Tonglen, the Practice of Taking and Giving
...if we see others in trouble, although we cannot immediately take their suffering
upon ourselves, we should make the wish to be able to relieve them from their
misfortunes. Prayers like this will bear fruit eventually. Again, if others
have very strong afflictive emotions, we should think, 'May all their emotions
be concentrated in me.' With fervent conviction, we should persist in thinking
like this until we have some sign or feeling that we have been able to take
upon ourselves the suffering and emotions of others. This might take the form
of an increase in our own emotions or of the actual experience of the suffering
and pain of others.
This is how to bring hardships onto the path in order to free ourselves from
hopes and fears--hopes, for instance, that we will not get ill, or fears that
we might do so. They will thus be pacified in the equal taste of happiness and
suffering. Eventually, through the power of Bodhichitta, we will reach the point
where we are free even from the hope of accomplishing Bodhichitta and the fear
of not doing so. Therefore we should have love for our enemies and try as much
as possible to avoid getting angry with them, or harbouring any negative thoughts
towards them. We should also try as much as possible to overcome our biased
attachment to family and relatives. If you bind a crooked tree to a large wooden
stake, it will eventually grow straight. Up to now, our minds have always been
crooked, thinking how we might trick and mislead people, but this [Bodhichitta]
practice, as Geshe Langri Tangpa said, will make our minds straight and true.
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Enlightened Courage: An Explanation of the Seven Point Mind Training
His Holiness the Dalai Lama
In giving we not only find wealth while in cyclic
existence but we achieve the zenith of prosperity in supreme enlightenment.
Therefore we all have to practice giving. A Bodhisattva's giving
is not just overcoming miserliness and being generous to others;
a pure wish to give is cultivated, and through developing more
and more intimacy with it, such giving is enhanced infinitely.
Therefore it is essential to have the firm mind of enlightenment
rooted in great love and compassion and, from the depths of one's
heart, to either give one's body, wealth and virtues literally
to sentient beings as infinite as space, or to dedicate one's
body, wealth and virtues for them while striving in all possible
ways to enhance the wish to give infinitely. As mentioned in Engaging
in Bodhisattva Activities and in The Precious Garland, we should
literally give material help to the poor and needy, give teaching
to others, and give protection to them, even the small insects,
as much as we can. In the case of things which we are not able
to part with, we should cultivate the wish to give them away and
develop more and more intimacy with that wish.
There is a Buddhist practice in which one imagines giving joy and the source
of all joy to other people, thereby removing all their suffering. Though of
course we cannot change their situation, I do feel that in some cases, through
a genuine sense of caring and compassion, through our sharing in their plight,
our attitude can help alleviate their suffering, if only mentally. However,
the main point of this practice is to increase our inner strength and courage.
I have chosen a few lines that I feel would be acceptable to people of all
faiths, and even to those with no spiritual belief. When reading these lines,
if you are a religious practitioner, you can reflect upon the divine form that
you worship. Then, while reciting these verses, make the commitment to enhance
your spiritual values. If you are not religious, you can reflect upon the fact
that, fundamentally, all beings are equal to you in their wish for happiness
and their desire to overcome suffering. Recognizing this, you make a pledge
to develop a good heart. It is most important that we have a warm heart. As
long as we are part of human society, it is very important to be a kind, warm-hearted
May the poor find wealth,
Those weak with sorrow find joy.
May the forlorn find new hope,
Constant happiness and prosperity.
May the frightened cease to be afraid,
And those bound be free.
May the weak find power,
And may their hearts join in friendship.
from An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life
Patiently accepting small hardships gives one the opportunity to apply other practices. One could make aspirational prayers and the dedication, "By my experience of this suffering, may I be able to purify my negativities committed in the past." One can also use the opportunity for the practice of tong-len, which is the Mahayana practice of "giving and taking."
...This advice is especially useful when dealing with illnesses. Of course it is important, first of all, to take all the preventative measures so one does not suffer from illnesses, such as adopting the right diet, or whatever it may be. Then when one becomes ill, it is important not to overlook the necessity for taking the appropriate medications and other measures necessary for healing. However, there would be an important difference in how one responded to illness if instead of moaning about the situation, instead of feeling sorry for oneself, instead of being overwhelmed by anxiety and worry, one saved oneself from these unnecessary additional mental pains and suffering by adopting the right attitude. Although it may not succeed in alleviating the real physical pain and suffering, one can think, "May I, by experiencing this pain and suffering, be able to help other people and save others who may have to go through the same experience." One can in this way use that opportunity for a spiritual practice, in other words, practicing tong-len meditation, or "giving and taking." This type of practice, although it might not necessarily lead to a real cure in physical terms, can definitely protect one from unnecessary additional mental suffering and pain. And on top of that, it is also possible that instead of being saddened by the experience one can see it as a kind of privilege. One can see it as an opportunity and in fact be joyful because of this particular experience which has made one's life richer.
Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective
Whatever joy there is in this world
All comes from desiring others to be happy,
And whatever suffering there is in this world
All comes from desiring myself to be happy.
If I do not actually exchange my happiness
For the sufferings of others,
I shall not attain the state of Buddhahood
And even in cyclic existence I shall have no joy.
The holy secret of the practice of Tonglen is one that the mystic masters and saints of every tradition know; and living it and embodying it, with the abandon and fervor of true wisdom and true compassion, is what fills their lives with joy. One modern figure who has dedicated her life to serving the sick and dying and who radiates this joy of giving and receiving is Mother Teresa. I know of no more inspiring statement of the spiritual essence of Tonglen than these words of hers:
We all long for heaven where God is, but we have it in our power to be in heaven with Him at this very moment. But being happy with Him now means:
Loving as He loves,
Helping as He helps,
Giving as He gives,
Serving as He serves,
Rescuing as He rescues,
Being with Him twenty-four hours,
Touching Him in his distressing disguise.
One of the greatest masters of Tonglen in Tibet was Geshe Chekhawa, who lived in the eleventh century. He was extremely learned and accomplished in many forms of meditation. One day when he happened to be in his teacher’s room, he came across a book lying open at the following lines:
Give all profit and gain to others,
Take all loss and defeat on yourself.
The vast and almost unimaginable compassion of these lines astounded him and he set out to find the master who had written them. One day on his journey he met a leper who told him that this master had died. But Geshe Chekhawa persevered and his long efforts were rewarded when he found the dead master’s principal disciple. Geshe Chekhawa asked this disciple: “Just how important do you think the teachings contained in these two lines are?” The disciple replied: “Whether you like it or not, you will have to practice this teaching if you truly wish to attain buddhahood.”
When someone is suffering and you find yourself at a loss to know how to help, put yourself unflinchingly in his or her place. Imagine as vividly as possible what you would be going through if you were suffering the same pain. Ask yourself: “How would I feel? How would I want my friends to treat me? What would I most want from them?”
When you exchange yourself for others in this way, you are directly transferring your cherishing from its usual object, yourself, to other beings. So exchanging yourself for others is a very powerful way of loosening the hold on you of the self-cherishing and the self-grasping of ego, and so of releasing the heart of your compassion.
Visualize someone to whom you feel very close, particularly someone who is
suffering and in pain. As you breathe in, imagine you take in all their suffering
and pain with compassion, and as you breathe out, send your warmth, healing,
love, joy, and happiness streaming out to them.
Now, gradually widen the circle of your compassion to embrace first other people
to whom you also feel very close, then to those about whom you feel indifferent,
then to those whom you dislike or have difficulty with, then even to those whom
you feel are actively monstrous and cruel. Allow your compassion to become universal,
and to enfold in its embrace all sentient beings, and all beings, in fact, without
Compassion is the best protection; it is also, as the great masters of the
past have always known, the source of all healing. Suppose you have a disease
such as cancer or AIDS. By taking on the sickness of those suffering like you,
in addition to your own pain, with a mind full of compassion, you will—beyond
any doubt—purify the past negative karma that is the cause, now and in the future,
of the continuation of your suffering.
In Tibet there have been many extraordinary cases of people who, when they
heard they were dying of a terminal illness, gave away everything they had and
went to the cemetery to die. There they practiced taking on the suffering of
others; and what is amazing is that instead of dying, they returned home, fully
I know very well from my own experience how hard it is to imagine taking on
the sufferings of others, and especially those of sick and dying people, without
first building in yourself a strength and confidence of compassion. It is this
strength and this confidence that will give your practice the power to transmute
the suffering of others.
This is why I always recommend that you begin the Tonglen practice for others by first practicing it on yourself. Before you can send
out love and compassion to others, you must uncover, deepen, create, and strengthen
them in yourself, and heal yourself of any reticence or distress or anger or
fear that might create an obstacle to practicing Tonglen wholeheartedly.
Of all the practices I know, the practice of Tonglen, Tibetan
for “giving and receiving,” is one of the most useful and powerful. When you
feel yourself locked in upon yourself, Tonglen opens you to the truth of the
suffering of others; when your heart is blocked, it destroys those forces that
are obstructing it; and when you feel estranged from the person who is in pain
before you, or bitter or despairing, it helps you to find within yourself and
then to reveal the loving, expansive radiance of your own true nature. No other
practice I know is as effective in destroying the self-grasping, self-cherishing,
self-absorption of the ego, which is the root of all our suffering and all hard-heartedness.
Put very simply, the Tonglen practice of giving and receiving is to take on
the suffering and pain of others and give to them your happiness, well-being,
and peace of mind.
November 12, 2011