Tonglen: Awakening the Heart’s Compassion
Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant, once asked, “Would it be true to say that the cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion is a part of our practice?”
Buddha replied, “No. It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion is all of our practice.”
We can approach tonglen, the foundational Tibetan practice of cultivating compassion and detaching from self-interest in this attitude.
This challenging yet beautiful form of meditation goes directly to the essence of what we seek to reveal along the spiritual path, through a slightly different approach than Self-Inquiry yet much in the same spirit and understanding.
As Sogyal Rimpoche affirmed, it is a jewel of the spiritual practice: “No other practice I know is as effective in destroying the self-grasping, self-cherishing, and self-absorption of the ego, which is the root of all our suffering and the root of all hard-heartedness.”
What Is Tonglen?
Tonglen is Tibetan for “giving and taking.” As a meditation for developing love and compassion, it is also a powerful method for sublimating egocentric perspectives and suffering into compassion and awareness.
It is an exercise done at the boundary between the non-dual and dualistic vision.
You might say that there is no reason to sublimate suffering in your life, that everything is going well, that you have no critical problems or emotional traumas, and that your fears or worries are not extreme. And yet, what about the whole world? What about the people who are suffering right now?
Some might answer that it is their karma, that this suffering is just an illusion or ignorance. But this response expresses only escapism and a lack of compassion. In fact, this carelessness is not detachment but a selfish perspective. Because it is limited and selfish, it will lead sooner or later to suffering. It is not that it is morally wrong or a sin to ignore another human being; it eventually leads to suffering simply because it is a limited, egoistic view.
Hridaya Yoga is not a path that ignores others. On the contrary, it brings love and intimacy with the world. In line with this vision, tonglen is an active method for cultivating the natural radiance, spanda, of the Spiritual Heart.
It is not only about the awareness of the Spiritual Heart as the source of all healing (although the Heart is this, as it provides the harmony of the center, of pure Being). Tonglen is also about learning how to develop the active power of the Heart. It teaches us how to help other human beings in a state of suffering. For a realized being, a jnani, this compassion and love radiate naturally, without any effort, because Love and Compassion are our very nature.
Most often, plants and animals can feel this, and some human beings can as well. Practicing tonglen is a formal way to become aware of the active, healing power of the Heart.
Even if it was born from the wisdom and compassion of the great Buddhist sages, tonglen isn’t a religious practice; it is about the universal truth of Love and Compassion that radiates from the Heart. It can sublimate (and cure) any limitation, blockage, or suffering.
As in Hridaya Meditation, it refers to the phenomenon of sublimating emotions through Pure Consciousness, the Spiritual Heart. We don’t have to adhere to a religion to believe this. But this faith in the Heart is the source of any real transformation.
Tonglen Helps Us Transcend Dualities
Real compassion is not just a person’s good intention or some idea of moral behavior. This transformation happens only through surrender to the reality of the Spiritual Heart. The idea of personal control or personal will, no matter how good, sooner or later will bring fears, karmic involvement, and a whole range of personal problems.
If we observe our behavior, it is easy to see that we systematically resist and avoid people, situations, and feelings we consider painful, unpleasant, or uncomfortable. We are naturally attracted to those that we consider pleasant, comfortable, and gratifying.
According to Buddhist teachings, this behavior is a symptom of fundamental ignorance. This ignorance, according to the Tibetan tradition, is influenced by the impure tendencies of greed (connected with attachment), hatred (associated with aversion), and delusion (misperception of Reality).
Tonglen practice starts from a dualistic perspective (“me” and “others”) but helps us eventually transcend the limits of the dualistic perception. By cultivating deep compassion for all living beings, including ourselves, we see and embrace reality from a new perspective.
The practice of tonglen helps us dissolve the ego’s barriers, the “knot” of our hearts that keeps us feeling separate from others.
Thus, we can transform our thoughts from being self-centered, deluded, and destructive to being loving, compassionate, and beneficial to others.
The Defensive Strategies of the Ego
The ego is also very present when someone is on a spiritual path. How can we find a sure way to cut the umbilical cord, to separate from our ego, or better said, to dissolve it into its source, atman?
Tonglen practice offers us a simple but radical solution. It is contrary to how we usually hold our personality (ego) together. Each of us has our defensive ego strategies for dealing with the pain, hurt, disappointment, and suffering we encounter. We close our hearts, trying to protect and separate ourselves from any painful experience.
Tonglen reverses the process of hardening and shutting down by cultivating love and compassion. The barriers start to dissolve, and our hearts and minds begin to open.
With this radical shift of perspective and awareness, our hearts become more tender, open, and sensitive. We will feel more aware, and the radiance of the Heart brings the Consciousness of Oneness. Thus, we naturally become more loving and caring, both for ourselves and others.
Principles in Tonglen
Tonglen is a practice of total surrender of the ego.
The point of tonglen is not to focus on the feeling of me taking on suffering and me giving away myhappiness. But how can we detach ourselves from the grabbing attitude of the egotic perspective?
The solution that tonglen offers is: forget about yourself and love others.
This love will become more and more universal, more non-personal, until a complete surrender of the ego appears. Thus, instead of running from pain and suffering, we acknowledge and welcome them with awareness and equanimity. Instead of focusing on our problems, we start to feel empathy for others.
This perspective represents an entirely different basis, a healthier premise, from which to start on the spiritual path. If everything on the spiritual path means “forget about yourself,” then our understanding of spirituality and what a practice should be changes completely.
Exchanging Self for Others
Another principle that reinforces the attitude of surrender refers to the idea of exchanging ourselves for others.
“Whoever wishes to quickly afford protection
To both himself and others
Should practice that holy secret
The exchanging of self for others.”
–Shantideva, A Guide to Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (8th century)
On the one hand, this deep empathy is not such a secret. Theoretically, it is a very straightforward attitude, and we can mentally appreciate its value. On the other hand, living it and embodying it with the surrender and fervor of true wisdom and compassion is not easily accessible. That’s why it remains for many just an idea that is not truly known through experience.
Also, this practice remains a holy secret because the mind cannot understand the freedom it gives. The saints and mystics of every tradition know and love this secret.
Tonglen and Mind Training
Tonglen is part of a series of teachings and practices known in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as mind training (lojong). Lojong is based on a set of aphorisms formulated in Tibet in the 12th century by Geshe Chekhawa. The practice involves refining and purifying our motivations and attitudes. The root text of the mind-training practice is designed as a set of antidotes to the mental habits that cause suffering.
The main aspect of these teachings on mental transformation is learning how to transform problems and difficulties into the spiritual path. Usually, our issues are problematic because of the dramatic way we view and deal with them.
For example, imagine you are stuck in a traffic jam. This experience only becomes a problem if you let yourself become impatient and nervous, and this is just a useless psychological reaction. You can start being aware of all the uncomfortable feelings you experience while you are stuck: anger, resentment, restlessness, nervousness, fear of arriving late to your job or missing an appointment, etc.
Remaining in the pure “I am” and recognizing the futility of your nervousness is a very simple way to change your perspective. Then, through compassion for others in the same situation, you are relieved from the egotistic view and thus “transform” frustration into a spiritual practice. Tonglen offers a step-by-step method:
1. Look around and realize that all the other people stuck in the jam feel the same way you do.
2. Become more and more aware of their tension, “forgetting” about your problem.
3. Ask “Who am I?,” developing a feeling of oneness with everybody.
4. Inhale fully, bringing in all the negative feelings, and exhale fully, sending out a sense of relaxation and relief, both for yourself and the other people in the traffic jam. Go deeper into this feeling of oneness.
The Active Power of Compassion
Compassion is noble and goes beyond empathy or sympathy. To have deep empathy for the suffering of other beings is already the expression of an open heart. But true compassion is not a passive attitude or a way to contemplate the suffering of others. It also has an active quality — it is the power of transforming suffering into bliss.
This alchemy can be realized only when we are connected with our source, the Spiritual Heart. The source of healing and transformation used in tonglen practice is the Heart itself. (To this point, it is also relevant that in tonglen, the energies are purified through an awareness of the chest area.)
Then, compassion is not just a feeling anymore. It is not our compassion, but compassion as the expression of Being, as an intuition of the Consciousness of Oneness.
Bodhicitta is the union of compassion and wisdom, the essential qualities that human beings should cultivate. Compassion and wisdom are highly codependent.
By practicing tonglen, we open to the ineffable dimension of our being. Even an intuition of it will bring a feeling of openness of the Heart.
Our True Nature is all-embracing compassion. Spanda, the sacred tremor of the Heart, is at the same time joy, compassion, and love.
With a heart full of undivided love, liberated from attachment and grasping or aversion and fear, and cured of the disease of indifference, we gradually recognize and feel the sacredness and interdependence of all living beings. With it, we understand the preciousness of every blade of grass or drop of dew. And this brings true intimacy with life and gratitude for this view.
The awakening of a heart full of compassion and wisdom is recognized in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition as the “cultivation of bodhicitta.”
The word is a combination of the Sanskrit words bodhi and citta. Bodhi means “awakening” or “enlightenment,” our enlightened nature. Citta is derived from the Sanskrit root cit and denotes “that which is conscious.”
In yoga, citta is usually translated as “mind,” but the mind is not our only tool of consciousness. Thus, bodhicitta may be translated as the “awakening mind,” “mind of enlightenment,” the “heart of our enlightened mind” (as Sogyal Rimpoche defines it), or “awakening heart.”
The practice of tonglen, the cultivation of compassion, is most in tune with the last translation — cultivating bodhicitta as the awakening heart.
Thus, bodhicitta is the very source and inspiration of the entire spiritual path.
Because this notion is so important in the Mahayana Buddhist practice, it is good to reflect upon its profound significance.
In tonglen, through our compassion, we embrace the suffering of all beings without resistance: their fear, anger, guilt, loneliness, etc. In return, we let the radiance of the Heart express itself. Thus, they receive love, happiness, peace of mind, well-being, healing, discernment, and awareness.
Tonglen asks us to undermine the self/other dualism at precisely 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. In a sense, it is the Buddhist equivalent of what Christ did.
Be willing to take on the sins of the world, and you can transform them (and yourself).
Even though tonglen is, from the dualistic perspective, a very challenging practice, it is important to understand that this doesn’t mean that it requires us to blindly give our health and our energies, hurting ourselves for the benefit of others or to destroy the ego.
Tonglen can bring healing to the one who practices it. The technique is effective because we start to have access to the transpersonal source of light, love, and compassion — the Spiritual Heart.
This sublimation process is not controlled by our personal will. It is not a personal energy that brings the transformation but a surrender to the universal energy of compassion and love that radiates from the Heart.
The process is perfectly safe because the energies that prevail are love and compassion, not fear and the need to cherish the ego. Thus, we gradually understand the need for the total surrender of the personality.
The Way to Overcome Fear
It is said that the Buddha first taught compassion as a tool to help monks overcome any fear. Legend has it that some monks went into the forest and encountered powerful demons. They were overwhelmed by fear and came running back to the Buddha. The Buddha strongly encouraged them to return to the forest, and when they reencountered these demons, to send compassion to them.
The monks returned to the woods. When the monsters appeared again, the monks were able to overcome their fear through the practice of compassion. The monsters then dissolved.
This teaching is still very precious now. We should amplify the belief that compassion and love can dissolve any fear. Through the maturity of spiritual practice, this understanding will come anyway. Still, progress will be much easier if we renounce our fears and surrender in love and compassion.