To those of us unfamiliar with Tibetan Buddhism, the word tonglen holds no meaning.
Its value as a practice can hold a profound change for us all.
Tonglen basically means taking and giving. It is a practice in compassion and is similar to prayer, except that its sole intent is to take the suffering of others upon ourselves and give them our health and peace and happiness in return.
It is, I feel, the ideal archetypal action of the bodhisattva.
To many Westerners, this sounds like an absurd and foolish notion; even our mental health care workers encourage an egocentric world view in order to self-heal.
Why think of taking on the burdens of other people?
For some, the action of tonglen is literally about taking on the suffering of others, but it starts out as a practice in creating compassion and empathy for others.
Our practice can start with the simple idea of wishing someone well: a spouse, a child, a friend. It doesn’t have to be the entire planet at first.
We simply sit and feel our emotions about this person welling up—our love towards our son or daughter, our love towards our spouses or loved ones.
We allow this feeling to grow and we feel it flowing towards them with a deeper and more intense desire for their well-being. It doesn’t have to be more complex or in-depth than that.
As we progress in our feelings of wishing others well-being and an end to suffering, we can start trying with someone who is neutral—a friendly acquaintance or co-worker. We notice they have a cold, or are nervous about an interview or some other aspect of their life.
We can understand these feelings as we can relate to them. We have also experienced sickness and anxiety over a situation. We allow our understanding to grow, and with it, our sense of connection through a shared experience and emotion. We understand and wish them to feel at ease or wish them luck and success.
This process of growing and relational empathy is the second step. It is easy and calm. It is not a self-martyrdom. It is just a simple growing of empathy.
As we start to connect with our ability to relate and feel empathy and concern for others, we can start with other sentient beings; the suffering of animals at the hands of humans, starving children or homeless people, an abused woman, a missing child.
If we sit with these situations, we can understand the sense of fear, pain or dread that is inherently connected to them.
We can understand that there are more than just our family and friends in this world who face the same fears and pains that we do. We begin to relate to a larger expression of life and connectedness. We wish these other beings peace and freedom.
As our feelings of compassion start to grow, we notice that our ability to connect and relate to others has greatly expanded.
The walls we build to push others away are crumbling.
Ideas of I and them are starting to fade.
So with this, we increase our practice to include people we don’t necessarily care for. People in the prison system; people who support that ever-so-demonized other political party, or even those who have hurt us. They are also capable of feeling pain and fear. They suffer and want to protect their loved ones as well. Their actions, much like ours, are a projection of their fears and grasping.
We can sit and remember when we felt how small our world was—the notion of taking care of me and mine and that was it. The rest of the world can fend for itself.
Our idea of compassion has grown and we can now see how similar we really are to others who only want that same sense of security, even if their struggle to find it can be harmful. Their intentions are usually good. They want freedom just as much as we do.
They want a sense of security in a world that knows only constant change and flux. Maybe their hurt isn’t so different from ours. And we start to connect. We start to feel that their well-being, much like ours, can change a set perspective. And so, we wish them well. We want to help them grow and flourish.
Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”
When we first started our practice of tonglen, this message might not have been something we were willing to entertain. It ran against our “natural animal instinct of tooth and claw, kill or be killed.”
As our practice deepened, we saw less and less of a need for such extreme barriers between us and them. The idea of me and mine has dwindled and a sense of true connection with others has flourished. The idea of taking on the burden of another being doesn’t seem like such a foolish idea anymore. In fact, it seems like the natural state of our mind.
As tonglen practice deepens and continues, as our interconnectedness becomes obvious, we realize that our walls have fallen, our hurts have dwindled, our fear and angst has become almost non-existent and, lo and behold, what’s this thing on my face?
Yes, it’s a smile. In our pursuit to heal others, we have healed ourselves. We have shed our delusions and falseness and we have begun to allow ourselves to be fully open, fully connected and fully loved.
Like the Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; if you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
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Editorial Assistant: Hannah Harris/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum