What is tonglen meditation practice?
This is a practice where you exchange suffering for happiness, both literally and as a metaphor. It highlights the unlimited nature of human compassion, that we can in any moment change our experience of the world into a more joyful condition. That in demonstrating compassion for self and other we transform ourselves, we gain the confidence to challenge the self-centered dualistic thoughts that are the source of so many of our day to day problems. On a practical level if you have had a tough shift at work or are experiencing personal problems, tonglen meditation offers you the potential to flip your mindset and to feel happy and connected with the world. This is a method suitable for beginners if transmitted by an experienced teacher, a full explanation of the practice should be given within its lojong framework.
Tonglen (giving and taking) is a compassion based practice with a documented history of at least 1,000 years in Buddhism. The theoretical framework of this practice has been summarized in slogans divided into Seven Points of Training the Mind (lojong). Tonglen has been popularized in the west by a range of meditation teachers, new commentaries and modifications to the original practice appear from time to time. I offer my own understanding of the practice based on many years of experience, as a point of reference I use the Jamgon Kongtrul commentary translated by Ken McLeod which is generally regarded as one of the most reliable expositions of lojong.
In its essence tonglen is the breathing in of suffering and problems followed by the exhalation of happiness, virtue and solutions. The breath is the device, the method by which the meditator exchanges suffering for happiness as a psychological training. A key point to remember is that the original text makes it very clear that you begin the practice with your own conditions, you (the meditator) is always included in the transformation of suffering into happiness and joy. The object of the meditation can be as narrow or wide as you wish, for example someone in particular, a sick relative for example or everyone in the hospital or everyone in every hospital or all living beings everywhere.
You should not think of yourself as a filter that absorbs suffering but rather as a catalyst to solve problems and transform negativity. The practice should not be seen as a passive passionless exercise but the meditator should attempt to generate a sense that they are transforming suffering. You visualize all suffering, limitations and obstacles as thick black smoke, you imagine it entering your nostrils on the in-breath. On the out-breath the black smoke is transformed into white smoke or ‘rays of moonlight’ bringing happiness, surplus and solutions to the object of your meditation. Consider that in one breath you have taken in much difficulty and instantly transformed it into joyful solutions. You can’t trick your own mind, if you don’t generate compassion the practice will have a very limited impact. If you naturally struggle to feel compassion for others, tonglen should be seen as progressive training, starting with some simple objects of compassion and extending your reach as you become more experienced.
Tonglen is a spiritual practice so it should be taught by someone of relevant experience and practiced within the appropriate context. This is a method to persevere with, if you put your heart into tonglen and practice diligently, it can offer great benefits to both experienced and novice meditators alike.
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