Bear's Blog

Tonglen - An Ancient Practice for Modern Times

May 22, 2020

Is there a situation where the suffering is deep and complex, and you don’t know what to do (like now)? It seems an appropriate time to share this meditation, with Corona taxing our resilience and understanding of what’s happening in the world.  It’s an antidote to feeling helpless or afraid. 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 Foundation class I teach).

Tonglen is a powerful Buddhist practice 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 a center of transformational energy. 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 – connect with suffering as darkness, heaviness, a cloud, jagged energy, anger - you might even sense faces, or voices expressing pain – what is you sense?

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.

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.  

I also experience a sense of contraction on the in-breath, and expansion on the out-breath.

You can use this basic format in three different formats; I recommend doing them separately and 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. I also work with a mantra as I’m doing it:

may all beings be free of suffering
may all beings everywhere be happy
om lokah samasta sukino bhavantu

Substitute a person’s name, or I, for “all beings” depending on the version you are doing. Now I do all of them wrapped into one, although I still do three “rounds”. My Tonglen practice has been through some other changes these past few months, all fascinating! I hope this becomes a beautiful part of your day.


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