Sometimes people say, “How can I be happy, when there is so much pain and suffering in the world?” It seems to them somehow wrong to enjoy life when they are acutely aware of the suffering of other beings. Their empathy has become an obstacle to joy. Often one will find in such people a good deal of anger and frustration. They believe things are not as they should be, and they feel powerless to make them right.
Cultivation of compassion is a gift we can give to the world and to ourselves. It is a tool for creating peace. When we establish peace in our hearts and minds, we are in a position to share that peace with other beings and begin to relieve some of their suffering. Tibetan Buddhism has developed numerous meditation practices to deepen compassion. One of these is called Tonglen.
Recently, when the Dalai Lama was touring the United States, he recommended the practice of Tonglen. He made it very simple. Tonglen, he said, is giving and taking. As you inhale, take on the suffering of others. As you exhale, give out to them all your gifts, virtues and positive qualities.
Sogyal Rinpoche describes the practice in more elaborate form in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. He writes,
“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 the root of all hard-heartedness.”
When you practice Tonglen, you may want to begin with Self Tonglen to free up your heart and release your own suffering:
Settle your mind. Close your eyes and attend to your breathing. When you feel calm, breathe in all your own anger, frustration, disappointment and unjust treatment from the past. As you do, accept it with warmth and compassion. As you breathe out, send yourself love, compassion and friendliness. As you breathe in, accept all of your suffering. As you breathe out, let it dissolve in the compassion of your wise and warm heart.
When you practice Tonglen for others, you can follow Sogyal Rinpoche’s instructions for preliminary Tonglen practice:
“Imagine 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 just as in the practice of loving kindness, gradually widen the circle of your compassion to embrace first other people whom you also feel very close to, then those whom you feel indifferent about, then those you dislike or have difficulty with, then even those whom you feel are actively monstrous and cruel. Allow your compassion to become universal, and to fold in its embrace all sentient beings, all beings, in fact, without exception.”
“May I be the protector to the vulnerable;
a guide to those traveling;
a bridge for the farther shore.
May the suffering of all completely cease.
May I be the healer and medicine,
nursing all the sick of this world,
until everyone is well.”
© 2001 Tom Barrett