind there are many.” An empty mind is a beginners mind— an original mind. Such a mind is vast, and within it there is room for infinite possibilities. The need to reduce life and its infinite potential down to some narrow-minded agenda emerges from center. A center is subjective— it is defined by fears/expectations. In order to avoid all the fears and incubate the expectations, all the possibilities have to be dwindled down to safe and comfortable few!

Through the practice of meditation we discover that mind is without beginning or end, which means that it is without a center or self. A mind without a center allows life to breathe or be as it is. There is no need to change anyone or anything, because there is no-one to feel threatened or needy. We can trust the intelligence which underlies the present moment, and watch as all the possibilities come to pass!

In a center-less environment, others are granted the space to be themselves. Having discovered that the concept of self is essentially empty, we discover the possibility of moving beyond all of its subjective clutter. Having moved beyond the center and all its clutter, mind is realized to be essentially spacious, and in space there is life or pure energy. This energy belongs to no one, as it revolves around no center. So, we let it be.

As I mentioned earlier, this discovery awakens in us a type of fearlessness. When it was realized that the center was empty, there was no longer anyone to feel threatened or afraid… Life no longer seems personal. At this point, the heart naturally begins to extend itself or participate. We have transcended timidity and discovered courage, so we take off our armor and start to come out of our shell. This coming out and letting in is complete participation or compassion… It is Tonglen.

Compassion does not seek to control or manipulate other. There is no need to govern anything, because compassion emerges like a wave from the waters of love. Compassion is the ebb-&-flow of love. Since, love is the experience of fullness that co-emerges with the realization of selflessness, there is no-one there to regulate the flow of energy. We begin to trust the movement of intelligence that is the present moment! This facilitates the restoration of sanity.

Compassion completely participates in the present moment. In fact, this participation is so complete, so full, and so perfect that there are no longer any such divisions as self and other. Compassion is “final participation.” It is an organic form of communication that naturally sprouts when all notions of self and other have been washed away by the waters of love.

The great saint and embodiment of compassion, Mother Teresa, said, “We must know that we have been created for greater things, not just some number in the world, not to go for degrees and diplomas, this work and that work. We have been created in order to love and to be loved.”  All of this going around collecting crap like diplomas and degrees or meddling in job after job is nothing more than an example of our superficial relationship with the world; our desire to produce vouchers and entertainment. The ego is an experiential pack rat! It is like we want a receipt for every interaction with life.

Compassion is a two way street, not self-centered contra-flow.

True compassion is not in the least bit concerned with producing vouchers or receipts. It is an open and full participation in love; loving and being loved to the extent that the two become indistinguishable from one another. Compassion receives as it gives and gives as it receives.

Through the practices of calm-abiding, equanimity, selflessness, and loving-kindness we were able to discover the inherent freedom of love present in the spacious quality of every moment. In order to exercise this freedom fully, we must open up in a real and authentic way. But before we can do that, it is necessary to cultivate the willingness required to meet life on life’s terms. This willingness to encounter life on its self-existing terms— free of the obsessive desire to cling to certain experiences and censor others— can be discovered through the practice of a two way from of communication known as Tonglen or giving and receiving.

The practice of giving cultivates the capacity to release our death grip on life; allowing it to come and go at its own pace. It is a type of open-endedness that allows experience to pass by unhindered like clouds in the sky. The practice of receiving cultivates the capacity to reflect life as is; without the compulsive need to filter experience. That is the practice of giving and taking; simply allow life to be as it is without censoring it, and allow it to come-&-go without clinging to it.

To begin…

…take a seat on your cushion. Align the body and place the mind. Stay with the practice of calm-abiding for about ten minutes or until the mind is reasonably calm. At this point begin the practice of equanimity. When all three cycles of equanimity have been completed allow awareness to fall back on the breath for a few moments. Then continue with the practice of loving-kindness. When all three cycles of loving-kindness have been completed, once again allow awareness to fall back on the breath. Now proceed with the practice of Tonglen.

Gently bring to mind the image of a friend. Allow this image to become vivid, and any feelings which might arise to do so.

Once this image becomes vivid introduce the wish for this person to be completely happy and totally free of any discontentment. Stay with this intention for a moment by gently reinforcing it. Once the wish has become strong, begin to consider what this person may need in order to be totally content. Consider their physical, mental, and spiritual needs.

Now take a moment to remember how essentially the distinctions made between self and other are superficial. They are nothing more than projected thought, and such divisions are insubstantial. Consider how at a very fundamental level we are all the same. We all wish to be happy, and we all wish to avoid pain. Now ask yourself if your right to happiness is of a higher priority than the rights of others?

Realizing that your right to achieve happiness and avoid suffering is no greater than the right of anyone else, and certainly not the right of everyone else, begin to develop the resolve to tirelessly work for the benefit of others. Cultivate the determination to forego personal happiness, and the willingness to undergo personal hardship, in order to selflessly work for the welfare of others.

Once this resolve has become firm visualize any difficulties that this person may have, and any obstacles to happiness that they may face, in the form of a black smoke gathered at their heart-center. As you inhale, this black smoke exits their body through their nostrils, making its way over towards you. This smoke then enters through your nostrils. As it comes down it touches a sacred symbol, a symbol of your choosing, which to you embodies the essence of humanity. This symbol, positioned in your heart-center, has the power to purify any-&-all difficulties. When this black smoke comes down and touches this sacred symbol there is a blinding explosion of white light, which represents the resurrection of the enlightened mind— the transmutation of confusion to wisdom through insight. As this explosion of light settles, it is revealed that the black smoke has become white smoke; the obstacles have been made new or purified. The white smoke represents the wisdom which realizes the truth of things. As you exhale, this white smoke exits your nostrils, and makes its way back over to the other person. It enters through their nostrils and goes down to settle in their heart-center, where the same sacred symbol centered in your heart appears at their heart-center. Allow this image of your friend to become radiant. They are fully content and totally at peace. Stay with this image for a few moments. Then allow the two images to unite with one another as they dissolve into pure space. Just stay there for a few minutes allowing awareness & space to mingle. Then bring awareness back to the breath for several moments.

Having completed the first cycle, proceed in the same manner with an enemy and stranger. When all three cycles have been completed allow awareness to settle with the breath, and remain there for a few minutes.

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About Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist & Christian spirituality and politics for The Good Men Project, Elephant Journal, The Web of Enlightenment, and is the editor & chief for Henry Harbor--an online magazine concerned with art, culture, spirituality, & politics in the deep South. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Looking for a real bio? Click here to read my story....

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9 Responses to “How To Cultivate A Compassionate Life: Tonglen.”

  1. Ramesh says:

    Brilliant as usual. Great piece/stepping stone for the left brain to climb on … before fading away on its own so that we can stand for a while on this groundless ground.

  2. Brent Binder drbinder says:

    This is a beautiful practice Ben, I will bring it to meditation group this weekend!
    Also, I demand you see a past life regression therapist at once so we can find out who you really are! lol

  3. K Sequoia says:

    I am beginning to look for your articles, and just marinate in them. This is a very lucid and beautiful expression. I am satiated and inspired! You have so clearly explained what I often struggle to put into words.

    Kim

  4. What K Sequoia said!

  5. Dan Woo says:

    Thank you Ben. Tonglen is a practice that changes everything. I wrote about one of my personal experiences where the unexpected happened. This and other experiences constitute part of the faith by which I continue my practices. My essay about one aspect of tonglen is named "letting go of pain; we don't need to add pain to someone else's pain" is at https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=7456243….

  6. [...] Ten: How To Cultivate A Compassionate Life: Tonglen. Excerpt: “Compassion does not seek to control or manipulate other. There is no need to [...]

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