ymd17 Tonglen: natural mercy, brave heart

Updated On — 19th Jul, 2013

may all being be free from suffering
CC BY-NC by Wonderlane
Now that we have practiced the four immeasurables of love, compassion, joy and equanimity we can now truly go to the place where the rubber meets the road: tonglen. With tonglen practice we further develop our compassion and our capacity to be truly here for our own suffering as a starting point.

As with the practice of the four immeasurables, we begin with our self and then expand outward until our practice becomes a great practice – the openness, willingness and aspiration to transform suffering into happiness for all beings.

Tonglen is probably the scariest, toughest and most challenging practice we can do. In this way it shares some of the edginess of the death meditations we did at the beginning of this series. It helps us get in touch with our own fears stemming from inner pain, suffering, loss.

We start the tonglen practice as we do with the other practices, by re-connecting with the Mahayana aspiration to work sincerely to open our hearts to helping others find a way out of suffering.

We bring everything we have to the table here: all the grit and heart we have worked so hard with in our meditations on love and compassion. We must make a fresh start at every sitting to find our own basic goodness and our own kindness toward our failures, faults and fears.

Tonglen practice is brilliant at getting right at the heart of the matter—our obstacles, our stuck places, our doubts, our fears.

The practice is dead simple. We start with ourselves. We breathe in our obstacles, fears, our perceived mess and we breathe out peace, openness, joy.

Joan Halifax calls this process “giving no fear” – the core of the practices is to breathe in junk and breathe out giving no fear.

Of course, if we are to truly do this, we have to learn to come from the inner place of no fear.

That’s where the wisdom is – this place of no fear, when we deeply touch our Buddha Nature.

There is also another wisdom here – that of our spiritual ancestors in placing tonglen practice at this point in our journey of the gradual path.

So we can start a session simply by breathing in whatever is happening for us—anxiety, joy, resistance – and making it our own, living its truth in the moment.

On the outbreath we relax, we “send” out openness, warmth, OK-ness.

We can also work with a variety of visualizations that have been handed down over many generations of dedicated practitioners. We can imagine we are inhaling dark smoke and exhaling light.

Breathing in heaviness, darkness, stuck-ness and breathing out lightness, wellness, joy.

In very little time you might find yourself questioning the logic, or even the safety of this practice. We just breathe that in and breathe out it’s opposite.

Tonglen take enormous presence and courage. We need to stop listening to the inner judge and critic and just move through that stuff as mere resistance.

Just keep breathing in and out. Get creative. But maintain the pulse of the practice.

Here is a valuable lesson in Tonglen meditation by Pema Chodron.


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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

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