Sending and Receiving
by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche
Training in shamatha meditation, the basic meditation practice, is very important and will bring many benefits. With consistent practice, we acquire calmness and clarity of mind as well as a sense of mental precision. We also develop a greater perception of space, and are able to view situations properly and more precisely within this experience of space. Yet, as we work with this technique and begin to appreciate the qualities that develop from it, we should begin to develop a greater vision of what we can accomplish for other beings, and how we can best apply what we have learned to the situations around us.
Although basic meditation is extremely important, it is not the only thing you should be content practising. It does provide some sense of openness, and helps us to see our confusion more clearly and with less fear, but it does not uproot our confusion completely. Application of different stages of skillful means is necessary if we are to cut through the confusion, the paranoia, and the habitual patterns that we have developed. In this way, practising basic meditation is like sharpening our minds, facilitating our ability to appreciate and work more effectively with situations and materials that exist around us. For example, when you sharpen an axe, if you just keep sharpening it and sharpening it for no reason, there is not much point to your efforts. But, if you use it for some purpose, like chopping wood, then it makes great sense to sharpen it.
In order to further develop and integrate skillful means on the path, the openness and the firm grounding cultivated in the basic meditation practice are indispensable. Yet, if we are content to practice only the basic meditation, after a while we will not be able to do without it, and it will become just another habitual pattern or attachment. Instead of developing greater vision and sense of space, we may be developing different kinds of claustrophobia. Therefore, while the mind becomes calm, clear, and precise, it must also be playful enough to utilise the skills it has developed.
Realistically, we must be aware that as our practices become more meaningful, continuous transformations are necessary to ensure progress. We must not get so comfortable at one stage of development that we are overwhelmed by any situations of transformation. Mentally, we may have advanced somewhat, but from an ultimate point of view, we still have not achieved perfect sanity. For instance, if you are tied up, it does not matter whether the rope is black or white; as long as you stay bound, you will remain in a state of fixation and stagnation. The important thing is to get free. The practices we work with are designed to help us understand the nature of ego so we can recognise the possibilities of cutting through or unfolding the patterns of ego clinging. And if our practice — be it shamatha meditation or any other practice — is not leading in such directions, then we are missing the point. Consequently, whatever skillful means we can exercise through the practice of shamatha will aid us in fulfilling our potential for greater sanity and wakefulness.
When we talk about cutting through ego-clinging, we must not misunderstand and think that there is something substantial and solid that needs to be transferred or taken out, or that somebody could take out for us. Instead, there is something very narrow and rigid about our attitude and the way we perceive the world, and readjustment is necessary. The practice we are going to work with demands a realistic concern, not simply about ourselves, but about the environment and the beings around us; it also demands a sense of responsibility for our past, present, and potential actions. We must develop a greater sense of openness in order to accommodate situations that might demand some participation or responsibility, no matter how unpleasant or how little they accord with our desires or expectations.
To begin to nurture this understanding and vision, we can consider the traditional teachings which elucidate the Buddhist view of the nature of samsaric beings. This outlook is that all beings have been entangled in various kinds of painful confusion and paranoia from beginningless time, and there is every possibility that this will continue into the future. Comprehending this, we desire to know (and we are not afraid to actually find out) how this situation has transpired, and if there is some way we could be more responsible about it.
In traditional Buddhism, we consider all sentient beings as having once been our mothers or having acted in some protective, caring capacity toward us. Given the interrelated nature of existence, this is quite conceivable. If we sincerely probe into the situation even further, we begin to realise that we are actually very responsible for a great deal of the pain and suffering that beings are experiencing. When these beings were our mothers, they did everything possible to try to possess us, to protect us, and to bring us up, with tremendous attachment and clinging. Because of this, they developed strong patterns of paranoia, confusion, and constriction, which constantly cause them intense pain.
If you examine the relationship with your mother within this lifetime, you can begin to appreciate the frustration, the embarrassment, the difficulties, and the suffering that you have caused endless beings. She had to go through a tremendous amount of embarrassment attempting to protect you, experiencing harm and developing confusion in subtle and gross ways. No matter how demanding and frustrating it was, no matter how inconsiderate and ungrateful you were, no matter how much turmoil and chaos you precipitated, still she continued to care for and attend to you when you were unable to care for yourself. Even now, when you are grown up, she continues to cling to you and wants to protect you from various situations of fear, confusion, and so on. Whereas, as far as you are concerned, quite frankly, you have not done anything very beneficial for her. On the contrary, you have always wanted more, thinking, “Well, she didn’t do this or that for me, and she could have done a little bit better in so many cases.” Obviously, we have been very ungrateful and inconsiderate.
It is possible that your mother is going through the deepest suffering and confusion as a result of the patterns that were built up and the circumstances that were undergone to guarantee your very existence. Therefore, you must awaken to the responsibility you need to take. Despite any unpleasantness and pain, you must acknowledge the suffering you have caused and develop a concern for creating an environment of sanity. If you can recognise this, then — although you are confused and have much to work through — there is still a sense of courage and a determination that it is time to take sincere action. We cannot always try to hide and pretend that we do not actually see the situation. It is important that you be sincere and honest with yourself in thinking about the confusion you have brought into being. At this point you should be responsible enough to actually bring about some positive changes and contribute towards the unfolding of confusion. We should train our minds with this understanding.
Some people might take the easy way out and brush it aside, saying, “Yes, for certain individuals I might have caused problems and created confusion, and maybe there are a few things for which I should be grateful and for which I should take responsibility. But, still, there is nothing I can do about it at this point.” And there are those who might say, “Actually, those other people have been responsible for the difficulties and confusion I’m going through. They are the ones who should do something about it.” This just means they have shifted accountability for their own lives onto somebody else and are not willing to become responsible people. For them, responsibility is a very scary thing to handle, or even think about.
It should be quite different for someone who is a practitioner of the Dharma, having practised meditation and having some sense of who we are. Through the meditation practice we should have a sense of openness towards ourselves and others, some precision of insight, and some clarity of mind. When we see the suffering and the confusion that beings are going through, we can actually open whatever veils we have created and see that there is confusion, it is real, and it is taking place. And because we have a sense of our true essence, we can actually do something to help eliminate this suffering. A genuine desire to sincerely participate arises.
Through the meditation practice, it is possible to develop a situation of friendship with yourself, from which you can radiate friendship towards others. Although a situation may look very frustrating and depressing, it is not necessary to remain in that state of mind, and maybe you can illuminate the situation with this friendliness and generate a warm and affectionate atmosphere.
As individuals we can make contributions towards the elimination of suffering and the creation of joy and happiness. In fact, if you had a true sense of who you are and what you could accomplish, it would be so overwhelming as to cause tears of joy and enthusiasm. Therefore, you should have confidence in your ability to make large and powerful strides. After all, it is not that you are really tied down or that you have to be so uptight.
As far as actually bringing about tremendous friendship and happiness in the lives of others, and eliminating all suffering and confusions, you may have a lot of patterns that you need to work out yourself, and may not immediately be able to perform such a service. For this reason, you should first train your mind with these possibilities until you begin to appreciate who you are and what you can do. When the mind has been trained properly, your body and speech synchronise with the responsibility that the mind has taken. Accordingly, in the sutras it is said, “Remain in the meditative state of loving-kindness,” which means that you should train your mind with compassionate awareness and develop your ability to actually illuminate and radiate such friendship. In order for our body and speech to spontaneously appreciate and thus support the training of the mind, we use the traditional mind training practice of Tonglen, or the “sending and receiving” practice.
In the sending and receiving practice, the mind is trained in a meditative way, with a basic understanding of the friendship and the goodness that could be brought about. There is also a sense of responsibility towards eliminating the sufferings and the confusions of others. To begin with, we sit in the formal meditation position and follow the breath. With the outgoing breath, we send out towards all beings whatever goodness, health, and wholesome situation we have. As a result, all beings radiate with goodness, health and well-being, creating an environment of richness and sanity. You can also be more specific, sending out joy and health to a particular being, such as your mother or the person for whom you have the greatest concern. Whatever seems appropriate is fine. Then, while remaining confident in your ability to accommodate the negativities of others, you take in with the incoming breath all the confusion, limitations, and sufferings of other beings.
Working with the breath in this way, you train the mind by offering others all the wakefulness you have, and by taking all the confusion and paranoia of others on yourself. It is as if a bright light were going out with the breath towards all beings, representing your good and wholesome qualities. With the incoming breath, it is as if the embodiment of all suffering were coming towards you, which you then gladly take in. This giving and taking is, in a sense, what we have been trying to do in the practice all along, but up to this point we have not been able to generate true compassion or cut through the ego-clinging. On the contrary, everything has been for the purpose of self-gratification, for protection and security, and has only resulted in greater dissatisfaction. This is why it is necessary to change your attitude and the way you relate to the world at large.
Through this practice, we are able to see ourselves more clearly and let go of our clinging, loosening the state of fixation while also generating compassion towards others. Nurturing this attitude in our minds is important, because, although we often do some sort of giving and receiving, it is always incomplete because of the self aggrandisement we seek and the doubts and expectations we have. One moment we will be glowing with a bright smile, and the next moment we will be completely frozen, because we have not been properly trained.
To that end, a vital meditation practice will be consistent and will incorporate the Tonglen discipline of sending and receiving. It will also bring positive effects into post-meditation situations. If you understand and take your responsibilities sincerely, and meditate consistently, it is entirely possible that you will have the ability to produce these effects. You will feel that everyone, no matter who they are, is actually quite friendly and amiable, and that no one intentionally means to do harm. You will begin to understand that there may be great confusion in the surrounding world, but there is also some capacity for friendship. Whatever dissonance is taking place will not be seen as intentional, but will be recognised as a result of the confusion and limitations beings suffer, and this will only inspire you to take on even more responsibility. Furthermore, in all activities you will generate kindness, tenderness, and compassion; you will speak gentle and kind words accompanied by comforting body gestures. You will be constantly giving of yourself to others. There will be no sense of self-concern or selfish pride because you will identify with the responsibilities you have taken.
There may be situations where kindness shown towards beings who cannot appreciate it, will result in projections of further confusion. However, because of intensive meditation, and because of the understanding that has been developed, you will be able to accommodate that neurosis and perceive its unintentional nature. In this state of compassion, there is a sincere desire to benefit others however we can. Because of these sane intentions and activities, there will be a great deal of inner and spiritual development. Outwardly, you become a very decent, responsible, genial person.
We like to talk about the possibilities of a sane society where everyone is responsible and can generate a friendly environment and live in a dignified, or uplifted, manner. This is definitely possible in the ordinary world, as well as in terms of the spiritual realm and the experience of bodhisattva realisation. It is not something out there beyond reach; instead, it is an inherent quality that is as close as home. It is simply a question of some work and integration. If you could become truly responsible for yourself and for others, if you could become responsible for your total liberation, then you could make a tremendous contribution to creating a very dignified and sane society. This is what the Tonglen training can bring into the world.