Living and Dying With Dignity
by Venerable Sheng Yen

How can we live and die with dignity? People usually cannot control their life situations or make things happen according to their wishes, and too often they feel they have no one to rely on, nowhere to find security, nowhere to turn in life. These are the feelings and situations in which most sentient beings find themselves. But it is possible to change this perception to one that contains a sense of beauty and love while affirming that life is meaningful. In this process, one can also grow and mature. This is the appropriate attitude toward life from the Buddhist point of view.

Having said that, I should point out that many Buddhists feel that life is basically suffering, a burden to bear, especially with regard to the body. What they fail to understand is that attaining enlightenment — that is, living a life based on wisdom — is possible only if one has a human form. Without a body to practice with it would be impossible to attain liberation and Buddhahood. There is a Buddhist saying that a human form is very difficult to attain, but having it is a great opportunity to hear the dharma. Therefore, attaining wisdom begins with having a human form. In this sense, Buddhists who hold a negative attitude toward life misconstrue the dharma. With an appropriate understanding of the dharma, one would treat life as something very, very valuable.

From another perspective, some Buddhists may think the best way to attain Buddhahood is to be reborn in the Pure Land, the Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha. Though the Pure Land is a spiritual realm of bliss, one cannot attain Buddhahood if one remains there. One must acquire a human form to be able to generate the vows to practise the Bodhisattva path. So the whole process, from becoming an ordinary sentient being to entering the Bodhisattva path and eventually attaining Buddhahood, is accomplished in the human realm.


If we can see that living and dying are interrelated processes, we can accept that the two are inseparable: if we are born, we will die; one is directly connected to the other. In this sense, being born may not be seen as a joyful thing, but it also need not be viewed as such a hazard. Likewise, death need not be seen as either sad or joyful. It all depends on one’s attitude. If you do not appreciate the beauty of life, then living can be viewed as pitiable. Some people find life joyful, but if there is no dignity, what is there to be happy about? If you do not know the true meaning of death, then it will be sad and depressing when it comes. But once you understand that life and death are innate parts of the process, you will be able to find dignity in life as well as in death.

How can we find dignity in our life? One way to answer this question is to look at life from three aspects: the meaning of life, the value of life, and the goal of life. If you can experience these, you will find dignity in your life. When I speak of the meaning of life, I refer to the reason why we continue living. From the Buddhist point of view, the significance of attaining life is that we have an opportunity to repay karmic debts from past lives.

Karma says that the things we do are causes that will create consequences. With this life, we can receive and accept appropriate karmic retribution from our actions in previous lives. In any present or future life, we must accept a certain amount of retribution from past karma. We can also use this life to fulfil the vows of practice that we have made in previous lifetimes. If we made certain promises and vows, this also becomes part of our karma. Then in this lifetime we have an obligation, as well as an opportunity, to fulfil those previous promises. So from the Buddhist perspective, the meaning o life is to receive karmic retribution as well as to fulfil our previous vows.

The value of your life is not assigned by someone who examines it and makes a judgement; it rests solely on your intentions and actions in fulfilling your responsibilities and offering yourself to sentient beings. It is the effort, within your limits of time and energy, to be of use to others. Whether they know of your dedication or understand it, the value of your life is simply in this effort to offer yourself. In society we play roles: for example, in order to be a mother, you accept the responsibilities of motherhood. It’s the same for any other role you play. Responsibility means doing your best in that role without expecting a reward. We can also offer ourselves the benefit of the natural environment. All these activities belong to the realm of benefiting oneself as well as others — in other words, practising the bodhisattva path.

Having goals means establishing a long-term direction for your life, including sharing it with sentient beings. It means continuing to make and fulfil vows. If we set these goals not just for this life but for future lives as well, whether our life is short or long, we live with dignity. As it is with value, the dignity that is conferred on you by others is not necessarily genuine. The only reliable dignity is that which you give yourself by the way you conduct your life.

It is useful to understand life and death as two sides of the same coin, as aspects of an unlimited process in space and time. Seeing it this way, there is no reason to be attached to life or afraid of death. Life and death are, on one hand, our right, and on the other hand, our responsibility. When alive, accept life and make good use of it; when dying, accept and welcome it. I have told people on their deathbed: “Do not just wait for death nor fear it. So long as you have one more minute, one more second, use that time to practice.” We should not be averse to life nor wish for death, but when it is time to go, clinging to life will not work. Of course, this is very difficult to do!

From a fairly early age, children should learn that just as there is life, there is death. It’s better to teach them to be aware of death than to shield them from that fact — not to frighten them but to help them understand that to all living things, death will eventually come. Knowing that life and death are part of the same process provides for a healthier, more wholesome view of life. To be mentally prepared for the eventual coming of death is beneficial for the growth of wisdom. Before he became enlightened, Siddhartha Gautama witnessed firsthand the processes of life: birth, old age, sickness, and death. That knowledge inspired him to devote his life to finding a way to help people relieve their suffering and attain liberation. So, the Buddhist path began with Shakyamuni Buddha facing the realities of birth, old age, sickness, and death. His life shows that if we treasure life as an opportunity to grow in wisdom and offer oneself to others, there is no need to fear death.


Religions and philosophies have views about where life comes from and where we go after death. Some people even try to use supernormal powers to look into previous and future lifetimes. While the desire to look into the past and future is typical human strivings, the results are not reliable. Confucius had a saying that life and death depend on fate, but he was not clear on what fate was. Though not a Buddhist, Master Laozi said that as soon as one is born, the causes for one’s death are already in motion. He also said, “Out of birth, into death.” As a philosophy, this is quite good. The idea that life was created by God and we die because God wants us to return to Him is also good in that one can feel that someone is taking care of the process. One difference is that most religions do not believe in past and future lives. As a Buddhist, however, I believe that the origin of my life extends back to my previous lives without limit, and my future lives will follow until I attain Buddhahood. That is the Buddhist view as to the origin and destination of life.

Buddhists believe that life comes from a past without beginning. So if we just look at this lifetime, the moment of our birth is not the beginning of the process and the moment of our death is not the end of this process — our current life is but one segment of an unbounded life process. Let’s use the analogy of a tourist. Today he is in New York; tomorrow he is not in New York because he has gone to Washington, D.C. The day after, he disappears from Washington because he has gone to Chicago. So, in any specific city (one lifetime in our analogy), that person appears for a period of time and then moves on. But if you look at his total itinerary, it is all one journey. So, what you may perceive as the end of this period of life actually signifies the eventual beginning of a different period of life — for me, for you, for everyone. When you see life as part of an unlimited and continuous process, there is no need to feel too disappointed in this one life, however, it turns out.

The phenomenon of life and death can be described in a more general way as the arising and perishing of causes and conditions. The Buddhist term for this process is “conditioned arising.” This refers to the fact that all phenomena consist of effects due to a myriad of changing causes and conditions acting together. The result of causes and conditions arising and perishing is all the phenomena we experience, including our own life. From the perspective of conditioned arising, we can speak of three kinds of birth and death.

The first kind of birth and death is the arising and perishing of the moment. In other words, in every instant of time, there are changes in our mental processes and changes in our bodily processes. Normally we do not take notice of such minute changes in us, and therefore we do not think of them as births and deaths. In this kind of arising and perishing, it is only the physical body that appears to be constant from instant to instant. But the cells of the body are also constantly undergoing these processes of arising and perishing — our cells continually generate and die. So, in the mind as well as in the body, in every instant, there are constant occasions of births (arising) and deaths (perishing).

The second kind of birth and death is more easily identifiable: the birth and death of one lifespan. In other words, the human lifespan arises at the moment of conception and perishes when we die. All living creatures experience the same arising and perishing of their lifespan, but we are talking here about the human context.

The third kind of birth and death consists of our lives in the three times of our past, present, and future. Our previous lives are countless; our future lives can also be countless until we attain Buddhahood. When we look at our lifespan this way, it is not just the moment we are born until the moment we die, but rather it extends over the three times. This gives us some hope and consolation in that, having attained life, we should continue to live because we have future lives to come.

What if one is unhappy and contemplates suicide, thinking the next life will be better? Is that a good thing? No, because when one commits suicide, it is being irresponsible to previous lifetimes, not doing justice to the present life, and creating karmic disturbances for their future life.

A single lifespan can be likened to the daily rise of the sun, and then its disappearance over the horizon in the evening. After the sun goes down you do not see it, but it is still there and will rise again in the morning. It does not come into being anew every morning. A lifespan is like that. When it ends, it eventually gives rise to another lifespan, like the sun rising again. But this observation only applies to the physical manifestation of a single lifespan, for there is pure Buddha-nature in every one of us that is ever-present throughout the three times. Like the sun, the physical body may go through the process of appearing and disappearing, but that has nothing to do with our pure Buddha-nature, which is there even when we don’t perceive it.

So, each lifespan can be thought of as a segment followed by another segment within the endless process of arising and perishing, but if one remains at this level, in the long run, one has not benefited from having all those precious lives. In order to elevate the quality and the meaning of life in the three times, we have to go beyond segmented birth and death and achieve transformational birth and death. That means practising buddha-dharma.

Transformational birth and death refer to the maturing of merit and virtue in a practitioner whose compassion and wisdom continue to grow life afterlife. Such a person can be called a sage, a bodhisattva, or an arhat. This process of transformation continues over the three times. At this level, a sage can still have a physical body or may have transcended the physical body and be basically using pure spiritual energy to cultivate the path. Buddhahood is the ultimate end of this process of transformation. It is the level at which one has transcended samsara — the cycle of birth and death — and has attained the great nirvana. Such a buddha can still appear in time and space to help sentient beings, as did Shakyamuni. While a buddha can manifest in human form and experience arising and perishing, for this buddha there is no attachment to birth and death and none of the vexations associated with birth and death.

Until we become sages or buddhas, how can we find dignity in living and dying? First, we should fully accept this rare and precious life that we now have. Then, when death is imminent we should accept it, if not with joy then at least with equanimity. Just as you should be grateful to the reality of life, you should also be grateful to the reality of death. We do not control when we will be born and most times we do control when we will die. From the perspective of Buddhist awareness, most people live without clarity, and when death is near, their mind becomes even more clouded. For such a person life is confusing and delusional. There is a Chinese saying that we live and die as if in a dream. At a higher level are those who accept life, make the best of it, and when death comes, they greet it with courage and without clinging. At the highest level is the enlightened practitioner who “cannot find either life or death,” meaning that for such a person there is really no such thing as life and death.

Until we die, we cannot know which of these categories we belong to, but as long as we are alive we should try to elevate the quality of our life and to clarify our mind. We should also be grateful that when death comes, we are released from the responsibilities attached to that life. Even better, after we die we can use the merit and virtue that we have accumulated to move forward to our next life, which should be full of joy and illumination.


If you can maintain a clear mind as death approaches, you can then very courageously accept it with joy. Whatever you have done during your life, virtuous or not, good karma or bad, be grateful for having received the gift of life. At the moment of your death, there should be no resentment, no regret, no anger, and no pride. Gone is gone. Think forward to a beautiful future. For this reason, the mental state of a dying person is most important. Some people as they are about to die think about the things they have done that they regret, and all the suffering they have caused. That kind of thinking is good for a living person, but not so good for a dying one. If, however, you approach death while holding no resentment, no regret, no anger, no pride, and just strive to accept a bright and illuminating future, it is more likely to happen. Whether you are reborn in the heavenly realms or in the human realm, you can again continue to practice, and that is a bright and illuminating future.

When a dying person’s condition is such that clarity of mind is not possible, or when they are unconscious or in a coma, friends and relatives can help the dying person with great devotion and concentration, chanting the Buddha’s name, reciting mantras, or meditating in a calming environment. Through such practices, we use the power of meditation and the power of faith to guide the dying person’s mind away from fear and toward assurance, to move toward illumination. This can definitely be helpful. So for those who on their deathbed cannot maintain clarity of mind, it is important that relatives and friends help in this way. And it is very useful. I myself have had a clear experience of this.

There are three factors that will determine what kind of rebirth you may have. The first is karma — the good as well as the bad karma that you have accumulated in your current and past lives. The better your karma, the better will be your chances of a good rebirth.

The second is the causes and conditions surrounding your current and past lives that are most ripe for maturing upon your next rebirth. You may have all kinds of karma but specific conditions can be closest to maturing at this point. If this is the case, they will be the conditions that will determine your next life.

The third factor is your mental state when you die: What thoughts are in your mind as you approach death? Do you accept your death with joy and gratitude? What aspirations do you have for a next life? Thoughts like these will influence what kind of rebirth you will have. For example, if throughout your life you have made vows, as you approach death you may repeat these vows. However, if you have never had such aspirations, it would be hard to have them on your deathbed. So practitioners should strive to have good aspirations on their mind as they approach death. If our future life was dependent on only karma and conditions, then we would be in a less reliable situation.

Ven Sheng Yen 25.

Look carefully at your experiences to recognise all the love you have received. Look carefully at your own actions and gestures to find ways to show love. Make room for that in your heart, and painful conflicts will lose their sting.

–17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje

17th Karmapa 26.




我们想要成就无上正等正觉,首先要发菩提心,发了菩提心之后,我们才会有上求佛道,下化众生的信愿和实践。省庵大师在《劝发菩提心文》 中说:“尝闻入道要门,发心为首;修行急务,立愿居先。愿立则众生可度,心发则佛道堪成。苟不发广大心,立坚固愿,则纵经尘劫,依然还在轮回;虽有修行,总是徒劳辛苦。”



善根是佛教重要的术语,又称为善本、德本, 即产生诸善法的根本。指身、口、意三业之善法而 言。在身口意三业中,无贪、无嗔、无痴三者为善根之体,合称为三善根。不善根则为贪、嗔、痴 等,即称三不善根,或称三毒。

对于众生来说,应当做到未生的善根,令其生起;已经生起的善根,令其增长。如《大智度论》 中说:“善有二种,一未生善,谓戒定慧等诸善之法,未曾修习,是名未生善。善若未生当勤修习,令其得生也;二者已生善,谓戒定慧等诸善之法,已曾修习,名已生善,善若已生,当勤修习,令其增长也。”



波罗蜜,汉语意思是“度”,即到彼岸的意思。佛教通常称六度为六波罗蜜。在我们现实人生中,有很多人一直处于痛苦、烦恼、沮丧此岸,只有通过修六波罗蜜,才能到达快乐、涅的彼岸, 从而达到圆满成就。

六波罗蜜中的布施可以培养我们的奉献精神; 持戒能使我们树立正念、正行;忍辱可以培养宽容的品格,并影响他人的言行;精进则可培养一个惹人坚韧不拔的吃苦精神;禅定可使人妄念消除,心态平和;智慧则可洞察宇宙、人生的真谛。

很多修道者都知道行诸波罗蜜的益处。但有的人能够做到短时间去修诸种波罗蜜,却无法做到持之以恒。这时,若有善知识的督促和教化,就会使修诸波罗蜜信心不太坚定的人更加充满信心。由于有了这种善知识的鼓励,修学者就能成就自利利他 的善行。







佛陀在菩提树下悟道之后说:“奇哉!奇哉! 一切大地众生皆有如来智慧德相,只因妄想执著不能证得。若离妄想执著,则一切智,自然智则会现前。”佛陀认为,一切众生都有与佛一样的智慧。只是众生因为贪嗔痴等妄想遮蔽了自己的清净佛性。如果众生能够脱离妄想执著,就可以明心见性了。古往今来,有很多高僧大德,为了令弟子悟道,他们常常采用言语引导、暗示、动作、棒喝等各种不同的方式来启发弟子。禅宗史上著名的禅门四大宗风“德山棒、临济喝、赵州茶、云门饼”等公案,都是禅宗祖师令弟子成熟佛果而采取的“截断众流”教化方式。

禅宗六祖慧能大师听人读诵《金刚经》有悟, 后到黄梅亲近五祖弘忍。弘忍知道其根性锐利,为避免弟子的嫉妒与加害,就令他从事破柴、舂米之类的劳作。等到因缘成熟,弘忍亲自为这位弟子印证,并密室传法给他。弘忍大师就是成就慧能为一代宗师的大善知识。






对一个出家人来说,若不能放下世情的牵挂, 就无法安心修道,也不能取得修行的成果。净土文中说往生净土的修行者在临终前应当“身无病苦,心不贪恋,意不颠倒,如入禅定⋯⋯”心不贪恋就是在往生前,要放下世人难以舍弃的财产、名利、亲人。若有贪恋,则因神识所牵,不能往生净土。因而,放下一切世间的贪着、留恋,是对一个修道者的基本要求。


修道者是舍弃世间享受,坚持行苦行的人。与世无争的生活方式,青灯古佛的苦行生活,是对出家人生活的真实写照。佛陀曾教育弟子,修行是一项清苦的世情,应当做到“难舍能舍,难行能行”。只有持之以恒的坚持修学,才有希望取得理 想的成绩。若是三天打鱼,两天晒网,或者一曝十 寒,便会一事无成,浪费了人生。

《四十二章经》中记述了佛陀有一个弟子, 每天精进诵经,从不知道休息。后来他因修行过度用功产生了厌倦而退失道心,佛陀于是问他在家时做什么工作。这个弟子说:“做调琴师?” 佛问:“弦太紧时如何?”弟子说:“弦太紧就会断了。”佛又问:“弦太松时如何?”弟子说:“弦太松则弹不出声音。”佛问:“弦不紧不松时如何?”弟子说:“声调悦耳动听。”佛陀借机开示弟子说:“修道和弹琴一样,太紧容易断;太松则弹不出声音;只有不紧不松才能弹奏出美妙的乐章。”






佛陀成道之后,初度乔陈如等五比丘,三转四谛法轮,其目的无非是令众生能够入佛知见,开佛智慧。在《法华经·方便品》中佛陀说自己讲说此经的目的,是为了令众生开示悟入佛之知见。为了令众生达到与佛同等的智慧,佛陀便以种种善巧方便、譬喻言辞为众生说法,令众生都能得到度化, 永脱轮回。

对众生来说,佛陀就是令众生入佛智慧的最大善知识。但是在佛世之后,历代有修有证的高僧,常以禅语、禅机接引学徒,令弟子能够去除妄想杂念,在言语道断,心行处灭的绝境中猝然悟道。如沩仰宗的创始人灵祐禅师开示慧寂禅师,旨在令其入一切佛智。这些指导弟子掌握正确修学方法,以成等正觉的高僧,都是学徒的善知识。以上十种善知识,能够从不同方面开示教化佛 弟子。通过不同善知识的教化,佛子则可在修行上少走弯路,从而更为方便地开佛知见。对于学佛者来说,我们也应当在修学时发大愿成为能够普渡群生的善知识。

Lotus 93.

People with a heart filled with arrogance always feel that they are wiser than others and that their talents are superior. But if we observe carefully, we would find that these are not at all worthy of consideration.

Perhaps temporarily, or in a limited way, your talents and appearance may supersede those of others. However, do not forget that there are still innumerable others who may surpass you a hundred or a thousand times over.

Even if your merits are unmatched by ordinary beings, it is certain that within noble beings there will be others who are superior to you. Moreover, your so-called good qualities will not last forever. They are just the products of specific causes and effects. They are absolutely impermanent.

— His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche

Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche (法王如意宝晋美彭措) 53.

Loving-Kindness: May All Beings Be Happy
by Melvin Escobar

Precarious times like these call for us to be quiet and listen to our hearts. According to its etymology, the word “precarious” derives from the Latin prefix prec, which means “prayer.”

An especially potent form of prayer for times of crisis like these is metta. Metta is a Pali word that has been translated as loving-kindness, universal goodwill, or loving-friendliness. My favourite translation, which I learned from Vipassana teacher Anushka Fernandopulle, is “unstoppable friendliness.”

Tradition tells us that, like the sun, metta is always present and doesn’t discriminate. Metta is the heart of what are known as the four divine abodes, which include compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. As a prayer, metta offers an authentic experience of our interconnectedness.

Metta is a concentration practice to cultivate unconditional goodwill for all. It is practised by reciting and contemplating a series of aspirations or prayers that express your goodwill and unstoppable friendliness toward yourself and others. With each recitation, you expand the scope of your loving-kindness — from yourself to those close to you, to those for whom you feel antipathy, and finally to all sentient beings.

For guidance on metta practice, let’s look at some quotes from the Karaniya Metta Sutta, known in English as The Discourse on Loving-Kindness, in which the Buddha teaches metta as a simple and direct way to meet the moment as it is.

Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.

A phrase such as, “May I/you/all be free from inner and outer harm,” when repeated with genuine goodwill, cultivates a sense of calm acceptance of things as they are. When the mind is determined to reject what it cannot change, it can become caught up in forms of inner harm such as shaming, blaming, complaining, and explaining. In wishing for safety and ease for ourselves or others, we are more able to hold the reality of impermanence, and the first noble truth that there is no place where one can entirely escape suffering or harm.

Whatever living beings there may be…omitting none….

A common question that arises is: how do I practice with the most difficult person I can think of? Consider an analogy to weight lifting. It’s obvious that it would be unwise and possibly unsafe to start out lifting the heaviest weights. We must practice with lighter ones first. Likewise, we can harm ourselves by trying to practice metta with a very difficult person, if we haven’t developed the capacity to work with the aversion and despair that may arise. We must build capacity incrementally, starting with ourselves, a dear mentor, or any beloved being (a pet, a tree, a deity).

Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.

Most people agree that we should not lie to others or hate them. Metta practice can help us see how we lie to and feel hatred toward ourselves. Sharon Salzberg, meditation teacher and author of the seminal book, Loving kindness, asked the Dalai Lama, “What do you think about self-hatred?” Confounded by her question, he replied, “Self-hatred? What is that?”

The self-hatred experienced by many in the West is actually a product of internalised oppression. The systems of oppression that bell hooks has called “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” teach us that we are never enough, that we must constantly strive to be worthy of happiness. Phrases like, “May I love myself as I am” and “May I be happy and know the true causes of happiness” help us see through the deception.

Let none through anger or ill will
wish harm upon another.

The Dhammapada teaches us: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; by non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is an eternal law.” Although anger can indicate that there is injustice or harm happening, it’s easy to slip into ill will toward the targets of our anger. It can be momentarily satisfying to wish harm on another, but the harm rebounds on ourselves. It’s the proverbial drinking of the poison and hoping the other person gets sick. A phrase like “May you be happy and healthy,” directed to the source of our anger, can help purify us of this poison.


Here is a typical series of metta contemplations you can practice, reciting them three times as you change the subject of your prayer from “I” to “you” to “all.” But feel free to create your own or adapt these to resonate with your own experience.

May (I/you/all beings) be safe and
protected, free from inner and
outer harm.

May (I/you/all) be happy.

May (my/your/everyone’s) body support the practice of loving awareness.

May (I/you/all) be free from ill-will, affliction, and anxiety.

May (I/you/everyone) love (myself/yourself/themselves) as (I am/you are/they are).

May (I/you/all) be happy and free
from suffering.

May (I/you/all) find peace in an
uncertain world.

May (I/you/all) find ease on the
middle path between attachment and apathy.

When you lose concentration, simply and kindly return to your phrases. Try not to judge the judgements that inevitably arise. Meet each moment with unstoppable friendliness. May you be inspired by the transformative potential of this practice.

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As from a heap of flowers many a garland is made, even so many good deeds should be done by one born a mortal.

— The Buddha











When we train in loving-kindness, we expand outward into the experience of those around us. Our tightness loosens, our compassion grows. We feel the joys and sufferings of others more deeply, and we are moved to help them. We take delight in the successes of our friends. Our equanimity becomes rooted in an indestructibly pure intention, in which distance and closeness of relation are no longer relevant. This is why the Buddha said we can become unshakeable like Mount Meru. We become warm and unmovable.

— Kyabgon Phakchok Rinpoche

Tonglen the Practice of Giving and Taking
by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

Tonglen is a very interesting practice! In most spiritual traditions, including New Age ones, there are meditations which involve breathing in light, love, and bliss. We visualise these qualities coming into the heart and transforming the body. Then we breathe out all our negativities. This seems like a very logical practice to do. But tonglen practise flips our mind and our preconceptions upside down because it does the exact opposite. We actually breathe in all the negativities and the darkness and breathe out all the love, purity, and light. This idea can be alarming for some people when they first encounter it. The negativities come into us as dark light and are absorbed into a small dark pearl at the centre of our chest. This pearl is our self-cherishing concept. It is the thing which says, “I am so important. Other people may be important, too, but they’re much less important than I am. I am basically the centre around which the rest of the universe revolves.”

When we do this practice, we are chipping away at that little black pearl, which cringes with every blow, because it absolutely does not want other people’s suffering, misery, and sickness. But the little pearl takes all this negativity in and it disappears into the emptiness of the Dharmadhatu, or ultimate reality. Then we breathe out all the joy, goodness, and light we have accumulated over aeons. We give this out to take the place of the suffering endured by all sentient beings. This reverses our usual concept of how things should be. People say, “I already have more than enough suffering. I don’t want other people’s suffering as well.”

In brief, the usual Tonglen practice is to visualise another person’s sickness or suffering in the form of dark light being drawn into oneself along with the inhalation. This dark light strikes back at the black pearl-like seed of self-cherishing at our heart centre. This pearl instantly radiates out, along with the exhalation, the bright light of all our good qualities and merits. This radiance then absorbs into the suffering person to help them.

Sometimes instead of a black pearl, it is taught that we can visualise a crystal vajra which represents our innate Dharmakaya mind. The dark light absorbs into this and is instantly transformed into radiance since no darkness exists within the pristine nature of the mind.

I’m going to tell you a true story. When I was about nine years old, I caught on fire. I was wearing a nylon dress at the time, and I went near an electric fire which was not turned on but was plugged in. My dress brushed against the fire and it burst into flames because it was nylon. Fortunately for me, at that time my mother was very sick in bed with kidney trouble, so she hadn’t gone out to work in our shop. I ran screaming up the stairs and crossed the landing to her bedroom. She later told me that she heard me screaming while she was in bed. The next moment, the door crashed open, and I burst into her room, engulfed in sheets of flames. She quickly wrapped me in a blanket, put the flames out and then rubbed me with penicillin and wrapped me in a clean sheet. Apparently, my whole back was just one big blister. The entire skin of my back was burned right off along with part of my face. And at that time, I remember being in extraordinary pain. You can imagine.

Then I had an out-of-body experience. I was up above, looking down on my body, surrounded by all these beings of light who were saying to me, “Come with us. Come with us.” You know, the usual thing. And I thought to myself, “Oh good, now I’m going to die. That will be interesting.” I actually did not want to go back into that body. I was looking down at that body which was all burnt, and I didn’t want anything more to do with it. It was like looking down the wrong end of the telescope. The appearances of this world began to recede as I travelled further and further upwards towards the light. Great! Then suddenly the neighbours started coming in because they’d heard my screams, and I was brought down into this body again.

I remember that they took me to the hospital, and I remember lying on a trolley. The doctor said to me, “You’re a very brave little girl. You must be in tremendous pain.” And I said, “No, there’s no pain.” And there was no pain. When I came back down into my body, I felt no pain at all, despite the fact that my whole back was burned. No problem! I stayed in the hospital for about two months. I had a great time. At no time did I experience any pain. Although I had to lie in bed, I wasn’t sick. I was too young to understand that I might be scarred, so I wasn’t worried. As it turned out, I wasn’t scarred at all. Some years later I talked about this with my mother. She told me that when I was lying there, I lost consciousness and she thought I was going to die. She was a spiritualist, so she prayed to the spirit guides, “Please don’t let her die. And please don’t let her suffer. She’s too young to bear that sort of pain. Give all her pain to me. Let me have her pain.” Now she was already in agony with kidney trouble, but if she could have taken on my pain as well, she would have done so gladly. And I’m quite sure it was because of her prayer that when I came back into the body again I had no pain. What other explanation could there be?

Fortunately, she didn’t get my pain, either. But the point is, not only did she pray from her heart to take my pain away, but she would have been overjoyed to have my pain transferred to her if that would spare me. This is the kind of love we’re talking about in tonglen practice, the kind of intense love which unselfconsciously places more importance on healing the other person than on our own well-being. Now, this was relatively easy for my mother. Not easy, exactly, except that it is in the nature of a mother to love her child like that. What the Dharma asks is that we treasure all beings without exception in the same way. As the Buddha himself said, just as a mother loves her only child, so must we extend love to all beings.

One of the advantages of being a mother is that you learn from real life what this means. You can use this experience as a basis to extend this kind of love outwards to all beings. This is what we are called upon to do in the tonglen practice. Some people say, “Oh, tonglen is very easy.” I can only gasp at their level of bodhisattva attainment. I don’t think it’s at all easy to sit and absorb the pain and suffering of others. It’s very interesting to watch the mind and the levels of deception we can clothe ourselves in. Because of our enormous capacity for self-deception, we must try to be as honest as possible with ourselves. Only by fearless honesty can we identify and peel away the levels of resistance to opening up the heart.

A lot of practices can be done by rote. If we just do tonglen practice automatically, it’s very easy to sit and think of all sentient beings as this kind of blurry mass outside and send out light and love to them and absorb all this darkness. We can even come away feeling very expansive and bodhisattva like. But when we get to actual individuals, when we are faced with someone who is genuinely sick or depressed, are we still prepared to take on their suffering and give out our well-being in return? This is a mind-transforming practice, so the only way we can know whether we are making progress or not is by observing our reactions in everyday situations. When we meet people in everyday life who are suffering, how do we relate to them? Is our heart genuinely open to them? Are we kind? Are we getting progressively kinder?

Let us think about the way the practice works. All this negativity comes into us and attacks the self-cherishing concept. What does this actually mean? Sometimes it’s easier for us just to get caught up in the mechanics of the visualisation and forget what it is all about. You know, we have this dark little thing in the heart and then the dark lights start hitting it, and it all transforms into bright light. It’s a very nice visualisation if we get into it. But as we practice, we must really remember what this is all about. We must ask ourselves if this were really happening, what kind of resistance would the ego put up. If somebody came here right now and said, “You can have all the sickness and misery from that person over there, and I can promise you I will free him from it. In exchange, he will have all your good health. How’s that?” Would you really say, “Okay, I’ll do it”? Maybe so, if it was somebody you loved — your husband, your child, or even a parent or a beloved teacher — but just a man on the street?

These are not easy practices. They are not for the foolhardy nor are they for the timid. They are intended for bodhisattvas. On no account should we take these practices lightly. We should understand what we are doing and what this training is all about. At least this is how it seems to me. Whenever I read the tonglen practices, I am astounded at what they’re actually asking of us. Other people don’t seem to be struck like that and I don’t know why. This seems to me to be the utmost frontal attack on our ego-clinging. Doesn’t it seem like that to you? And it’s very interesting to try to be vividly alive and to bring specific situations into our mind while we are practising. These can be real or hypothetical cases. How does the mind react?

Finally, of course, we dissolve everything into primordial space. This is very important. We don’t keep the negativities sitting in our heart. We have to dissolve the negativities into this ego-clinging, ego-cherishing entity which thinks, “I am so important and others are naturally much less important than I,” which we all have. We dissolve that and everything else into open space. Then we really feel light and joy going out to all beings. Not just in our visualisations, but also in our everyday life, we should be able to give something to beings we meet who are suffering. Even by just being kind and friendly.

If we remain just as closed off from other beings as ever, still preoccupied with our own pleasure, happiness, and comfort, and still seeing other people as separate, remaining unaffected by their happiness or their sorrow, then, even if we have been doing tonglen for twelve years, it hasn’t worked! It doesn’t matter how long we do it. The important thing is to break this separation between ourselves and others. We all have this separation, and it is our primary delusion. It’s a very radical practice, and if we do it from our heart, it transforms us. So I think we should do it now. I don’t think there’s anything more to be said about it.

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Knowledge is learning something every day. Wisdom is letting go of something every day.

— Zen Proverb