This practice is called Tonglen. The rumor is that this practice was developed in the 11th century, but it was thought to be too radical and difficult for most, so it was kept a secret and only shared 1:1 between a teacher and a student. The practice was eventually written down by Geshe Langri Tangpa (1101 – 1175) who’s Eight Points for training the Mind we study in a later blog.
Tonglen is a combination of the practices we explored with the first two immeasurables, loving kindness, matiri, and compassion, karuna. ‘Tong’ means to send and ‘len’ means to take. Yet the practice is done in the reverse, we take, or relieve, and then offer or send.
This practice is designed to destroy our self-cherishing mind while also perhaps helping to relieve the suffering of others. This practice requires bravery and courage. If done with heart, it will make a change in all involved.
This practice helps us see the part of us that wants to not suffer. We are sorry another is suffering but deep down glad its not us. Usually we hate this feeling and try to cover it up. Instead of covering it up, we can use that energy to expose and weaken it.
While this practice has many applications, usually we come to it when we are at the bedside of a sick friend or loved one and there is very little we can do. We can do this. If we are not in the immediate presence of someone who is suffering, we can bring them to mind or let a photograph help us.
Here’s how it basically works.
To begin to understand the practice at a first level, we allow the in breath to draw in the suffering, including past and present causes, of another in the form of a black smoke, like thick pollution. We draw it in as if we were a vacuum cleaner through our nostrils and down into the center of the chest.
Deep in the center of our chest, we visualize a little hard black pearl. This represents our self cherishing mind. The part of us that is afraid to draw in the suffering of another. The part that is glad its someone else. The part of us that is afraid that this practice might actually work and we might catch their suffering for real. We visualize the thick black smoke crushing that pearl and transforming it into a bright pearl or clear sparkling diamond of our genuine true nature, our primordial nature – the part that can never be effected or polluted. This part of us is non-contaminable. Our willingness to take on the suffering of another, our compassion, destroys the pearl and reveals the diamond.
Then, we exhale from this diamond, radiant light that bathes and surrounds the one suffering. The practice rides intimately on the breath. Tonglen is the death of the self cherishing mind.
Jetsumna told us that when lamas are dying, this is one of the two main practices they engage in. This is a good one when things are really difficult.
Jetsumna told us a story from when she was a little girl of about 7 or 8. Her mother was in bed because of kidney stones. Jetsumna was playing in the living room and her synthetic cdress got too close to the heater. She burst into flames. She ran up the stairs to her mother’s bedroom screaming. Her mother leapt out of bed and covered her in a blanket.
Jetsumna remembered leaving her body and looking down at herself. Beings of light were starting to gather encouraging her to go with them and she wanted to. She certainly had no interest in going back in to her burnt up little body. Then suddenly she was back in her body and on a gurney in the hospital and the doctors were asking her if she was in pain to which she responded, “No, no pain.” And the doctors were amazed and called her a brave little girl. She was in the hospitals for 3 weeks. Her entire backside was one giant blister.
Many years later, she asked her mother about the incident because she did find it odd that there were no scars. Her mother told her that when she was holding Jetsumna in her arms she prayed that her little girl would not die or feel any suffering and if she could please take on the suffering for her. Her mother had practiced Tonglen naturally and spontaneously and perhaps because of the genuine cry of her heart, it did really work.
Jetsumna suggests that we can also do this with ourselves. Perhaps we have something in our past we can’t get at. A childhood trauma that we haven’t yet let go. This will help the experience be digested properly. Many of us have dark undigested hard lumps which are poisoning everything. Or maybe you have been wronged, this might be able to address the anger, resentment, desire for revenge.
Best in the beginning to just allow the visualization to stay at the level of black smoke instead of truly imagining all the horrors of the suffering. When asked about more complex visualizations, Jetsumna suggested to keep it simple. “We are not Eight Level Bodhisattvas.”
This is an alchemical practice, an alchemical practice of the spirit. When something very terrible happens it can close us up or expand us out. The darkness that we draw in does not sit there, it transforms and moves. The moment we accept it, it has the power to transform. This is the wisdom aspect within our selves holds the transformation. The more darkness, the brighter the light.
Tonglen is an amazing practice. It reveals so much self preservation. Not fully understanding all the the inner workings and details, I used to resist this practice judging it arrogant to imagine that one could relieve another’s suffering, dangerous to mess with such mysteries, and other ego games. Receiving the practice from Jetsumna Tenzin Palmo cleared up my confusion. I know that I am not healing another. I am freeing myself from myself.