Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Thoughts on Tonglen

Tonglen is the Buddhist practice of breathing in the world's suffering, and breathing out peace and relief. Not only does this practice get you in touch with the suffering experienced by others, it enables you to transcend your own suffering.

I've been using this technique to great effect, but have been concerned recently that it was pretentious. What am I saying when I employ Tonglen? Am I saying that I am stronger than everyone else in the world? That I can take on their suffering without it collapsing my heart, like some Atlas of the spirit realm?

A talk by Ken Wilber on Tonglen helped me gain perspective on the practice. (Integral Naked subscription required to view.) Before beginning the practice, Ken urges the audience to bring forth the non-grasping mind using Genpo Roshi's Big Mind technique. He emphasizes that it is necessary to call forth this mind because "charity saves from death. Spirit is 'I' and 'We' and 'It'....Rest in the Diamond mind, rest in the everpresent non-seeking mind that you are. Because otherwise you're just a finite thing emoting over another finite thing."

It's a dramatic point, one that made total sense the minute it flowed upon the shore of my feeble mind. You can only exchange self and other on a level deeper than that of phenomenal awareness. In phenomenal awareness, we are all separate; in infinite, ever-present awareness, there is neither self nor other, nor the absence of self or other.

It's not that I, personally, am strong enough to take on the world's suffering. My ego is not that strong. (That's not a point against the ego - it's simply stating that the ego is phenomenal and limited.) It's that I must attain a state of awareness that goes beyond suffering. Tonglen is the practicing of attaining that awareness on the spot, in the moment, whenever you sense yourself getting hooked.

Later that day, something else occurred to me regarding Tonglen: it is the model of all pure selfless action. When I do something good for someone else, without expecting anything else in return, I am doing Tonglen.

My family is sick and needs me there; I take their suffering without complaint and spend all day cooking, cleaning, and caring. I am hurt, angry, and lonely; my wife drops what she's doing, listens to me, feels for me, lets me cry on her, gives strength to me. Someone donates money anonymously to charity, without thought or desire for reward. A teacher bestows the gift of self-knowledge on her students, giving the teaching freely to all worthy of receiving it.

It is all Tonglen. It is absorbing a piece of the world's suffering, and giving back peace and relief - even if only temporary - through one's actions.

Thanks for this post! This practice reminds me of the Native American rainbow ritual/meditation that my grandmother taught me. It was also nice to be reminded of the many ways we can be selfless in our giving in daily life.
You're welcome. :)
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