In this excerpt from Mind Training, Ringu Tulku teases out some of the issues that we face when doing Tonglen practice—metabolizing the suffering within and around us, and using it for spiritual practice.
The Tibetan word tonglen means “giving and taking” and this simple and short exchange is essential for releasing us from suffering and generating compassion.
Both our fear and our desire are directly provoked by the tonglen meditation and it is an especially direct and effective way of dealing with aversion. We deliberately face all the things we dislike and dread. This takes courage. We imagine taking in and eliminating the hardship and pain that we have previously fought against and tried to run away from. The pleasures of wealth, power, and health that we wished for ourselves we now send to others. This totally counteracts our normal behavior and puts us on a collision course with the ego. Accepting and enduring negative things and daring to let them happen to us dispels both their harmful effects and our own anger and hatred. It makes adversity less frightening. We do not cause suffering or seek it out. We take up whatever suffering is around us, transforming it in the “giving and taking” exercise so that no one else will be injured by it and the negativity which already exists in the world is reduced. Thinking of our family and friends, the people we love—both alive and dead—our acquaintances, strangers, and even our enemies, we resolve to work on conquering all their misery and bad karma.
It would not be possible to give out such positive energy unless we felt positive ourselves, and the more we exchange good things for bad, the better we feel. We are the source of healing and happiness. Our generosity and concern pacify every negative situation. As we send out kindness, we grow accustomed to being strong and kind. In this way, our positive feelings are constantly renewed and can never be exhausted.
Perhaps you know the story about the man who arrived in heaven and when asked by God where he wanted to go replied that he wanted to see both heaven and hell. First, he went to hell. There was a large table with all the inhabitants of hell sitting around it. The center of the table was full of delicious food. Each person had two very long chopsticks. They could reach the food but they could not get it into their mouths because their chopsticks were too long. They were miserable. No one was eating and everyone went hungry. Next he was taken to visit heaven. All the inhabitants of heaven were also sitting around a big table full of delicious food but they were happy. They too had very long chopsticks but they were eating and enjoying themselves. They used the chopsticks to feed each other across the table. The people in heaven had discovered that it was in their interest to collaborate unselfishly.
Tonglen subdues our fear. What frightens us most is the thought of being afraid. That is the greatest fear. Nothing puts us in more danger than our own mind and when what we are frightened of actually happens, it is never as bad as we imagined. There is no protection against fear. Even when we think that we have found some safety, we still wonder if our defenses are reliable and this uncertainty destroys our security. We create fear and we can uncreate it. It is a habit that can be broken. A good remedy against fear is to actively provoke it. Instead of feeling helpless we confront our worst fear. If you are frightened of losing something, give it away. If heights scare you, climb to a high place. If you are terrified of speaking in public, stand before an audience. This is the simplest way of mastering fear.
“Train in taking and sending. These two should ride the breath.”
The exchange we make between ourselves and others is based on the breath. As we exhale we send out all our good fortune and well-being into the world around us. Breathing in again we absorb all the suffering of others, taking every sad and uncomfortable aspect of life upon ourselves.
All the negativity in the world is visualized either as a cloud of dust or black smoke, almost as a form of pollution. This enters our body through the nose and settles in our heart. It purifies and eats away all our own fear, aversion, and ignorance instantly. Like the sun coming out, our alaya nature arises as bright, radiant light. Healing and purifying us from within, it totally erases every trace of negativity. Breathing out, positive energy, joy, wisdom, and purity stream from our heart as light towards all beings. It touches them and they are well, happy, and free.
Our first attempts to practice tonglen may go better if we hold in our mind someone who has been very loving towards us. They feel so dear to us that we willingly take on their negativity and pain. Drawing their sorrows in and sending back to them our peaceful and protective qualities, we remove all their suffering. During the meditation it is important to breathe normally and it is not necessary to make the exchange with each and every breath.
Negativity is an illusion and a symptom of our mistaken view of things, so taking on negativity cannot possibly harm us or put us at any risk. We are the cause of healing. Our focus is not on suffering but on creating complete freedom from suffering. Tonglen does not threaten anything except our ego. The anxiety that we may be injured by the exchange only develops because our aversion is intensified by the meditation. Remember that the greatest source of suffering is our aversion to suffering and when we take on this aversion fearlessly, meeting it in an inclusive way, it becomes a friend and an ally.