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Tonglen - An Ancient Buddhist Practice

May 05, 2022

Are there situations where the suffering is deep and complex, and you don’t know what to do or how to help? It seems an appropriate time to share this Tonglen meditation again (it was part of my “Corona Care Series” in the spring of 2020.)

The pandemic, war, violence and natural (and non-natural) disasters are taxing our resilience and understanding of the world. Tonglen is an antidote to feeling helpless or fearful. In class many years ago, a student asked me during the (first) Iraq war “what can I do?” and this was my answer (it’s now part of every “Jumpstart Foundations'' class I teach.)

Tonglen is a powerful Buddhist practice akin to prayer that fosters change on many different levels – for ourselves, for others, and for the world. I have done it nightly for years. And as usual, I have an energetic take on the dynamics of the practice as well.

The human heart/chakra is the center of transformational energy in our physiology. Sitting midway between the lower three chakras, which are related to the physical – and the upper three chakras, associated with energy and spirit – it transcends all possibilities. In Tonglen we actively engage in transmuting suffering into peace, joy, and love. It is a simple practice that arouses compassion and has profound effects.

So here it is! I’ll give you the basic practice, and then 3 different versions to use.

The Basic Practice:

1) Align your Hara* (always!) You can sit or stand; eyes gazing downward, or perhaps focused on an altar.

Using the breath, and visualization:

2) The in-breath – visualize suffering as darkness, heaviness, a cloud, jagged energy, anger – even faces or voices expressing pain. When doing this for a more specific person or group, you may spontaneously sense something that you didn’t visualize intentionally!

3) Pause the breath - bring the suffering to your heart, and imagine a transformation occurring with some type of visuals like swirling, colors, little starbursts… feel the power and beauty of the heart as it transmutes the energy.

4) The out-breath – release the transformed energy as love, light, spaciousness, calm; you might see expressions of awe, serenity, understanding, relieved or delighted faces.

You can use this basic format in three different ways. I recommend trying them out in this order at first.  

1) Tonglen for another person: choose a person you know but don’t get into the details of their story, even if you are familiar with those particulars. Try to eliminate projection, judgment, or how things should/need to improve for them.

2) Tonglen for a group of people (or any sentient beings): related to a situation such as a pandemic, war, mental illness, hunger… or just pain in general. All people suffer; you don’t need to know the why, or sort out good and bad, causes and effects.

3) Tonglen for yourself: bring up a memory where you were hurt in some way - or maybe realized you caused hurt to someone else. Remembering the situation, see yourself experiencing it from an objective viewpoint. Bring the same kindness and compassion to yourself as you did to others.

That’s it! Breathe in suffering – transform it at your heart – then breathe out peace, love, and happiness. This is the mantra that goes along with the practice:

“may all beings be free of suffering” (in-breath)
transformation at the heart (pause)
“may all beings everywhere be happy” (out-breath)

(Last line in Sanskrit: om lokah samasta sukino bhavantu)

Substitute the name of a group, a person’s name, or I, for “all beings” depending on the version you are doing. I do three “rounds” of one type, and can feel an increase in the power of the practice with each round. My Tonglen practice has gone through many changes over time, all fascinating! I hope this becomes a beautiful part of your day.

In my new webinar “3 Steps to Jumpstart Your Energy Healing Practice” I show you how to align your Hara* and other ways it can be used throughout your day.

https://www.bearmckay.com/webinar

I hope Tonglen, or another type of prayer, is a part of your daily practice. If not, it’s a good time to start!

Peace, love and healing –

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