THE PRACTICE OF TONGLEN
Sending and Receiving - Explanation and Guided Visualization
Tonglen, or “Sending and Receiving” practice, is a foundational Buddhist meditation and contemplation that everyone can do at anytime, anywhere, for anyone. It’s as easy as breathing.
The practice of tonglen is done to develop our compassion and our ability to be present for our own suffering and the suffering of others. It’s also a practice of great kindness that opens up our whole being to the overwhelming presence of suffering, and supports our strength and willingness to transform it into compassion through the energy of mercy and openness.
Tong means “sending out” or “letting go”; len means “receiving” or “accepting.” Tonglen is ordinarily practiced in sitting meditation, using the breath. Simply, the practitioner breathes in all that is negativity and harmful, and breathes out all that is positive and helpful, taking on the suffering of other beings.
By doing the practice, we begin to connect and open to our own being. Tonglen can be done for those who are ill, those who are dying or have died, or those who are in pain of any kind. It can be done as a formal meditation practice or right on the spot. You can do tonglen for people who hurt you or hurt others. Just breathe in their pain and send them relief.
In 2019, TLC hosted a program about tonglen at UCSF’s Helen Diller Cancer Center, "Transforming Suffering into Compassion". One of UCSF’s participants asked why anyone with cancer would want to take in the suffering of others, and wondered, would that cause them to suffer more?
The renown American Zen Buddhist teacher, Joan Halifax, is also a hospice caregiver, an anthropologist, an ecologist, a civil-rights activist, and author of several books on Buddhism and spirituality, including ‘Being with Dying’. She says this: “Tonglen is one of the richest and bravest practices that we can do. In teaching this practice for more than twenty-five years, I have been told again and again that this one practice has helped many people immeasurably in attending to their own fears around pain, suffering, dying, and loss, and has given them a real basis for the joining of compassion and equanimity. This is one of the great meditation jewels that offers a way us to cultivate our natural mercy.”
The Beloved Buddhist teacher, author, and nun Pema Chödrön gives tonglen instruction as well. I paraphrase her words as follows: "On the in-breath, take in the suffering of any particular area, group of people, country, or even one particular person... maybe it’s not the global situation, maybe it’s breathing in the physical discomfort and mental anguish of chemotherapy; of all the people who are undergoing chemotherapy. And if you’ve undergone chemotherapy and come out the other side, it’s very real to you…”
Here’s another explanation from an online teaching: Tonglen practice, also known as “taking and sending,” reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath. In the process, we become liberated from patterns of selfishness.
There are many variations and ways to practice tonglen in Buddhism. Traditionally, it’s included as a regular part of one’s daily practice. We can touch into tonglen in any situation that needs love and compassion.
The Practice – Guided visualization
First, make yourself comfortable in your seat. If you are Buddhist, take refuge in the Three Jewels, and if not, focus your mind on loving-kindness and compassion. Allow your breathing to become even. You may have your eyes open or closed.
Imagine an individual, a group of people, a community, even a nation. You can also start small with yourself or your family and eventually expand the reach of your intention to include the whole world and every being.
Visualize each exhalation as light that sends out happiness, such as love, kindness, virtue, well wishes, confidence, strength, and support.
Then, with each inhalation, visualize a dark smoke that takes in and removes suffering from the object of your compassion, such as fear, doubt, pain, obstacles, confusion, and sickness.
As you continue to breathe in this way, imagine offering all that is positive to others and taking in their negativity, illness, suffering and/or obstacles, in order for them to be free of this. This suffering is dissolved and purified in your heart.
PRACTICE FOR A FEW MINUTES, OR LONGER.
WHEN FINISHED, PLEASE DEDICATE THE MERIT TO ALL BEINGS.