Tonglen Meditation or Giving and Taking
I have added various posts about many compassion practice. Earlier posts have covered a range of practices – from super-easy to more demanding. Here, I will add a more advanced practice. This Tibetan compassion meditation practice has been taught often in the Vajrayana school of Buddhism. In my opinion meditation teacher, Pema Chodron, is perhaps the most gifted trainer in this particular form of compassion practice. Tonglen, or giving and taking, is a more serious practice and one that sometimes requires more courage than other compassion practices. Tonglen emphasizes core Bodhisattva skills and practices; some of its foundations come from the 11th century Indian Master, Atisha.
When I do Tonglen, I like to begin with a ceremony that places my heart and soul in their most sensitive places. I do the nine bells ceremony (also posted here), in which I ring three Tibetan singing bowls three times each followed by three deep bows with hands in prayer mudra. I do this with deep respect for people in my family who have passed away. I repeat this ceremony three times. I do this ceremony slowly. I also like to pay attention to a poem I have written about the dead. The poem requests that YOU remember the face, smile, eyes, voice, favorite behaviors, and emotional connection between YOU and a significant person who has passed. I sometimes do loving kindness for myself and others before Tonglen practice. I find that such practices soften us up a bit; these practices place us in a better emotional position to do Tonglen. Are you ready to practice? My instructions are bare bones in detail. Note that preliminaries were based on the dead, but that Tonglen practice is based on people who are suffering right now – people known and unknown to you. Ultimately, the practice forces us into an insight of non-self-cherishing and giving great compassion and comfort to others. There are many choiceness realties in concentrating, accepting, exchanging and transforming the suffering of others.
- First, we become aware of our breath. Begin by using your imagination as if breathing IN dark, heavy, thick, hot, smoky breath and breathing OUT light, floating, smooth, cool, clear breath. Practice this for a few very slow breaths.
- Then focus your attention and empathy on known and unknown people who you know are suffering right now in this present moment. Be specific in each breathing sequences – a few minutes each. You may wish to begin with a person close to you, a person who is now suffering. After practicing a while with a person you are close to, you may want to turn your accepting (taking and giving) to other people, perhaps even people you do not know but understand are suffering right now.
- Here you practice radically accepting another person’s suffering and pain as your own, and not defending into avoidance or suppression. The practice enhances the belief that we are all inter-dependent, not separate selves of independent origination.
- Add more detail to your imagination by having a strong focus on what their suffering FEELS like. Do not block it. Continue to take it in on your in-breaths. Yes, you are willingly taking in the painful suffering of others. On your out-breaths, do your best to PUSH OUT compassion, feelings of love and caring, your compassionate intelligence, and soft heartedness to the same people. Allow your soft, caring, loving human heart to do the work. Taking in pain and suffering, and giving out compassion, caring, concern and love. You may even decide to send out some of your personal joy and happiness.
- As a more intensive practice, you may wish to do what Chogyam Trungpa suggested – along with breathing in and out, imagine taking and giving using every pore in your body. This more intense body practice may be beyond your capacity if you are new to Tonglen.
- If at any time you find this practice too strong emotionally for you, it is quite acceptable to stop doing it. Simply shift to loving kindness, etc.
- End with a brief loving kindness meditation for yourself.
By Anthony R. Quintiliani, PhD., LADC
From the Eleanor R. Liebman Center for Secular Meditation in Monkton, Vermont
Author of Mindful Happiness
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