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Compassion & Tonglin Practice
by Andrew Weiss
of the members of my meditation community in Maynard, Massachusetts, introduced
me to Tonglin and it rapidly became one of my favorite practices. I prefer
practices that put me at the edge of the cliff and don't give me room to wriggle
out. My mind is so good at avoiding that I appreciate and benefit most from
practices that hold my feet to the fire. Tonglin is one of those practices.
Tonglin practice is rooted in the breath. If you can breathe in and out, you
can practice tonglin. Tonglin works with a sense of breathing that may be
foreign to you at first, because it sees the in-breath as drawing in and the
out-breath as opening up. You may tend to see the in-breath as expansive,
because your lungs expand and because you have a natural feeling of
spaciousness, and you may see the out-breath as contracting because your lungs
contract. To get the experience of how tonglin works with the breath, try this:
Take an in-breath with awareness that you are bringing all of the energy from
outside yourself and inside yourself into one concentrated point in your lungs.
Then, let your out-breath happen with awareness that you are allowing all of
that energy to flow expansively outward, through all the cells in your body and
out into the world around you. Once you have tried this a few times, you may
find, as I have, that it becomes a natural way to experience breathing.
Tonglin is very direct. The essence of the practice is to breathe in the
suffering of another person and to breathe out loving-kindness, compassion, and
healing. All of us have reference points for pain, and for joy and healing, in
our lives; we can practice breathing in suffering and breathing out healing
because we know that both exist. When I describe it this way, many of my
students' first reaction is, "Won't someone else's suffering contaminate me?
Shouldn't I be breathing my own suffering out? What if the suffering I breathe
in overwhelms me? What if I don't have any healing energy to offer?" In fact,
tonglin is balanced: We do not drown in suffering because tonglin constantly
reminds us to breathe out healing; we do not hide in false joy because tonglin
constantly reminds us to breathe in suffering. We receive and we give.
In tonglin practice, we think of a person we know who is suffering and whom
we want to help. Perhaps we visualize that person in front of us. We can see or
sense their suffering. And we breathe in. We offer to take that suffering into
our own being, trusting that the resources for healing are inside of us. And we
breathe that healing out, making our offering to the other person. We are making
the greatest gift we can, the gift of our loving and healing energy, to help
relieve another's suffering. As you breathe in suffering and breathe out
healing, you will find quite naturally that compassion arises. This is because a
compassionate response to suffering is to offer some help. In tonglin, awareness
of suffering and compassionate action are inextricably linked together.
The questions my students raise come from their fears, and you may find that
you share them. Tonglin taps into the reality that when we focus on the
suffering of another person, our own suffering also surfaces. Frequently, the
suffering we encounter in ourselves is the same as that of the person we are
offering to help. For example, my first wife died in 1982, and when I offer to
breathe in the suffering of someone who has lost a spouse or other family
member, what I first encounter are my own feelings about Sara's death. Tonglin
helps me to realize that what causes others to suffer is the same as what causes
me to suffer. And once I touch the tenderness and beauty, and the grief and
helplessness, I feel from Sara's death, those feelings extend to the other
person who has suffered a loss and for whom I'm doing the tonglin.
At other times, the suffering we encounter is not so directly related. I have
encountered powerlessness, hopelessness, feeling overwhelmed, and at times just
being stuck. When these feelings are present, the suffering I encounter may seem
more than I can handle. We always start where we are, so at those times I have
begun by offering healing to myself for the piece of suffering that is right in
my face. But as I breathe in this suffering, I also allow myself to breathe in
all of the powerlessness, hopelessness, or overwhelmed stuckness of everyone
else. That is the spirit of tonglin, recognizing that we are not separate, that
our suffering is not separate. If we are to benefit, it is because everyone
benefits, and vice versa. It's more important that I locate the feelings in my
body than label them, so I dive into my churning stomach or aching back and I
breathe in everyone's churning stomach or aching back. Then I breathe out the
calm, stability, and serenity to heal it. In this direct way, I encourage myself
to drop the barrier of separation and isolation.
Occasionally I feel as though I cannot find what will heal the suffering I've
encountered. When this happens, I first become aware of my breathing and then of
the feelings that are going on. Am I panicked or worried? I breathe in with
panic or worry, and with some realization that others in the world are also
panicked or worried. Then I breathe out with compassion for the panic or worry —
not just mine, but others' as well. The most important thing is to be present to
the panic, to breathe in with everyone in the world who experiences panic, and
to breathe out with compassion and with relief that we are not alone.
When you want to help someone who is suffering and you begin tonglin, perhaps
you will find yourself worried that you'll drown in your friend's suffering. Try
to breathe in the worry of everyone in the world and breathe out whatever will
heal that worry. Do this for ten or fifteen minutes and see what happens.
We don't do tonglin just for another person or just for ourselves, because
tonglin makes real for us the lack of separateness of "self" and "other."
Because we are breathing in the suffering of another, our own suffering gets
triggered. Because we are breathing out healing for another, we heal ourselves.
Mu Deung's koan for me was: "You could sit with your eyes closed for ten
thousand years and never save one being from suffering". Tonglin becomes the
living embodiment of the answer.
Tonglin also taps into something powerful that most spiritual traditions
acknowledge: We help to alleviate our own suffering when we help to alleviate
the suffering of others. My wife Avril's first meditation teacher, Baba
Muktananda, would frequently tell people who came to him and complained of the
woes in their lives, "Go and do something good for someone else." Tonglin is a
concrete way of offering healing to others and healing ourselves at the same
As I practice tonglin, the barriers dissolve and the weight of suffering
becomes much less. At first, what I experience is that I am no longer suffering
in isolation; we are all in it together. Then, as I continue to breathe in the
suffering or pain, all ownership of that suffering or pain begins to dissipate.
It's not my suffering, and it isn't the other person's suffering either. It's
just suffering, part of the condition of human consciousness. Tonglin is
described as the practice of "exchanging self and other." This isn't simply
putting ourselves in another person's situation. It's acknowledging, and
experiencing as a living reality, the existence of suffering and the existence
of healing, compassion, and loving-kindness in human consciousness. The
suffering and healing don't belong to me, and they don't belong to you; they
belong to all of us.
When I practice tonglin for someone who is dying or someone who is mourning
the death of a loved one and my recollection of Sara's death comes up, the
experience of having someone die and the feelings that go with it become
something universal. There is endless death, endless sadness, endless love and
compassion — not mine, not his or hers. The experience is ours, it's part of all
of us, it comes up when the conditions are right for it to come up, and it goes
away when the conditions are right for it to leave. And that, ultimately, is the
reality of this thing we call our "self": a succession of thoughts, feelings,
and perceptions that we all somehow share in common.
While tonglin is traditionally done as a sitting meditation practice, I have
found that I use it frequently during the day. When I am at work and see people
with a lot of hurt, anger, or difficulty, I will take a moment or two to
practice tonglin for them and for myself. I find tonglin a versatile practice.
Tonglin traditionally has four stages. When I use the practice myself, I divide
up one of those stages, making six, and I suggest trying this way of guiding
- Become aware of your breathing and allow yourself and your breath to come
to a place of rest. Bring your breath into your body, and become aware of the
spaciousness each in-breath opens in your body, and of the movement of breath
and energy each out-breath creates.
- Become aware of breathing as a process of exchange. Allow yourself on
every in-breath to be aware of air coming from a huge ocean of air that
surrounds you, down the river of your nose and breathing tubes into the lake
of your lungs and abdomen. Allow yourself on every out-breath to sense the air
going from the lake in your lungs and abdomen back up the river and out into
the ocean of air surrounding you.
- Become aware of the nature of exchange: It is always reciprocal and
mutually sustaining. I use a plant as a focus point for this. The air I
breathe in contains oxygen, which the plant produces and which I need to live.
The air I breathe out contains carbon dioxide, which my body produces and
which the plant needs to live.
- Allow your awareness of your breathing to move into your heart-space. This
is the area in the center of your chest at the same level where your heart is.
Notice any sadness, pain, or difficulty that you are experiencing. Breathe in
your sadness, pain, or difficulty, and as you breathe out, offer love and
compassion, to yourself from your heart.
- Now begin working with the person and situation to which you want to offer
healing. Step out of your heart-space and return to awareness of your breath
coming in through your nose, going down the river of your breathing apparatus
to the lake of your belly, and then back up the river to the ocean of air
surrounding you. Breathe in the other's suffering and breathe out
loving-kindness, compassion, and healing. Don't hold the suffering inside. Let
the natural process of breathing — the passage of air from your nose to your
belly and back again, looping through your heart-space — transform the
suffering into love and compassion, and move it out. If your own problems
stand in your way, then work first with whatever comes up for you; breathe in
that feeling, thought, or sensation not only for yourself but also for all
people who feel the same thing. Do your best to maintain awareness of how your
suffering and the other person's or people's suffering intersect.
- Expand your scope. Instead of breathing in the suffering of one friend,
breathe in the suffering of all people in the same situation. If your friend
has AIDS, breathe in the suffering of everyone who has AIDS. If your friend is
going through a divorce, breathe in the suffering of everyone who has endured
the wrenching coming-apart of an intimate relationship. If you are working
with anxiety, see what happens if you breathe in to heal the anxiety of
someone who has made you suffer. If you can do tonglin for them too, you'll
see that they have the same anxiety inside themselves that you do. Maintain
your awareness of your own feelings that come up when you do this.
Tonglin practice is not about escape. It is also not about pretense. We only
do what we can. Each session offers us the opportunity to expand our awareness
of suffering in the world and to offer something positive to help. Each session
helps us melt a little more the illusion that we are separate. Tonglin embodies
Muktananda's teaching: In offering to help another, we help ourselves. In
the face of great pain and suffering, we have something to offer. We can "exchange
self and other" (as the teacher Lama Surya Das puts it) and even if only
momentarily, tap into the great well of healing and suffering that arises and
passes away in the vastness of human consciousness.
In a very practical way, I find that tonglin is a perfect practice for the
times when I am listening to someone in a tough position in his or her life. It
helps me to bear witness to that suffering. As I listen, I breathe in the pain
and anguish; as I breathe out, I offer compassion and healing. I find this helps
me to stay present with the other person and to listen more attentively.
When I started doing my version of tonglin practice, I found that I would
frequently carry the subject of my practice around with me afterward. The
symptom: thoughts about him or her would come up unbidden, or I would have
feelings that had nothing to do with my life or experiences. It's not healthy
for us to stay connected to someone in that way because we can get confused
about whose thoughts or feelings we are experiencing. This can lead us to act in
unconscious ways. To prevent this from happening, I make it a point to
"disconnect" after practice: I say good-bye consciously, and I do it as many
times as is necessary. I encourage you to do the same.
Tonglin is a practice from the Tibetan tradition. Of the teachers writing on
tonglin, I particularly suggest reading the works of Pema Chodron.
The more you do tonglin and metta, the more your relationships with everyone
(and everything) around you will change. Metta cultivates the heart of
loving-kindness, and tonglin cultivates the heart of compassion. They take us
through our own world and show us how much our world and the world of others are
interlaced. In fact, those worlds are inseparable. Our situations may be
different, and the precise manifestation of our suffering may be different, but
our feelings, desires, thoughts, and aspirations are the same. Metta and tonglin
focus our attention on real people and real situations, and they encourage us to
bear witness to the pain and joy in the life of the world. They encourage us to
practice non-separation, to develop our understanding that the well-being of
everyone and everything in the universe is part of our own well-being.
Compassion and loving-kindness both spring from and nourish this understanding.
Once this understanding stops being a concept in our mind and becomes a living
reality, our lives change. In my experience, longtime practitioners of metta and
tonglin soften around the edges, and those who encounter them feel seen, heard,
and deeply recognized.
These two wonderful practices help us expand the horizon of our awareness.
Ultimately they lead us to the experience that Zen Master Seung Sahn calls "not
one and not two." We are, each of us, an individual manifestation of something
that is not individual at all. Our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and
sensations endlessly arise and fall away, they belong to us and they don't
belong to us, and at any given moment you and I, this book, the chair you're
sitting on, and the weather outside are perfect and necessary expressions of the
cosmos. Tonglin reminds us that, if we want to experience the ultimate reality,
we have to experience it in the here and now of our physical reality. If we want
to find the ecstasy, we'll find it in the laundry!
FORMAL PRACTICE: Find another person with whom you have a hard time; see if
you can locate the suffering that causes him or her to act the way he or she
does toward you, and see if you can offer tonglin healing for his or her
suffering. See how your relationship with that person changes over the week. See
whether you can extend tonglin to a difficult situation in the world (such as an
area where there is much tension and conflict); see what feelings this brings up
for you and how tonglin works with that.
INFORMAL PRACTICE: Take tonglin breaks during the day. Incorporate the
intention of tonglin into your mindful speech and deep listening. See what
difference it makes to you and to the other person if you listen with
attentiveness and with the intention to offer healing to that person just
through your listening presence. Try speaking with honesty and with the
awareness of how your words can help to create true healing in the situation you
article was excerpted from Beginning Mindfulness, ©2004, by Andrew
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New World Library.
Info/Order this book.
About the Author
teacher Andrew JiYu Weiss is ordained in both Thich Nhat Hanh's Order of
Interbeing and the White Plum Lineage of the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. Andrew
is founder of the Clock Tower Sangha in Maynard, Massachusetts. Visit his
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