Sun, 20 Feb 2000

'Tonglen': A transformative compassion meditation

By Rahayu Ratnaningsih

JAKARTA (JP): Compassion is central in Buddhism. It is not only manifested in good deeds and a nonviolent stance, but is also brought to meditation. The widely known metta (compassion) meditation has been used in psychotherapy to treat patients with depression, repressed anger and other neuroses. Another type of compassion meditation, which is a step further than metta meditation, is called tonglen.

Tonglen, which means "taking and sending," is particularly powerful for developing compassion in one's mind and heart. However, the "extremeness" of tonglen requires a person to have developed a strong foundation practice in Vipassana (featured in one of the last articles) before he or she attempts it. This practice is so powerful and so transformative it was largely kept a secret in Tibet until very recently.

This is how tonglen is conducted: In meditation, picture or visualize someone you know and love who is going through much suffering -- an illness, a loss, depression, pain, anxiety, fear. As you breathe in, imagine all of that person's suffering -- in the form of dark, black, smoke-like, tar-like, thick, and heavy clouds entering your nostrils and traveling down into your heart. Hold that suffering in your heart. Then, on the outbreath, take all of your peace, freedom, health, goodness, and virtue, and send it out to the other person in the form of healing, liberating light. Imagine they take it all in, and feel completely free, released and happy. Do that for several breaths. Then imagine the town that person is in, and, on the inbreath, take in all of the suffering of that town, and send back all of your health and happiness to everyone in it. Then do that for the entire state, then the entire country, the entire planet and the universe. You are taking in all the suffering of beings everywhere; and sending them back health and happiness and virtue.

The initial reaction of anyone who is first introduced to this practice will usually be very strong and negative. Take that black tar into me? Are you kidding? Inviting catastrophes to myself? This is insane and dangerous!

Kalu Rinpoche, Tibet's great modern master, who once gave a tonglen course on one of his retreats, responded without hesitating, "You should think, Oh good! It's working!" to one student who was worried of getting the sickness herself.

Ken Wilber wrote in Grace and Grit, "That was the entire point. It caught all of us 'selfless Buddhists' with our egos hanging out. We would practice to get our own enlightenment, to reduce our own suffering, but take on the suffering of others, even in imagination? No way."

He further stated, "Tonglen is designed exactly to cut that egoic self-concern, self-promotion and self-defense. It exchanges self for other, and thus it profoundly undercuts the subject/object dualism. It asks us to undermine the self/other dualism at exactly the point we are most afraid: getting hurt ourselves. Not just talking about having compassion for others' suffering, but being willing to take it into our own heart and release them in exchange. This is true compassion, the path of Mahayana. In a sense it is the Buddhist equivalent of what Christ did: be willing to take on the sins of the world, and thus transform them (and you)."

The way of mystic knows no separation between Self and other. Self (with a capital s) is one's higher or true self, the Self of the universe. At that level of one's existence one is not really separate from everything else that is going on. Ken Wilber put it, "For the true Self, or the one Self, self and other can be easily exchanged, since both are equal, it makes no difference to the only Self. Conversely, if we cannot exchange self for other, then we are locked out of one-Self awareness, locked out of pure non-dual awareness. Our unwillingness to take on the suffering of others locks us into our own suffering, with no escape, because it locks us into our self, period."

Back to the "what if I get sick" worry. It is safe to say that nobody actually ever got sick practicing tonglen. On the contrary, the transformational aspect of it makes one stop recoiling in the face of suffering, both one's own and others'. It makes you stop running from pain, and instead befriend it and even use it to connect with all beings who are suffering. One will find that one can begin to transform it by simply being willing to take it into oneself and then release it. One will gradually push one's ego-protecting tendencies out of the way, relaxing the self/other tension, realizing that it is only one Self feeling all pain and enjoying all pleasures. This way you will find that much of your suffering is redeemed and given context, that you are not alone, that your pain is no longer isolated. This realization will eventually diminish pride and arrogance on the one hand, and fear and envy on the other. We will develop the pure empathy not only for others' sufferings but also for others' success, which in tonglen is expressed in the saying: I rejoice in the merit of others.