Tonglen Meditation

Understanding tonglen meditation

What is tonglen meditation?

A form of meditation that is mostly associated with Tibetan Buddhist traditions, Tonglen is a form of mind training, or Lojong, to use the Buddhist term. It involves focussed breathing to help the practitioner get into the right mindset. Those who are skilled at it are able to give something of themselves to whatever they perceive as other, an exchange that – although mental – is given freely for the benefit of all. Therefore, unlike some other forms of meditation, which tend to focus on the meditator observing themselves dispassionately, Tonglen meditation is a form of spirituality practice that aims to have a positive impact on the universe. As such, it is a selfless act that, although it benefits the meditator, is for the good of everyone and everything. In his book, 'The Path To Tranquillity: Daily Meditations', the Dalai Lama discusses this form of Tibetan meditation.

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 What does Tonglen meditation mean?

Tonglen is a Tibetan term. It is often translated from the segmented writing script that is used in Tibetan as gtong len, something that has since been shortened into the phrase Tonglen. However, it is important to note that Tonglen is formed from two Tibetan words. Gtong means giving, or it can also be translated as sending. The word len means receiving or taking, depending on the context. Consequently, Tonglen meditation means meditation that is about giving and taking or, if you prefer, sending and receiving. In this form of meditation, one gives something of oneself to another who, in turn, receives it. Those who undertake this type of meditative practice will often alternate between sending and receiving. In this sense, Tonglen is not merely the name of the meditation but a description of it, as well.

Where did Tonglen meditation originate?

As you may have already gathered, given that Tonglen meditation is a practice most associated with Tibetan forms of meditation, it originated there. Nevertheless, the first person who was known to teach this form of meditation was the great Indian Buddhist, Atisha Dipankara Shrijnana. Born in 982, much of his work took place at the Vikramshila Buddhist monastery in Bihar, a city of modern India. Nevertheless, it is he who is one of the chief teachers of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism in the 11th century in the region, traditions that led to the formation of what we now call Tibetan Buddhism. One of Shrijnana's pupils, Dromton, went on to found the Kadam school of Tibetan Buddhism, using many of the concept's associated with Tonglen at that time. The first Buddhist scholar to write about Tonglen concepts in meditation was Geshe Langri Tangpa, who was born in 1054. He was a master of the Kadam school in the middle of the 11th century.

What is the purpose of Tonglen meditation?

As mentioned, Tonglen meditation is more of an exchange than a central focus on oneself. The basic idea is to help practitioners to reduce their self-attachment. Known as upadana in Sanskrit, attachment to oneself is regarded as selfish, and Tonglen approaches help to lessen its impact. The next part of Tonglen meditative practice is to increase the sense of worldly renunciation, or nekkhamma, that people feel. Specifically, renouncing the world means giving up material things and focusing on a more spiritual life. For some, it means renouncing lust along with other human cravings. In addition, Tonglen practitioners will expect to purify through karma, the concept of giving and helping through deeds. Furthermore, this type of meditation should help people to develop and expand their loving-kindness or goodwill, as well as bodhicitta, a Buddhist term that approximates to enlightened empathy in English.

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How do you practise Tonglen meditation?

In Tonglen meditative sessions, the practitioner will send and take from whatever it is they are focusing on alternating between the two. Most skilled practitioners will be able to do so while riding their breath so that taking does not fully equate to their inhalation, and their giving does not fully equate to their out-breath. Nevertheless, most practitioners will begin their meditation on the inward breath, thinking about a person, a group of people, a particular situation in the world or a kind of discomfort or pain. As the breath is taken, many people will try to imagine a better situation or feeling for those they are thinking about. At some point, the meditator will breathe out, and at this time, their good thought or notions will be sent out into the universe. In this sense, it is the thought process that forms the act of meditation, and the breathing merely allows practitioners a means of creating the exchange of giving and taking in their minds.

How does altruism help in Tonglen meditation?

To many, Tonglen meditation is not merely a thought process but something that literally takes bad concepts inwardly and turns them around as positive ones. However, there is something else that needs to be said about the practice, which is that it helps practitioners to become better people. In this sense, you can think about this style of meditation in two ways. As well as its literal interpretation, focusing on taking in bad things and making them positive in an inward way is a form of self-training. Although the Buddhist concepts of loving-kindness and bodhicitta are often being developed among Tonglen meditators, what they amount to is a form of altruism. Indeed, for many Tibetan Buddhists, Tonglen meditation is a type of altruistic training. In short, this means the giving of oneself for the greater good. Simply by focussing on the 'bad' things in the world and externalising 'goodness', so practitioners are better set to make the world an improved place in everything they subsequently say and do, not just when they meditate.

What does the Nyingma school of Buddhism say about Tonglen meditation?

A prominent teacher and writer from the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, Patrul Rinpoche, said that Tonglen meditation began with the outward breath. Rinpoche, who lived from 1808 to 1887, taught that imagining giving - or sending – was best conducted when exhaling. He thought that happiness and good thoughts could be sent out into the world this way. After this, the inward breath takes place. When breathing in, the meditator should imagine taking in – or receiving - the sufferings of the world, especially the particular ones they are focusing on. Many in the Nyingma school now nuance their teaching such that each breath is 'ridden' with less distinction between exhaling and inhaling. It is worth noting that the Nyingma school is the oldest of the four forms of Tibetan Buddhism and other teachings of the Tonglen style of meditation are available.

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Is Tonglen meditation dangerous?

Generally speaking, meditation is not dangerous. However, it does not suit everybody, and some people have found that it can affect their mental outlook and even cause them mental health problems in the worst cases. Tonglen meditative practices are no worse or better than other forms of meditation in this regard. However, people who have had a history of anxiety and depression should take a little extra care when trying out Tonglen forms of meditation for the first time. If you find that it does not suit you, then you should stop. It is important not to see this as a failure or meaning that you are selfish or incapable of being altruistic. Like other forms of meditation, Tonglen practices are not for everyone. That said, many people who do it will find that it is a calming practice, something that helps to lessen anxiety and even alleviate the symptoms of poor mental health. Like anything that is deeply centred, care should be taken.

What are Tonglen meditation slogans or sayings?

In Tonglen meditation, there are mind training concepts known as Lojong, a term that roughly means slogan. In fact, under relative bodhicitta, Tonglen is often referred to as the seventh Lojong, one that focuses on the guidelines for mind training. These are aphorisms or short phrases which are full of wisdom that can help people who wish to practice meditation in the Tonglen style. Slogan 39, which is part of the seventh Lojong, for example, states that all activities should be undertaken with one intention. Another says that it is possible to correct all wrongs with one intention, while another states that there are always two activities, one at the beginning and one at the end, something that reflects the inhalation-exhalation and giving-receiving aspects of Tonglen. Slogan 56 says that practitioners should not wallow in self-pity, while slogan 49 encourages practitioners to always meditate on whatever provokes the most resentment in them.

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What are the six Buddhist perfections in respect of Tonglen meditation?

Tonglen meditation involves all of the accepted six perfections associated with Buddhist paramita, or perfection. This is something that every Buddhist who is on the path of emulating the Buddha – or Bodhisattva – needs to consider as a part of their spiritual journey. True, in some Buddhist traditions, there are a further four perfections, known as parami, to take into consideration. These tend to be referred to as the four noble truths and are both interpreted as distinct from the six perfections as well as being part of them. That said, Tonglen meditators will primarily focus on dana, or generosity, the act of giving of oneself. The next perfection is known as sila, which means virtue, morality, or proper conduct, while the following one is nekkhamma or worldly renunciation. The remaining three are panna, or wisdom, viriya which means diligence or vigour; and, finally, khanti which variously translates into English as patience, tolerance, forbearance and endurance.

Can you take part in guided Tonglen meditation?

Yes, you can. Guided meditations are a good way of taking gentle steps into Tonglen meditative practices if you have never been involved in this form of meditation before. It can also help you to gain some insights into the wider world of Tibetan Buddhism if you are a newcomer to it. There are plenty of teachers of Tibetan forms of Buddhism who will run guided meditations for novices of the Tonglen style of meditation. In addition, some practitioners will offer guided meditations online, which you can follow either live or from video or audio recordings. After you have mastered the basics, it is probable that you will no longer feel the need to be guided in your meditations. Part of the idea, after all, is to renounce the world to some extent which means relying on one's own technique and diligence more and more.

Which books on Tonglen meditation are worth reading?

'Love on Every Breath: Tonglen Meditation for Transforming Pain Into Joy' by Lama Palden Drolma is a good place to start. It discusses how to practice Tonglen meditative sessions through an eight-step process. A practical self-help style of book, it was published in 2019. 'Training the Mind & Cultivating Loving-Kindness' by Chogyam Trungpa uses the aforementioned Lojong slogans to help gain insights into Tonglen. Another one worth seeking out is 'Tonglen for Our Own Suffering: 7 Variations on an Ancient Practice' by Swami Girijananda. It was first published in 2015 and focuses on gaining more compassion through spiritual growth. Written by Pema Chodron, 'Tonglen: The Path of Transformation' is a gentle guide that helps readers to discover more about this meditative form without rushing them. It teaches people to embrace the negative side of life and to overcome inner and outer fears.

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Tonglen meditation in summary

To summarise, Tonglen meditation has been practised by Buddhists for a very long time and it is now primarily associated with the various Tibetan schools of Buddhist thought. Unlike some other forms of meditation, it is a practice whereby meditators will try to focus on negativity and turn it into something positive. Some people, for example, will focus on a particular illness while others might focus on an individual they know to be suffering. By taking their pain on board in an empathetic way, so they are able to turn such negativity around and push it back into the world as positivity. In this sense, it is an act of altruism every time you take part in Tonglen meditation.

In this form of meditation, breathing in and out is a way that the meditator can focus their mind on what they are doing. Although being conscious of one's breathing is not unique to Tonglen meditation, it plays a particular role in the practice. This is because receiving what the world has, in terms of negativity, is often associated with the intake of breath. Pushing positivity out into the world, by contrast, is frequently associated with exhalation. Many, but not all, practitioners advise 'riding' each breath so that each concept flows over the entire breathing cycle. Overall, however, it is entirely possible to think of inhalation as merely being a metaphoric form of receiving and vice versa for outward breaths. If you think about it this way, then what is going on is entirely internal or inwardly spiritual although the effects can be profound for both the meditator and the world around them.

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