Sermon on the Mat #6: Tonglen

Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist practice.

It takes the typically egoic way of wanting to avoid pain and gravitate towards pleasure, and turns it on its head. Instead, we learn to breathe in what’s uncomfortable and painful in the world, and breathe out blessings, comfort and happiness.

Tonglen meditation is truly transformative, putting into perspective the pains and pleasures of all living beings, while taking the attention off of our small egoic selves. It’s also an effective way to work with difficult emotions.

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, teacher and author, in her book The Wisdom of No Escape, is a true expert in tonglen and I encourage you to pick up her writings if you want to delve more deeply into this practice.  So what exactly do you do in this practice?

Tonglen is a meditation practice.  A Tibetan word, tonglen means “giving and receiving.” As such, the concept of this meditation technique involves giving and receiving, which refers to taking in the suffering of the self and others and giving compassion and support to those in need. In this way, Tonglen meditation increases compassion toward others and develops the ability to aid in addressing another’s distress.

The Psalmist speaking to God in Psalm 104 writes, “You set forth your breath and renew the surface of the earth.” This is what tonglen does; uses the breath to transform the suffering of others.  Tonglen is this art of transformation.  This practice reveals that “spacious mind” has room for infinite suffering.  Just like the sky is never filled with clouds but is always greater than them, so the spacious mind is never filled with suffering but holds it within a greater love.  It is like the crucifixion of Christ.  It is a way to take upon oneself the pain of the world and transform it into love.  Christ came to earth to die for our sins.  He took on the sins of the world so that we could be saved. With this practice, we can learn to hold the suffering but not be diminished by it.

What if when we encountered suffering we “breath it in” and in turn breath out “infinite peace”  The suffering does not stay but transformed and returned to the world as love.  So too am I: love.  We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others. Tonglen awakens our compassion and introduces us to a far bigger view of reality. It introduces us to the unlimited spaciousness of shunyata. By doing the practice, we begin to connect with the open dimension of our being. At first this allows us to experience things as not such a big deal and not so solid as they seemed before.


When you do tonglen as a formal meditation practice, it has four stages:

1.First, rest your mind briefly, for a second or two, in a state of openness or stillness. This stage is traditionally called flashing on absolute bodhichitta, or suddenly opening to basic spaciousness and clarity.

2.Second, work with texture. Breathe in a feeling of hot, dark, and heavy-a sense of claustrophobia-and breathe out a feeling of cool, bright, and light-a sense of freshness. Breathe in completely, through all the pores of your body, and breathe out, radiate out, completely, through all the pores of your body. Do this until it feels synchronized with your in-and out-breaths.

3.Third, work with a personal situation-any painful situation that’s real to you. Traditionally you begin by doing tonglen for someone you care about and wish to help. However, as I described, if you are stuck, you can do the practice for the pain you are feeling and simultaneously for all those just like you who feel that kind of suffering. For instance, if you are feeling inadequate, you breathe that in for yourself and all the others in the same boat, and you send out confidence and adequacy or relief in any form you wish.

4.Finally, make the taking in and sending out bigger. If you are doing tonglen for someone you love, extend it out to those who are in the same situation as your friend. If you are doing tonglen for someone you see on television or on the street, do it for all the others in the same boat. Make it bigger than just that one person. If you are doing tonglen for all those who are feeling the anger or fear or whatever that you are trapped in, maybe that’s big enough. But you could go further in all these cases. You could do tonglen for people you consider to be your enemies-those who hurt you or hurt others. Do tonglen for them, thinking of them as having the same confusion and stuckness as your friend or yourself. Breathe in their pain and send them relief. Tonglen can extend infinitely. As you do the practice, gradually over time your compassion naturally expands, and so does your realization that things are not as solid as you thought. As you do this practice, gradually at your own pace, you will be surprised to find yourself more and more able to be there for others even in what used to seem like impossible situations.


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