Tonglen meditation is a Tibetan Buddhist method for awakening the compassion and overcoming the fear of suffering. It also serves us by acknowledging our own anger and fears, dissolving judgments on others and ourselves.
This practice (also known as giving and receiving) was developed and taught as part of a larger discipline called lojong, or “mind training.”
It can be traced back to 11th century Tibet, within the Kadampa school of Buddhism founded by Dromtönpa Gyelwe Jungne Rinpoche.
The Rinpoche credits his Buddhist master, Atisa Dipaṃkara Srijnana, with training him in this technique, and tradition holds that Atisa learned it from his teacher Serlingpa, ”the master from Suvarnadvipa”.
What is Tonglen?
It is a primary practice in Buddhism, but quite profound in its ability to reflect the innate compassion of our Buddha-nature.
The core of the practice of giving and receiving is represented by the practitioner who visualizes taking in the suffering of oneself and of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath giving compassion or whatever we feel would bring them relief and happiness.
While this might seem like a strange thing to do – breathe in suffering and breathe out compassion, an essential part of the practice is to work with habitual patterns of mind and develop the psychological attitude of exchanging oneself for others.
Taking on suffering does not really mean to burden oneself with the suffering of the world, but rather to acknowledge its existence and accept it.
This makes it possible to increase one’s own peace of mind at the same time as taking disharmony or suffering in.
“Whether this meditation really helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective, and the benefit is immense.” – Dalai Lama
- heals your past and present suffering;
- helps us to deal adequately with difficult people and stressful situations;
- helps us to realize that suffering exists and that sentient beings can be free of suffering;
- generates positive karma;
- cultivates loving-kindness;
- transforms your relationship with others;
- helps us bring forth a greater level of generosity, which is important to our growth as spiritual beings.
Giving and receiving meditation instructions:
Hint – in general, it’s not a good idea to start doing this practice until you have a good grounding in sitting meditation.
Meditation should not be physically painful. You want to select a meditation position that you can stay in for a while (for example easy pose), in order to direct your attention elsewhere.
It is very important to keep your back straight, allowing a natural curvature of your spine. This will maximize your lung volume and allow you to breathe deeply.
Gently close your eyes and let your body and mind settle. You want to feel open and relaxed.
As you breathe in, let your greed, jealousy, anger, fear, attachment, confusion, and other negative emotions come to the surface.
As you breathe out, let out these negative emotions and thinking, and fill the empty space with compassion. Continue this breathing in and out as long as you wish, until you feel calm and peacefulness surrounds you.
Visualize that sitting in front of you is someone in your life whom you know to be suffering. Open yourself to this person’s suffering, allowing yourself to feel connected with her or him and aware of all of their suffering and difficulties.
Feel your own compassion rising: beautiful, strong, and pure. Feel rising in you a strong compassionate intention to release the person from their difficulties and even its causes.
Breathe in the other person’s suffering, in the form of a dark cloud, and visualize it coming into your heart center (Anahata chakra), where it dissolves any final traces of self-grasping, thus fully revealing the heart of your enlightened mind.
As you breathe out, visualize that you are sending to the other person, in the form of radiant light, all your healing energy, love, warmth, confidence, compassion, and joy.
Continue this giving and receiving practice with each breath for as long as you wish. If you like, you can even visualize how your bodhicitta has transformed your heart or your whole body into a brilliant wish-fulfilling jewel that is able to fulfill any desires of the person for whom you are practicing.
At the end of this healing practice, recognize that your compassion has totally dissolved all the person’s suffering and even its causes, filling him or her with peace, well-being, bliss, happiness, and love.
Commit to this meditation for a few weeks and see what transforms in you. Observe if you become more aware of and compassionate toward others.
As you conclude each session, dedicate its healing power to those you had visualized and pray that the merit of your practice of compassion may benefit all other beings, who are as limitless as space.
Watch below Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, describing the Tonglen meditation practice.