Twin Cities KTC AND Hay river KTC Buddhist Meditation Centers

Today I am giving the eighth and final class in a series about Tibetan Buddhism and am going to talk about tonglen or mind training. 

We start on the path by taming our mind which allows our mind to be trained. Training the mind means we develop a regular meditation practice and start seeing ourselves and our situation more clearly. Meditation and a tamed mind are excellent foundations for traveling the path. It isn’t that through meditation we have our mind remaining calm all the time. Our mind can be focused on the breath and a moment later we are carried away by a thought.

However, our mind is not as volatile as before we started doing regular sitting meditation. We will have the same emotions but we are not attached to them and are not distracted as much. We aren’t as overcome by feelings as we used to be. As we do that, we discover qualities of compassion and loving-kindness in ourselves. We also find that a degree of wisdom develops in us. We can develop these attributes and nourish the important qualities that help us grow.

Mahayana Commitment to Benefit Others

In Mahayana, we make a commitment to travel the path not only for our own benefit but for the benefit of others. As we continue to sit in meditation there is a recognition that through meditation and other Foundational (Hinayana) practices, our mind is more stable and we see the possibility we can benefit other people so they can suffer less and be happier.

On the Mahayana path, there are more practices that we can do to increase our compassion and loving-kindness. It’s important to realize we never really abandon the teachings of the Foundational (Hinayana) path. We continue to add to them. One of the things added to our practice could be chanting the Chenrezig sadhana and chanting his mantra—OM MANI PEME (pay-may) HUNG. We just finished the White Tara practice here at Hay River KTC which is another thing we can do to increase our compassion and loving-kindness.

The Tibetan word tonglen simply means sending and receiving. It’s the reverse in terms of the samsaric logic we use wherein we think about wanting to have as much happiness and as little suffering as possible for ourselves. In a perfect world, this would be the case for us and everyone else. However, what keeps us in Samsara (the cycle of birth and rebirth with its sufferings) is wanting pleasure right now and not realizing the karma we are creating with our thoughts and actions.

Tonglen reverses this thinking. It is aimed at moving us to long-term happiness and lessening suffering. In the short term, by doing tonglen, we develop what is called relative bodhicitta by wanting to take on the suffering of another being and give that being our happiness. 

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche described tonglen one time with this analogy. Imagine you have a sheet of paper that is curled up tightly. To flatten it so someone can use the paper, all that’s needed is to curl it lightly in the other direction. Then it lays flat. Tonglen practice goes in the direction of being beyond where you would be if you naturally let loving- kindness and compassion come to the surface. 

Tonglen works quickly and is very powerful. In my years of living and teaching, I’ve learned that many people in the West have a low image of themselves. With a poor self-image, it can be very difficult to have loving-kindness and compassion for themselves. However, no matter how much they try to have this for other people their inner critic will find a laundry list of things they do wrong and constantly remind them.

Dealing With Your Inner Critic

If you have an inner critic that is harsh in terms of judgment about yourself, keep working on developing compassion and loving kindness for yourself and others. Without having compassion for yourself, it will be hard to do for others. It may be better to start this practice with you and work on developing loving-kindness and compassion for yourself alone. It’s important that you don’t feel like a failure if you can’t have compassion for yourself. When I started doing tonglen I had to work with issues that I had with myself.

Once you have some success with silencing the inner critic, you then build on it. Remember that you have Buddha nature the minute you are born. You are actually a good person with plenty of compassion. Don’t allow that inner critic to say what a bad person you are.

If there is any inner criticism at all, I recommend starting tonglen with yourself. However, in traditional Buddhism, we start with our mothers. Some people don’t have a mother they feel close to. If that’s the case, do like I did and start with a grandmother or someone else you know fairly well. The focus of tonglen could be anyone, even a pet dog, as long as you feel close to them and have a lot of loving-kindness and compassion for them.

Start tonglen by sitting on your cushion or sitting in a chair that keeps your back straight and both feet on the ground. Visualize the person/animal in front of you. If you do this practice for yourself, I add an extra twist. I visualize myself in front and facing me, but I am ten minutes into the future. Visualize who you want to become and then do the exchange.

The practice of tonglen is relatively simple. It’s basically exchanging your feelings of loving-kindness and compassion with another. You begin by exhaling your breath which is visualized as a cool, gentle, white light that carries with it qualities of acceptance, forgiveness, courage, health, happiness—anything that would be beneficial for this future you or anyone you visualize in front of you. 

While doing this, imagine there is black, thick smoke like burning tires or exhaust from old buses or trucks. It’s hot, thick, black, and carries within it whatever the person in front is suffering from. This suffering could be a mental state of being unloved or unappreciated, being oppressed by disease, struggling with depression—anything that is getting them down and causing suffering.

Inhale this black smoke deep into your lungs. Since this is your imagination, picture that the smoke dissolves and disappears. It can’t blow up your lungs or overwhelm you with suffering. This is just mind training. Now when you exhale, it’s the antidote for what you inhaled. The cool, gentle white light carrying compassion and loving-kindness, like sunlight that soaks into a person who is sunbathing, transfers these qualities to the person you visualize in front of you. It’s a simple exchange of their suffering by mentally giving them what they need. Maybe it’s good health, freedom from fear, mental stability, even wealth—whatever they need at the time.

By doing tonglen we are training our minds to be willing to help others and to nourish qualities that are always there due to our intrinsic Buddha nature. It’s recommended that you start with a minute and build up your tonglen practice from there. Many meditators do a ten-minute tonglen practice as part of their daily shamatha meditation. Tonglen as a daily practice becomes more powerful the more you do it. This confidence in your ability to help others is felt in yourself.

It’s good to begin a session with shamatha meditation to help calm the mind and then do more sitting meditation when you are done. This practice can sometimes agitate the mind since it is going against your ego and your self-interest. It can be difficult at times. Do the exchange, the sending and taking, and finish the session with more sitting meditation. I describe it as a sandwich with bread on the top and bottom and something nourishing in the middle like cheese, after all, I am a vegetarian from Wisconsin.

As you become more familiar with tonglen, incrementally work outward. You start with someone you already feel strong compassion for and then move on to someone who is a little far from you. Then pick someone you have neutral feelings for. When that is fairly easy to do, go further and do tonglen for a person you dislike, and then someone you have a real problem with. You could even put Putin there in front of you or another world leader or politician. It’s harder to develop compassion and kindness for these difficult people but it can be, and is, done.  

The Seven Points of Mind Training

There’s a lot more here than meets the eye. Tonglen is part of what is known as the Seven Points of Mind Training. This is a complete package that when all put together becomes even more powerful. The great sage Atisha brought these instructions for mind training (lojong) and the practice of tonglen to Tibet. The seven points comprise a complete practice with instructions and guidance that cover all the essentials of the Mahayana path. I suggest finding a copy of the book by Traleg Rinpoche called The Practice of Lojong: Cultivating Compassion through Training the Mind. The book is also available used and as an ebook. We read and discussed this in our Tuesday evening book study group.

The practice is often done on your cushion during shamatha meditation, but you also can do it off the cushion as you go through your day. For example, in a grocery store when you see a mother with a child who is melting down, or in a work situation where a colleague is having difficulty. You can do a bit of tonglen right then—just a brief wish sending the white light and removing some of the sufferings they feel. Life presents us with many opportunities to use this technique.

Some people have reservations about doing tonglen, especially concerning illnesses. They fear that inhaling the black smoke of the other’s suffering will cause them to have the issues or the disease of the other person. Atisha brought this practice to Tibet in the 11th century and it was practiced in India before that. In all those centuries, there has never been a case of someone “catching” something during tonglen.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche said a great bodhisattva can take on another’s suffering, but we are not at that level. He told the story of a lama in Tibet who a nomad asked to help him. The nomad said a disease had stricken his yak herd and was causing a lot of digestive problems and even death in his herd. (I live in a state with dairy cows and they can get a disease called scours. This is a serious disease that causes severe diarrhea. It can quickly sweep through a herd and kills animals even today despite all our veterinary knowledge.) 

So the Tibetan lama went to where the herd was grazing.  He sat by the fire they built and once in a while he put a stick in it. The lama didn’t say any prayers or apparently do anything more than feed the fire. The nomad came back the next day to say the herd was better and to thank the lama.

The lama’s attendant asked what he did and the lama replied he had done tonglen. The lama added that he had diarrhea this morning, but was better now. The point is that the lama, because of his realization, was able to take on the herd’s sickness which he did gladly.

If you are interested in our book study, check the website for the time and Zoom link. Everyone is welcome. 

Transcribed and annotated by Ellie Strand.          All mistakes are mine.