Tonglen Mind Training For An Open Heart

Category: Buddhist Path | Love & Compassion Meditation | Recent Meditation Posts

image of many buddha statues holding hands in teaching mudra - tonglen

Tonglen is a Tibetan term that means ‘giving and taking.’ This beautiful meditation is a mind training exercise not only for cultivating compassion, but for expanding it immeasurably.

Preparing For The Practice Of Tonglen (Cultivating Compassion)

The foundation of tonglen practice, giving and taking, is compassion. In the Mahayana tradition, tonglen practice instructions thus begin with the 7-point mind training on generating great compassion.

To do this, we think back as far as we can to the very first person who was caring and loving toward us. Often, this person is our mother or another caregiver without whom we wouldn’t have survived.

We come into this world without clothes, hungry, screaming, and not very well-behaved. Miraculously, there’s somebody there who doesn’t mind, who does everything for us over and over again. They clean us up, feed us, and give us everything they have. They are not perfect, but from their point of view, they give us the very best they can offer.

And yet, when we look at our mother or caregiver, it doesn’t appear they are very happy. As all of us do, they become sick, they have problems. If we think deeply of this person who has kept us alive at our most vulnerable time, something in our heart is touched and opens. We get this feeling of warmth, of caring, of wanting to pay back their kindness. This feeling is the starting point for tonglen.

How To Practice Tonglen Giving

Tonglen meditation for beginners starts with the giving. We can train in giving for as long as we want before adding in the part of taking, until giving becomes our second nature.

To do the giving part of tonglen, we imagine our mother in front of us with all her current difficulties. We generate the feeling of caring for her and wanting to pay back her kindness. And so, to fulfill our aspirations for her happiness, we imagine sending her all we have that is good and pleasant. We can also support this wish with an out-breath where we imagine white light moving towards her. We imagine it goes to her, touches her and makes her happy. With her happiness, we are also happy. That’s the very first step.

The next step is to widen the circle. So, we give this goodness and happiness to everyone in our life who is close to our heart, to whom this wish comes easily. This may include our friends, our family, our community. But then we have to expand further. We send warmth and kindness to the neutral people in our lives. Maybe the person at the cash register in the supermarket or the neighbor who is little more than an acquaintance.

Still, meditating on the neutral person is not enough. We can give well-wishes to the people in our lives who are bothering us, who we find annoying. We can even give kindness to those who have hurt us deliberately. All of these people are just like you and me; they look for happiness, they struggle. If they have hurt us, it was due to their struggle for happiness or their wanting to keep unhappiness away.

It’s common to think with certain people, ‘I can’t do that, not possibly after what they have done to me.’ If that’s the case, we try saying the wish anyway. There’s no reason why we cannot wish happiness for everyone. It may not actually change the person’s situation, but it does change our attitude, and that is the most important thing. Tonglen is a mental training, we are increasing our capacity for compassion.

The Tonglen Practice of Taking

When we feel ready for it, we start taking. Taking means accepting the idea that we are able to handle disadvantages, a little pain, a little suffering.

Again, we go back and think of our mother, somebody who’s very dear to us. We think of their suffering and hardship, their big and the small problems, and we symbolically condense all of it into black light. As we breathe in, we take this black light in with the breath and it dissolves in our heart, freeing this person from their suffering.

Taking expands similarly to giving. First, we practice taking the hardships of somebody very close to us. Then friends, a neutral person, and the enemies, those who annoy us. We then take expand our taking toward all beings in the universe. We no longer focus on any one person but experience an attitude of total openness.

If you feel there is fear or resistance to taking on suffering, even for those who are dear to you, that is a good thing. It brings awareness to how we are normally wired. Typically, we want to keep the good for ourselves and give away the bad. With tonglen, we train the mind to flip this.

So if we find it difficult, we develop some curiosity. We open our hearts and do it again. We observe how it feels. By opening more and more and taking more onto ourselves, we discover courage. We discover that with an open mind, there is the possibility of dealing with much more. Every hardship can become just another experience.

Many people wonder, ‘is tonglen dangerous?’ It is important to remember that tonglen is a form of mental training. It is not about literally taking on pain, suffering or sickness. When you breathe in the suffering of your sick friend, you are not becoming sick. You are transforming your attitude from a self-centered to a selfless one. This is the open, awakened heart. In the awakened heart there is only space, therefore suffering dissolves there.

Giving and Taking in Tonglen Meditation Practice

Once you feel comfortable with both giving and taking, you can do it alternatively. Every out-breath is giving, every in-breath is taking. You can do it over and over again, offering giving and taking to everyone, both in and out of formal meditation.

We can practice tonglen in any situation in daily life. When we see somebody who is suffering, we can mentally express our compassion toward them. We just breathe in and take their suffering, breathe out and give the wish for happiness. It becomes our way of dealing with the world. This is the main meditation practice of bodhicitta – the heart of compassion.

More than that, however, it becomes the way of dealing with our own state of mind. When anger comes up, for example, either mine or somebody else’s, there’s no difference. I breathe in the suffering that is part of feeling anger, I dissolve it and I give the wish for happiness to that angry part of myself. In this way, tonglen is applicable in any situation. It is a meditation for life.

About the Author: Julia Stenzel

Julia Stenzel PhD is a long time meditation teacher who specializes in the benefits of compassion meditation
Julia Stenzel was born in the US and raised in Germany. She pursued her interest in meditation, compassion, and Buddhist philosophy through an extensive exploration of Eastern contemplative training and Western academics. Her personal practice and philosophical studies give Julia the means to transmit the profound tenets of compassion in an accessible way. She is an Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies at Kathmandu University’s Centre for Buddhist Studies. Learn more about Julia Stenzel here.

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