Tonglen: Developing Compassion and Empathy


Please listen to the teachings with the supreme mindset of Bodhicitta, wishing to establish all sentient beings without exception in the state of perfect and complete awakening.

Tonglen is the mind training of giving and taking, and this is one way of exchanging self and other.

In the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, Shantideva describes tonglen as a sacred mystery. He writes,

Those desiring speedily to be.
A refuge for themselves and others
Should make the interchange of “I” and “other,”.
And thus embrace a sacred mystery.

It is also called a secret because it is so profound. It does not fit in in the view of the lower vehicle.

If you wish to bring all sentient beings to complete and perfect enlightenment then you must practice Tonglen.

The benefits of tonglen practice are:

  1. You can attain the result of liberation
  2. You can attain complete Buddhahood
  3. This is the most profound practice in the Mahayana.
  4. If one hasn’t given rise to Bodhicitta, this practice will bring about that generation

By giving all our happiness we generate love. By taking in all the suffering of sentient beings we generate compassion.

There is a story within the 1000 Jātaka tales of the former lives of the Buddha. In one of his impure past lives, he was a cart pusher in the hell realms. He pushed the cart with a friend who was in great pain. One of the hell realm guards hit the buddha-to-be’s friend and caused even more pain. The buddha-to-be gave rise to great compassion and offered to take on the work of his friend. The guard was enraged and struck the buddha-to-be who was then immediately reborn outside the hell realms. This shows the great benefit of practicing the taking of other’s suffering.

In the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, Shantideva says that without love and compassion, there is no Buddha. Every Buddha comes about from the generation of Bodhicitta. If we want to benefit ourselves and others, we must take up this practice.

What are we giving away? We are giving others all our happiness, comfort, and positivity. This is the practice of love.

What are we taking? All the negativity, suffering, bad karma. This is the practice of compassion.

Writings on the practice of Tonglen are extensive. In texts we mostly see first the explanation of giving, and then the explanation of taking. But when it comes to the actual practice, the meditation on Tonglen, we first take away all the suffering. Unless we take away their suffering, they don’t benefit from receiving happiness.

In the beginning, we may have fears about taking others’ suffering. But we don’t have to worry that the suffering transfers to us. It is mental training for us as beginners.

As beginners, we aren’t actually taking or giving. Instead, we are imagining the exchange. It is conceptual, but it brings benefits. We become kind people. When someone is advanced in the practice, they can literally take away suffering. Khenpo Gyaltsen tells the story of a high Lama who noticed a dog hit by a rock. According to the story, the Lama began to bleed taking on the pain of the dog. Right now we are incapable of that kind of action, but the development of positive thinking is crucial.

Because it is so difficult for us even to imagine taking on suffering, we start small. We begin by taking away suffering from our future selves. We can consider that we might have suffering later in this day due to our karma. Initially, we start with the self of later today. Then we think about ourselves of tomorrow. Then keep extending that through your current lifetime; one year, 10 years, etc. And then go further and take on the suffering of your future lives.

This is directly stated in the Seven Verses of Mind Training text.

Once you are comfortable with this, you begin with your dear parents. We start with our parents because every single sentient being has at some point been your kind parent. We must recognize this fact. Reflecting on their kindness, we resolve to repay that kindness. If we consider deeply how our parents cared for us when we were in the womb or as a tiny baby. If you are a parent yourself, you know how much care and love you showed your children. This reflection instruction is found within the Seven Causes and Effects of Giving Rise to Bodhicitta.

Next, we extend to other relatives and to friends. We keep extending the circle outward. Our focus shifts to neutral beings or strangers.

Use examples from your own life. See the suffering that people are experiencing in hospitals as an example. You can use that image to generate the wish to take on all their suffering.

And eventually, we can go to all sentient beings of all the realms. We imagine experiencing the feeling of the tremendous suffering of hell beings, as example. We imagine as vividly as we can. The more intensely we imagine and practice in this way, we can feel powerful physical experiences. This is how we practice extensively.

The practice of giving is to imagine giving all our happiness comfort and everything positive. Again, we start with our closest loved ones and then we extend the circle outward.

The Seven Verses of Mind Training instruct us to unify these practices with the breath. The pith instruction here is to breathe in and out naturally through our nose. As we inhale, we take in all the suffering into our hearts. And we think we have actually freed them from all suffering. When we exhale we give them all our happiness and comfort and we believe they have genuinely received it.

This breathing practice brings us benefits by changing our negative habits to positive. And it also is beneficial for our health. The yoga of breathing exercises has become well-recognized these days. Khenpo Gyaltsen talks about Dzongsar Khyenste Rinpoche’s instructions to lay back, relax, and exhale. Using our breath in this way alleviates stress. This helps us achieve longevity

Khenpo advises us to take the time to train authentically in Tonglen. We often reach for higher practices but we need to be firmly grounded in the practice of compassion.

Khenpo Gyaltsen concludes the teaching by leading a short practice of Tonglen meditation. It can be helpful to practice along with the video to gain familiarity.

Tulku Migmar Tsering has also taught on the topic of the Seven Steps to Cultivate Compassion mentioned here by Khenpo Gyaltsen. You may wish to watch that video teaching here.


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