shaman image

Tonglen Meditation


Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist technique that I learned from contact with Dozgchen teachings. While this practise is quite simple, (like Dzogchen mindfulness) it's clear that it also has the potential to be very powerful indeed.
If your ideas of what Tibetan Buddhism may be about are in any way glamourised (as mine were, I think) then by becoming familiar with meditations like this, one thing that may become apparent is how the nature of the 'game' could not be more direct or down-to-earth. The approach here may not require deep philosophical insight, but it does require a degree of courage, in a way that may surprise you, at first.
To practise tonglen means facing up to yourself, radically, moment-to-moment, with real and unwavering commitment, so that by bringing compassion into the here-and-now, consistently, behaviour can really be transformed. The hope is that this practise becomes a habit, and that ultimately we bring compassion to bear in every action-reaction interaction that we experience in daily life. (Easy, you say? Ha!)... This is an active meditation, to be performed while engaged in 'normal', everyday things outside of the meditation room. (Not to be attempted while undertaking dangerous activities however). If you are unused, or unsure, about meditating actively like this, then it may be a good idea to 'psyche up' to it, familiarising yourself with a sitting form of tonglen first.

Last but not least, in order to practise this meditation we need the opportunity to relate to other people...


OK. In everything that you do, be fully 'present'. Allow your breath to become deep and regular, and really FEEL yourself breathing. Feel yourself being here, now, in the moment, with a minimum of internal dialogue. If you become distracted by a train of thought, then gently bring yourself back. If you are distracted by your emotions, bring yourself back to being here, now.

Reserve 25% of your awareness-energy for the part of you that is distracted. Reserve 25% for the 'observer' part of you, that is, the part of you that is able to monitor what is going on and provide feedback. But let 50% of your awareness-energy be rooted in a sense of the 'voidness' of things: the 'sunyata', as a Mahayana Buddhist might call it, that underpins all apparent phenomena, the reality behind the illusion. What a Dzogchen practitioner might also call the 'ground luminosity'.

Every time you find yourself too 'caught up' in sense perceptions, in your thoughts, or in your feelings, then without repression, and without indulgence, come back to this empty mindfulness: this is an easy, integrated, and natural way of being in the world that is nonetheless very aware.

Stay with this, in all of your actions.

Now let's say, for example, that you see a homeless person in a shop doorway when you're standing waiting for a bus. Without staring at them in some unnatural way, really try and 'put yourself in their shoes' in the sense of empathising with that person's experience. If they slept out last night, do you think they were cold? Perhaps they are alcoholic, or addicted to some other dangerous substance, or perhaps they are just unlucky: don't make any moral judgements, just try and feel for that person's experience. Use your eyes and ears to see what's really happening for them.

This is just an example, don't forget: the idea is to choose to tune in to the lives of some or all of the people with whom you come into contact. They could be anybody. The person in the shop where you stop to buy something. A work colleague. The friend who calls round unannounced for a cup of tea and a chat. A psychotherapuetic client. Any or all of these people.

It may be, that out of the blue, you find yourself in a conflict situation with somebody: let's say that someone is driving aggressively and throwing insults at you in a way that is quite unprovoked. Choose them for this practise. Don't reciprocate their anger. Tune in to them, and feel their suffering.

Try and maintain a sense of the non-duality of self and other, and insofar as you can feel that, let compassion arise naturally and without force from that, without you needing to manufacture anything at all.

All we're doing so far is engaging with openness, and a Buddhist perspective. But let's take it a little further.

As you breathe in, imagine that you are breathing in all of that person's suffering. Draw this suffering into you, into your heart. As you do this, imagine too that you are lightening the burden for them, helping them feel better and more hopeful. You are lightening the burden for them, helping them feel better and more hopeful. To do this is good karma for you as well, but you don't need to dwell on that too much. What is good to think about, though, is this: as that suffering comes in, on the inbreath, so it reduces the amount of stuff that you have obscuring the boddhicitta in you, known as 'the heart of the enlightened mind'. Your intention, and your actions, here, are having the effect of dissolving the self-grasping that have taken you away from manifesting buddha-nature.

As you focus on that buddha-nature more and more, so on the outbreath, 'send' out to the person you are relating to, all of the light, joy, happiness, peace and healing that come naturally to that part of you.

As you send this all of this wonderful energy out to them, so it has the effect of dissolving their negative karma, lessening the forces that keep them in a state of bondage or ignorance.


There is a virtuous circle here!
Stick with it.


Contribution: Richard Ebbs, Leeds, England.


Home Page