In the practice, one visualizes taking onto oneself the Suffering of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath giving happiness and success to all sentient beings. As such it is a training in altruism.
The function of the practice is to:
- reduce selfish attachment
- increase a sense of renunciation
- create positive Karma by giving and helping
- develop and expand Loving-kindness and Bodhicitta
The practice of Tonglen involves all of the Six Perfections; giving, ethics, patience, joyous effort, concentration and Wisdom. These are the practices of a Bodhisattva. H.H. The Dalai Lama, who is said to practice Tonglen every day, has said of the technique:
- Whether this meditation really helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective, and the benefit is immense.
A personal view on this practice
Taking onto oneself the Suffering of others and giving happiness and success to all Sentient beings seems a heavy task, especially for a beginner in the practice. It might be appropriate to start out with smaller issues, like working with oneself to increase patience with exasperating colleagues, increasing harmony in the family, open one's own mind to communicate better with other people or just finding more peace in doing the necessary daily chores. This is an area where it might be easier to experience some success in order to be able to go on with taking on the unhappiness or conflicts among other people. The principle of taking in the Suffering or disharmony on the inbreath and spreading an antidote of joy, harmony or peace of mind (or whatever might be needed in the specific case) on the outbreath is the same as described above. It is also a good option to use a small pause after the inbreath to convert the Suffering or disharmony to the positive antidote which is to be breathed out.
Taking on Suffering does not really mean to burden oneself with the misery of the world, but rather to acknowledge the existence of it and accept the state of the art. This makes it possible to increase one's own peace of mind at the same time as taking Suffering or disharmony in, so there is not so much contradiction as there might seem to be from the outstart.
In some relaxation techniques, it is recommended to concentrate on the same issue for one week and not mix too many different problems. This should be adapted to the difficulty and extent of the task set, which means that getting oneself to achieve a small goal might be solved in one session, whereas a longstanding conflict in a workplace might need a week or two, and happiness for all Sentient beings may well require an unknown number of lifetimes.
This practice is summarized in seven points, which are attributed to the great Indian Buddhist teacher Atisha Dipankara Shrijnana, born in 982 CE. They were first written down by Kadampa master Langri Tangpa (1054–1123). The practice became more widely known when Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje (1101–1175) summarized the points in his Seven Points of Training the Mind. This list of mind training (Lojong) aphorisms or 'slogans' compiled by Chekawa is often referred to as the Atisha Slogans.
Tonglen (Tib. གཏོང་ལེན་, Wyl. gtong len) is the practice of 'giving' or 'sending' (tong) happiness and wellbeing and 'receiving' or 'taking' (len) pain and suffering. It is part of the instructions on 'mind training' (Tib. lojong) brought to Tibet by Lord Atisha, and is specifically related to relative bodhichitta.
Put very simply, the tonglen practice of giving and receiving is to take on the suffering and pain of others, and give them your happiness, well-being, and peace of mind. Tonglen uses the medium of the breath. As Geshe Chekhawa wrote:
- “Giving and receiving should be practiced alternately. This alternation should be placed on the medium of the breath.”
- To be able actually to transfer one's happiness to others and directly take their sufferings upon oneself is something only possible on very, very few occasions; it occurs when both oneself and another individual have a very special type of relationship based on karmic affinity, stemming perhaps from a previous life. Why does one cultivate this attitude? Because it leads to attaining great strength of character, courage and enthusiasm; and improves one's own practice of developing bodhichitta.
Sogyal Rinpoche says:
- Of all the practices I know, the practice of tonglen is one of the most useful and powerful. 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.
Tonglen is referred to in many Indian and Tibetan sources such as Shantideva's Bodhicharyavatara, the Seven Points of Mind Training composed by Geshe Chekhawa, Langri Thangpa's Eight Verses of Training the Mind, the Thirty-Seven Practices of the Bodhisattvas, the Lam Rim and in Longchenpa’s Mind in Comfort and Ease. There are also special instructions which have been passed down in the oral tradition.
- Pema Chödrön,
- When Things Fall Apart (Boston: Shambhala, 1997), Chapter 15 'Going Against the Grain'
- Tonglen, the Path of Transformation (Vajradhatu Publications, 2001)
- The Places that Scare You (Boston: Shambhala, 2001), Chapter 9 'Tonglen'
- Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change (Boston: Shambhala, 2012), Chapter 7 'Breathing In Pain, Breathing Out Relief'
- The Wisdom of No Escape (Boston: Shambhala, 2012), Chapter 12 'Sending and Taking'
- Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1992, Chapter 12
- Arousing Bodhichitta, The Heart of the Enlightened Mind—The Bodhichitta Mengak Study Pack (Lodève: The Tertön Sogyal Trust, 2008), pages 132-149.