How to Prepare for and Practise Tonglen
From a Christian Perspective
Based on Contemplations on the Practice of Giving and Taking (Tonglen) compiled by The Asian Classics Institute.
© Andre Auger, 2014
“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world…”
This version of Tonglen is an adaptation of the original Tibetan Buddhist practice, designed to help Christians develop the mind of Christ. In essence, this practice assumes that we can become ever more like Christ and take away the sins of the world around us, at least in a metaphorical sense.
This is not a set of practices to enter into lightly, just as one can imagine that “taking away the sins of the world” might be a huge task, and well beyond mere humans. And yet, Buddhists for three thousand years have been learning how to achieve the status of Boddhisatva, i.e., someone able to enter total enlightenment, but who refuses to do so until everyone else has attained it. Bodhichitta is the state where one is willingly and lovingly ready and able to take on the pain and suffering of everything and everyone around. This is essentially the state of Jesus on the cross, and we are called to do likewise.
On a more practical level, this set of exercises, at the very least, helps us rewire our brain, taking advantage of brain plasticity, by intentionally focussing ourselves on compassion, forgiveness and lovingkindness.
It is suggested that one takes these exercises very slowly, over many months, so that one might be really prepared for the actual practice of giving and taking known as Tonglen.
Christ at the heart of the Universe,
May I make the practice of exchanging
Myself and others the very heart of all my spiritual life.
And then, O Christ,
May all the pain of all beings around me,
Their bad deeds and their obstacles, ripen now on me,
And so I may now give them all my good and happiness,
And in this way assure that each one has all happiness.
If the world around me and those upon it overflow with the fruits of the wrong
I have done before, and a shower of pain, the things I hate, falls on me,
May I see it still as finishing all the results
Of my own bad deeds, to turn bad circumstances into the path.
May I then take whatever appears in my life,
The good or bad, and use this practice
To turn it into a path for increasing my desire to be your Christ.
May I feel nothing but joy.
1 How to develop the very root of the path: great compassion:
1.1 Imagine Jesus in a crowd, with the disciples trying to control who has access to him; Imagine a few children running up to Jesus and the disciples trying to stop them; See Jesus stop doing what he was doing and embracing the children. Feel his love for these vulnerable ones.
1.2 Imagine Jesus with the woman caught in prostitution. (Jn 8: 3-11) Feel his gentleness and his compassion.
1.3 Imagine Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman. (Jn 4: 5-29) Feel his gentle but honest attitude toward her.
1.4 Imagine Jesus being taunted, mocked and whipped. (Mt 27: 27-31) Imagine his outpouring of pity and compassion for these violent, angry, and hard-hearted men.
2 How to meditate on the practice of seeing oneself and others as equal:
2.1 Developing equanimity towards all beings.
2.1.1 Imagine a journey within yourself . Imagine all the parts of your body – heart, lungs, liver, eyes, kidney, foot… – all working together so that you can live the life you want to live… Now imagine a single organ – say the heart – and all its constituent parts, all working together so that the heart can perform its function of pumping blood through the entire system. Remember that all through your body, organs are doing just the same thing… Now imagine a single cell within a part of the heart, performing its own functions of feeding and reproducing, all in order to ensure that each part of the heart performs its task properly. Remember that all the cells of your body are doing just the same thing. Now, imagine a molecule within that cell and how it contributes to the health of the cell as a whole. Remember that all molecules are contributing in just the same way to the life of each cell. Imagine, now, the electrons racing around the nucleus of a single atom, maintaining the bonds within that molecule, interacting with other atoms, all in order to hold the molecule together so it can perform its task. Remember that all atoms everywhere in the body are doing just the same thing. Imagine now the most elemental particles – muons and leptons – colliding randomly with each other, blinking in and out of existence, but always maintaining the integrity of the atom of which they are a part. Remember that these particles form the foundation of every molecule everywhere in your body and throughout the universe.
2.1.2 Now we zoom out and we imagine the world at our human scale once again. We note that we breathe the air around us, filled with the oxygen we need, by product of the life of the trees around us. Imagine the food we eat; think of the farmlands that produced the fruit and vegetables; the barns – or factories – that housed the chickens and pigs we eat… Imagine the huge and complex cycle of the food chain. Imagine as well the millions of forms of good bacteria that reside in our intestines and help our digestions – an example of symbiosis.
2.1.3 Now think about this whole universe, and its wondrous interconnection, in which not one part is superfluous, in which all parts play their very specific and essential role. Then ask yourself whether any part is superior to any other. How might we develop a sense of equanimity toward all these diverse and interconnected parts of our world?
2.2 Recognizing them as your ancestors and care-givers:
2.2.1 Buddhist texts refer to “mothers.” This refers to all those to whom we owe our life; all those who have cared for us and nurtured us.
2.2.2 So we look back at our lives, and name – and hold in our mind’s eye – everyone who has supported us, loved us, cared for us, guided us. We imagine them, and honour them, and feel a sense of gratitude toward them.
2.2.3 We look back on the long line of those who have preceded us in our family – uncles, aunts, grandparents, great-grandparents, more distant ancestors. We note how our story follows on theirs; how their story in essence helps define ours. We imagine them, and honour them, and feel a sense of gratitude toward them.
2.2.4 Then we note that, even further back, our ancestors were hominids, and earlier still, all earlier forms of mammal life, and even further back, multi-celled and single-celled life forms. We imagine that long line of ancestors whose story and evolution helped define ours. We imagine them, and honour them, and feel a sense of gratitude toward them.
2.3 Recalling all their kindness:
2.3.1 We imagine the long line of our ancestors, and the wide range of people and beings who right now help us grow and develop. We broaden our vision as much as we can. We hold this vast population in our mind’s eye and we recall the sacrifices they have made and are making for us, whether they know it or not. And we find a way in our imagination to give them thanks.
2.4 Deciding to repay their kindness:
2.4.1 We imagine this long line of ancestors and the wide range of people and beings who right now are helping is grow and develop. We imagine what we might do to repay them for this kindness. We think of concrete situations in which we might find ourselves where we can actually do something to repay.
2.5 Vowing to help everything blossom as it is meant:
2.5.1 Now imagine this same line of ancestors and range of beings around me as they themselves are trying to grow and blossom and be happy. We are uniquely situated to help them reach their full potential. Review any number of them in your mind’s eye and practise wishing them their fulfilment. Do this even for people you dislike. Imagine them overcoming their challenges and their faults and finding ways to be truly and most fully who they are meant to be.
2.6 How to meditate on seeing oneself and others as equal:
2.6.1 Recall the dispute among the disciples as to who should be first in the new order. (Mt 20: 20-28) Imagine what Jesus would say if you were to suggest that some were more deserving than others; that some beings were superior to others.
2.6.2 Recall Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, and the lesson he draws from that for his disciples. (Jn 13:3-11) Imagine the one you love and respect so much stooping to wash your dirty feet. How do you feel? What do you think Jesus means by this?
2.6.3 Then imagine yourself as Jesus at a large gathering who have come to hear him. Extend your gaze out to the crowd; notice the range of ages, of status, of health… Then imagine they are all your family… all related to you… all equal to you…
2.6.4 Then imagine the whole world; how everyone needs love, no matter who they are; everyone needs food; everyone needs a sense of safety; everyone needs a shelter of sorts; everyone needs a community; no less than you do.
2.6.5 Next imagine all of nature, trying to grow and multiply. Imagine humanity’s destructive practices in treating nature solely as “natural resource.” (Lilies of the fields… sparrows…; Garden of Eden)
2.6.6 Pray this prayer:
There is no one who desires even the slightest kind of suffering;
There is no one who ever feels they have enough of happiness.
May I tell myself then that there is no difference
Between myself and others: teach me joy in their happiness.
May I see that this chronic disease of cherishing only myself
Is the very cause that brings me all the suffering I wish to avoid.
2.7 How to prepare for the “giving and receiving” meditations:
2.7.1 Problems that are caused by cherishing oneself:
126.96.36.199 Imagine the Gospel scene with the rich young man. (Mt 19:16-22) Imagine yourself the rich young man; he is trying to live a good life, and thinks he obeys all the commandments of his faith. Hear Jesus tell you that you need to give everything up and follow him. Think about the implications of that command: you give up your lifestyle, your possessions, your status in the community, your obligations. Then think about those whose livelihood you affect because of your lavish lifestyle.
188.8.131.52 Imagine yourself in situations where someone is begging you for a donation and you turn them down.
184.108.40.206 Imagine the story of the Good Samaritan. (Lk 10: 25-37) Be the priest and the Levy. What reasons do you give yourself for avoiding responding to the obvious need.
2.7.2 Benefits that come from cherishing others:
220.127.116.11 Imagine again the story of the Good Samaritan. Imagine what he feels as he sees the man lying in the ditch.
18.104.22.168 The Beatitudes (Mt 5: 2-12). Read these carefully, in light of the deep commandment to cherish others.
22.214.171.124 The early Christian communities (Acts 2: 42-47): Imagine yourself in such a community where everyone cares for everyone else. What does this feel like?
2.7.3 Developing the state of mind wherein one strives to achieve the goals of others:
126.96.36.199 Meditation on natural consequences of acts (“karma”):
188.8.131.52.1 Imagine all those who have come before you… imagine all their actions, good and bad, that have had an influence on you… Imagine that everything everyone does carries natural consequences for good or ill that permanently affect the ongoing activity of everything else. Become aware that there are simply no actions that do not have either a positive or a negative consequence on other things and people.
184.108.40.206.2 Now imagine how everything is connected with everything else through countless chains of influence, all either good or bad. Imagine the consequences of someone’s bad actions, and how the consequences spread like waves from a stone thrown in the water, extending forever. Imagine the impact on someone of someone else’s bad action, and how that person too might choose a bad action. Imagine now how that choice generates another wave, which reinforces the previous. Imagine the whole world as made up of the consequences of people’s bad choices (and good choices)
2.7.4 Personal responsibility :
220.127.116.11 When you come out of this last meditation, bring up in your heart that state of personal responsibility where you say to yourself, “Every living being must be freed from every form of suffering, and must come to have every form of happiness. I myself will assure that they do.” Pray this prayer:
O Cosmic Christ, I think of even the tiniest bit of the negative karma that comes
To those who are caught in the turmoil of the evils of this world;
Any single act like this would be enough to throw me
With the greatest ease into the realm of despair.
I take upon myself, in your name and with your help, with greatest gladness, any and all
Of the sufferings that each and every being must undergo.
May the hearts of all the world be filled with the very highest
Of happiness, and may they always live in acts of virtue.
3 How to practice giving and taking :
3.1 Let’s begin with ourselves: After you have quieted and centred yourself, spend some time doing a body scan, noting your pains, your discomforts, your anxieties… Slowly imagine each of your pains as some sort of black oozing poison invading your body… Now on your in-breath breathe in your own pain and breathe out peace and healing to yourself.
3.2 Let’s continue with someone close and loved: imagine a partner, child, friend… Imagine their pain and suffering; imagine their shortcomings and flaws. Imagine these as something black and oozing, a stain on their beloved countenance… Now, on the in-breath, breathe in that black ooze, taking it upon ourself… Breathe out your healing love and peace…
3.3 Now you can expand you practice to the minor suffering of people around you – a friend, a neighbour, someone with arthritis, someone in an long-term care facility. Repeat the process above.
3.4 Here is now the generalized form of the practice. Visualize, now, every living being, surrounding you. Make a sincere supplication that all their karma——either in the form of the karma that causes pain, that is, bad deeds; or in the form of the karma that results as pain, that is, pain itself——should ripen, at this very moment, upon you yourself. Visualize black light in the hearts of all these beings; think that the light consists of their bad deeds, and spiritual obstacles, along with all their different sufferings. See it all come out of these beings in a stream of black, and entering into yourself, into your heart, to a flame there which represents your tendency to grasp that things have some self-nature of their own. Then see everything blink out into pitch black, and after that see all the bad deeds and obstacles and pains of the beings totally removed, and disappearing in a wisp of smoke. Next visualize the happiness and good karma that you yourself have collected, are collecting, and will collect during the past, present, and future, all as white light. Send this light out to enwrap all living beings, and think to yourself that it brings them perfect and total happiness.
3.5 Now imagine someone who has done you harm. Imagine that person doing what that person normally does. Note how just imaging that person’s presence makes you feel. Hold your fears and anxieties and anger in abeyance for the moment. Try to imagine that person as a “child of God,” as a unique expression of the Divine. Try to imagine that person as God might see him/her. Now, from that perspective, and remembering your earlier meditation with Jesus on the cross, begin breathing in that person’s dark side and pain, and breathe out God’s Love into him/her. Use whatever imagery of evil, sin, darkness, “Shadow” you want, but begin deliberately sucking it out of the person with each in-breath. With each out-breath replace that dark with the light of God’s Peace and Love. Repeat this process for five to ten minutes, until you feel that you have taken on all the pain and evil from this person, and you can feel the burden of that carrying within you. Remember the prayer “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world…” You are a “Lamb of God,” taking away the “sin” of this person. Now, you know you do not work alone, but for , on behalf of, and with God. And so you are able to hold this dark mass of evil and sin and pain up to God and invite God to remove the burden from you. Remain quiet for a moment, with that image of working with God for God. In peace and gratitude, release the image of the person you have been holding. Sit quietly with God for a moment to regain strength.
3.6 Imagine yourself on the cross with Jesus. You look down at the soldiers; as you breathe in, you remove all their evil, their hatred, their mockery; as you breathe out, you give them the peace of God you feel within you. Then you broaden your gaze to the bystanders, and you repeat the process. Broaden your gaze still further to include Pilate and his entourage, the chief priests and their courts, and you repeat the process. You extend your gaze to the whole Roman Empire, its power-hungry elite, the wealthy families who feed off the poor, the Legion and its tactics of intimidation and torture and violence, and you repeat the process. You extend your gaze into the present, with its super-wealthy, its powerful, its jihadists, its intolerant fundamentalists of all religions, those who get rich by abusing others, the drug cartels, and you repeat the process.
3.7 Now, picture all your own happiness and good deeds in the form of white light. Send it out together with your breath when you exhale to every living being. See it entering them, and think to yourself that they are now filled with happiness. Meditate thus upon love. Contemplate next upon how all these living beings are tormented by the sufferings of life. Picture their suffering, and all their bad deeds, as black light, and see it issuing out of them. When you inhale then, see this blackness entering into you together with the air —— and imagine that it has destroyed, within your heart, the tendency to cherish your own possessions and well-being, as if the world’s pain and evil did not exist. Meditate thus on compassion.
3.8 Meditation on self-giving. In this meditation, we learn to give away our body and our possessions. Here you turn your body into anything and everything that someone might want to have, and then send it out to the world, and to the people living in the world. First for example send out your body to the creatures who are most suffering from illness, pain, oppression, as a sweet, gentle rain; then picture that this rain has cleared away all their suffering. Next change your body into one with all the leisure and fortune required for successful spiritual practice, and picture that they have attained it. Next turn your body into a beautiful place, with a lovely building upon it. Give it to all the homeless, the refugees, those who live in slums, and imagine that they enjoy these things. Turn yourself into excellent food and beverage, and give that, imagining that they are filled to their hearts’ content. Turn into clothes, and let them wear you. Imagine finally that you have turned into a Spiritual Guide, and that you teach them the Good News of God’s Love and of Christ’s Presence among us, and thereby bring them to the state of peace and joy. Do the same with two different kinds of material possessions. When you do the giving practice, think of all living beings as we talked about before. Think of how they live, bereft of any happiness, and concentrate mainly on developing feelings of love. You must try to make this single section of the mental training tradition the very heart of your practice.
3.9 Bring up in your heart then a feeling of joy, thinking how very fortunate you are to have undertaken this practice. Over time, with much experience of this practice, review what might have changed in your own attitudes to things and people. Ask yourself what has changed – you, the people, the situations? Ask yourself what is “real” – the person(s), situation(s) as you saw them earlier? As you see them now? Or are both not simply constructions of your own mind?
3.10 “Behold! I make all things new!” Next go back and examine yourself, to see whether or not you presently possess any capacity to actually bring about this goal. You will soon realize that for the present you have failed to realize even your own goals, much less achieve the capacity to help others achieve theirs. Reflect then on the question of whether there is anyone who does have this capacity already. Recall the Jesus did, and, as the Christ, continues, and continues through and with you. And so you should go on to bring up in your heart the aspiration to achieve the goals of all other beings, saying “I will do it in order to free every living being, from this ocean of suffering.” And bring up too then the aspiration to reach the Christ state, thinking, “How wonderful it would be if I could achieve the state of total self-giving myself!”