My former teacher, Ken McLeod, is a western teacher in the Tibetan Kagyu tradition and has a particular interest in the lojong (mind training) teachings of which tonglen is a part. During one of his two traditional three year retreats he became ill and spent weeks in bed just doing tonglen while the other students were practicing in the dharma hall. As a result this practice became very dear to his heart and he went on to translate several important texts on the subject. It has similarly become dear to me also as I have practiced with illness.
Lojong teachings work on taking the difficult parts of life as the path and using them to transform us. Tonglen is mentioned is several of the traditional lojong texts including Seven Points of Mind Training by Geshe Chekawa.
Geshe Chekawa (1102–1176)
The first part of the text 2.1 refers to mahamudra meditation which is very similar to zazen. Instruction 2.14 is particularly clear in this regard:
“The essence of the path: rest in the basis of all experience”
Section 2.2 sets out the practice of tonglen which is also known as ‘taking and sending’ with the line
“Train in taking and sending alternately. Put them on the breath.”
This means to visualise taking in the suffering of others (often in the form of black smoke going into your heart) and then to send out thoughts of joy, peace and ease (as white light coming from your heart). They are ‘put on the breath’ by breathing in the suffering, then breathing out the joy and peace (and anything else that might help).
You can use the practice for any kind of suffering such as the dead of a terrorist attack (breathe in the sadness of the loved ones and breathe out comfort and support), those affected by famine (breathe in hunger and starvation and breathe out food, shelter and care) etc. If you don’t want to be specific you can just breathe in the suffering and out with joy and peace. Using specific targets tends to work better for me than ‘all beings’ but usually the practice ends with widening out to all beings as we do in the metta verses.
One thing tonglen is very good for is connecting with other people going through what you are yourself experiencing. If you have lost a loved one, you can breathe in the pain of all those who are grieving. If you are ill, you can breathe in the sickness of all those in ill health. Sogyal Rinpoche reports in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that many terminally ill patients find doing this gives peace and meaning to their end of life. It also connects us to experiences we would rather avoid and reminds us that there are others who are going through exactly the same. It is also a great practice to do ‘on the hoof’ if we see someone walking by who is struggling or even a piece on the news about a conflict zone.
Line 2.4 makes clear how to begin the practice:
“Begin the sequence of taking with you.”
Just as with the metta verses we begin by taking in whatever is bothering us and breathing peace and ease to ourselves. Then, after the main practice, we widen out to all beings. If you are doing a very short practice such as when you see someone or an animal suffering, this is not always necessary.
It is important to say that this practice is not magical. It does not, to the best of my knowledge and in all I have been taught and read about this practice, actually take away the sufferings of others and bring them joy and peace. I wish it did but it doesn’t. However, it is magic in the way it transforms the mind and heart, softening our hardness and reducing the sense of self as our concern and compassion for others deepens.
Part 3 of the text instructs that
“When misfortune fills the world and its inhabitants. Make adversity the path of awakening.”
This is the basis of tonglen practice – to take the suffering of the world and use it to transform the mind and see into the nature of reality.
Further parts of the text provide helpful instructions to support the practice such as
3.2.2 Be grateful to everyone
3.4.2 Work with whatever you encounter, immediately
My favourite which ties in with the goal of shikantaza is
6.3.2 Give up any hope of results!
And in the final part, very good advice in all parts of practice:
7.6.3 Don’t Boast
7.6.6 Don’t expect thanks
Anyway, this was just intended as a short introduction and may have become unwieldy but hopefully gives a short insight into the practice of tonglen and its origins. If you want to learn more about this text and practice in a Zen context, Zoketsu Norman Fischer’s book Training in Compassion is very good.
When I told Ken I was planning on beginning Zen training I said that I planned on keeping up my lojong alongside shikantaza which is the central practice in the Sōtō tradition. He commented that this would be a very good combination.
Books on Lojong/Tonglen
Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön
The Great Path of Awakening by Ken McLeod
Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving Kindness by Chögyam Trungpa
Training in Compassion by Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Advice from a Spiritual Friend by Geshe Rabten and Geshe Dhargyey