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Here, from Sogyal Rinpoche's Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, we learn of Tonglen: a pathway to Ascension that enables us to bypass the bardos and awaken after death in the Pure Lands of the Amitabha Buddha.
In this article, we simply wish to give you an idea of what the practice of Tonglen entails. All quotes are from the book.
Sogyal Rinpoche tells us that the practice of Tonglen depends upon our ability to awaken within ourselves the reality of compassion. Just as we cannot perform the Unity Breath until we can feel Love, we cannot practice Tonglen until we truly can feel compassion.
Compassion is not the same as pity. With compassion, while we are aware of what another is going through, we also honor that other and their path. We are there not to rescue, but rather to understand and to love. Instead of joining the other in his or her pain, we absorb the pain into ourselves and return peace, joy, and love.
And so compassion, Sogyal Rinpoche warns, is much more difficult to achieve than we might think. But he suggests several ways of overcoming this difficulty.
Unsealing the spring of loving kindness
This method consists of imagining one person who we know loved us. If it is not our mother, than it could be a grandmother, grandfather, or anyone else who ever gave us the feeling of being deeply loved.
''Go back in your mind,'' Sogyal Rinpoche advises, ''and recreate, almost visualize'' this love that you felt. And as you feel it come into your heart, feel gratitude, and let this love return to that person who helped you to feel that you were worthy of being loved.
Then, extend this love to all other beings, beginning with family and loved ones, then friends, acquaintances, and neighbors, then strangers, and even to people you dislike or who represent problems in your life ''even those whom you might consider as your 'enemies.' '' Then, extend this love to the entire universe.
Sogyal Rinpoche says that this practice ''unseals a spring of love,'' and thus inspires the birth of compassion.
Considering that we are the same as others
''A powerful way to evoke compassion,'' says Sogyal Rinpoche, ''is to think of others as exactly the same as you.''
If, for example, you are having difficulties with someone, this process involves imagining that you are them that you are the same, they are ''another you.'' This, Sogyal Rinpoche says, ''will open your heart to him or her and give you more insight into how to help.''
This practice may be used not only to improve relationships, but also to prefigure ''peace on earth'' by imagining that societies and nations could also begin to see each other as though they were the same.
A variation on this is to put yourself in another's place when you seek to help them. For example if another person is in pain, you would imagine that you were that other person, going through the same pain. Ask yourself, Sogyal Rinpoche says, '''How would I feel? How would I want my friends to treat me? What would I most want from them?.'
''When you exchange yourself for others in this way, you are directly transferring your cherishing from its usual object, yourself, to other beings. [This] ... is a very powerful way of loosening the hold on you of the self-cherishing and the self-grasping of ego, and so of releasing the heart of your compassion.''
Use a friend to help yourself access compassion
Another technique Sogyal Rinpoche suggests is that we put a friend or loved one in the place of someone who is suffering. For example, if you lacked compassion for a child, you might imagine that it was your own. This, he says, will open your heart ''and compassion will awaken in you.''
Meditating on Compassion
To begin with, Sogyal Rinpoche advises us, when we are met with sights that make us aware of the world's suffering, instead of avoiding our feelings we should allow ourselves to participate in them fully. ''Switch on a television,'' he writes, ''and there on the news perhaps is a mother in Beirut kneeling above the body of her murdered son; or an old grandmother in Moscow pointing to the soup that is her food for today, not knowing if she'll have even that tomorrow...''
''Don't waste the love and grief it arouses,'' he tells us. ''In the moment you feel compassion welling up in you, don't brush it aside, don't shrug it off and try quickly to return to 'normal,' don't be afraid of your feeling or embarrassed by it, or allow yourself to be distracted from it or let it run aground in apathy. Be vulnerable; use that quick, bright uprush of compassion; focus on it, go deep in your heart and meditate on it, develop it, enhance, and deepen it. By doing this you will realize how blind you have been to suffering, how the pain that you are experiencing or seeing now is only a tiny fraction of the pain of the world.
''All beings, everywhere, suffer; let your heart go out to them all in spontaneous and immeasurable compassion, and direct that compassion, along with the blessing of all the Buddhas, to the alleviation of suffering everywhere.''
Directing Our Compassion
When we are open to compassion, we then will want to do something about the suffering we see. There are two pathways, Sogyal Rinpoche tells us, from which to choose in directing our compassion.
One is to pray to the buddhas and other enlightened beings that in thought, word, and deed, we will bring benefit and happiness to the world that we will be useful.
The second way is to dedicate ourselves to attaining our own personal enlightenment. For, he says, ''the only way for you to be of complete help to other beings is for you to gain enlightenment.'' When we feel true compassion, then we know that we must attain enlightenment not for ourselves but for the benefit of all mankind.
Once we have awakened our compassion, we are now ready for the practice of Tonglen.
Here is just a taste of how how we might begin this practice.
''The best way to do this practice, and any practice of Tonglen,'' according to Sogyal Rinpoche, ''is to begin by evoking and resting in the nature of mind,'' imagining that the world around you is '''empty,' illusory, and dream-like.''
We are to allow our mind to ''settle,'' allowing our thoughts to come and go, not following them. Then, when we are feeling ''calm and centered,'' we bring our consciousness up slightly from it's dreamlike state and begin.
1. Environmental Tonglen
This consists of sitting and feeling the ''mood and atmosphere'' of our mind. Let's say that the mood we are feeling is unease, and the atmosphere seems dark. We would breathe in this unease and darkness, absorbing it into ourselves. Then, we would breathe out peace and joy, thereby clearing and cleaning the atmosphere and environment of our mind.
2. Self Esteem
The self-esteem exercise begins by imagining ourselves as two people. One is ''whole, compassionate, warm, and loving, like a true friend, really willing to be there for you, responsive and open to you, without ever judging you, whatever your faults or shortcomings.'' The second is the aspect of ourselves that has negative emotions and ideas, the ''victim.'' This is the part that says ''Nobody understands me,'' or feels wronged by people or society.
Again, breathe in, but in this process you are the first person, the whole, compassionate one, breathing in and absorbing all of the other's pain and negativity. And as you breathe out, let the compassionate self send ''healing love, warmth, trust, comfort, confidence, happiness, and joy'' to the other part.
's Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
has been translated into 26 languages is 36 countries. It has sold one and one-half million copies, and is considered a ''groundbreaking'' work. He seeks to make Tibetan Buddhism accessible to as many people as possible, and to provide assistance to those who are drawn to it.
If the practice of Tonglen attracts you, you may wish to visit Sogyal Rinpoche's website at rigpa.org
. Rigpa, the name of his organization, is a Tibetan word that means ''the innermost nature of the mind.''