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Tonglen - a Buddhist Technique

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Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist technique uses to release the transformative power of compassion. Although it can be used as part of a 'sitting meditation technique', it is primarily used as an active method for coping with negative emotions, feelings and energies, both within oneself and one's environment. It is a powerful technique for healing on many levels. The technique has a long history, and can be linked back to a saying by Guru Rimpoche1, whom legend credits with converting the wild and ferocious Tibetans to the 'Noble Middle Way' of the Buddha in the 8th Century. The original saying translates roughly as, 'Giving away all victory, and taking unto oneself all defeat'. It is also described by the early Buddhist sage Shantideva as 'exchanging self for other'.

Among the very many techniques of energy transformation, Tonglen is one of the simplest, yet most profound and, in the experience of this Researcher, it works.

Tantric Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism belongs to the Northern Mahayana or Great Vehicle, specifically a sub-branch known as the Vajrayana or Diamond/Adamantine Vehicle. In the West, it is also known as Tantric Buddhism. Tantra is a Sanskrit2 word meaning 'weaving', but the essence of Tantra is transformation, more specifically the transformation of awareness. In the Tantric schools of Buddhism, no human emotion or energy is considered unfit for use in the great undertaking of transforming 'ordinary mind' into 'Buddha mind' in pursuit of liberation. Anything can be used as 'dung on the field of bodhi3'. This approach is known as upaya, or 'skilful means'.

For example, faced with hostility, anger or negativity, there are many ways you can react. But the 'skilful means' of Tonglen allow you to use this threat as a source of strength, rather than as an excuse for violence, a trigger for rage or a cause of fear.

The technique can be used within an individual to deal with an area of the body that is sick. It can be used to send healing to other people who are ill, in pain or suffering, as well as being able to defuse an angry situation between two people. It can be directed to entire groups, communities or even countries. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama has even spoken of practising Tonglen on China.

In brief, given such a situation, the process can totally transform the energies circulating between those involved before it builds to a point beyond control.

The Technique

  • Visualise the negativity as a cloud of black smoke.
  • Inhale deeply, drawing the imaginary smoke into your very core.
  • Let it dissolve the seed of ego-clinging identity, which is trying to protect itself from the negativity.
  • The smoke dissipates 'into the belly of emptiness', turning into radiant light and compassion.
  • Exhale this light back to the source of the negativity, where it dissolves the underlying fear and tension.

Alternatively you can do a sitting-meditation in which you connect with your own feelings of peace, joy, relaxation and breathe out those feelings to anyone you wish to benefit from them, before inhaling their tension or stress and dissolving it into emptiness. Performed on a one-to-one basis, it produces great empathy between the participants, while enabling both to generate some space between them and their apparent negative energies.

If the practitioner is unable to cope with the idea of actually absorbing the 'black smoke', then they can visualise a higher being (from any belief with which they can identify if they have one) who resides in their heart and use that, if it works for them.

Its supreme value is that it is empowering, allowing the practitioner to absorb and transform any threatening, negative energy that would otherwise be a source of oppression and stress. In its absolutely simplest form, you can repeat to yourself, as you breathe - 'darkness in, light out'.

Further Reading

There are numerous Tibetan Buddhist texts which describe the practice, this Researcher recommends:

  • Tibetan Book of Living and Dying - Sogyal Rimpoche
  • Tonglen - Pema Chodron

1Also known as Padmasambhava.2An ancient and sacred language of Hindus in India.3Meaning 'enlightenment'.

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