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.