Path of Transformation» Meditation

Tonglen Practice: Developing Bodhicitta


Bodhicitta means the mind of awakening. Phakchok Rinpoche often reminds us to cultivate the motivation that everything we do is for bringing all sentient beings to attain enlightenment. But how do we go about developing bodhicitta correctly? Rinpoche recommends using our breath to assist us. He describes the method of Tonglen, or “sending and taking”. We send our aspirations and wishes for all beings out with our exhalation. And then we take all beings’ burdens and suffering in as we inhale.

We begin by exhaling and making the wish, “I wish all beings to be happy”. We imagine that we are extending happiness out through our breath.

Next, as we inhale we make the wish, “I wish all beings be free from suffering”.

We continue in this way for some time working with both loving-kindness and compassion. As Rinpoche demonstrates, we can repeat to ourselves just a few words as reminders, “all happy, free from suffering”.

This is step one. Spend some time working with this simple practice until it feels comfortable.

Next, we can move to a more mature practice where we give our happiness to others and take on their suffering. First, we recall all our own good qualities. We bring to mind all the positive qualities that we possess—the merit, the joy, the good health, bliss, loving-kindness, our wisdom—all these we give to others. And we do this freely and with great joy! We exhale and give everything positive to all sentient beings.

Then, as we inhale we take in all the pain and suffering of beings. We breathe in their illness, discomfort, fear, loneliness, depression, and the abuse they have suffered. We take all this in with the breath.

Rinpoche says here that in his opinion this tonglen practice is the best guide on how our dharma practice is going.

If we want to know if our practice is going well we can check by doing tonglen. Through this practice, we can see how strong our clinging is. This practice becomes a mirror of our practice.

We may want to write down or memorize this quote:

Mindfulness is a mirror of our mind and motivation is a mirror of our dharma practice.

Here we can understand the motivation to mean tonglen—the development of bodhicitta. By practicing tonglen, we increase our loving kindness, our compassion and ultimately our bodhicitta.

Bodhicitta is a core teaching in the Great Vehicle. The Buddha taught many ways to develop kindness, including the practice of the six and the ten perfections, or pāramitās. And all of these practices are bodhicitta in action. We classify the first five of the pāramitās as the accumulation of merit.  The sixth pāramitā, which Rinpoche translates as “supreme knowledge” is the accumulation of wisdom.

The Ten Pāramitās or Perfections are:

  1. Generosity
  2. Discipline
  3. Patience
  4. Diligence
  5. Meditation
  6. Supreme knowledge
  7. Skillful means
  8. Strength
  9. Aspiration
  10. Supreme wisdom

All of these help us to develop this bodhicitta; they support kindness and compassion. Although the Buddha’s teachings on compassion are vast, we can condense them into three.

The three kinds of compassion are:

  1. Compassion toward sentient beings
  2. Compassion toward all phenomena
  3. Compassion without a reference point

Many systems of thought tell us to be kind and compassionate, but the Buddha provided us with detailed and practical instructions on how to be kind and compassionate without limit.

If we begin to practice tonglen as described above we can start with stage one and spend time with that until we feel comfortable with the practice.

Remember that we reflect on giving and taking—and on the qualities of the four immeasurables. As you exhale and inhale, use the breath as support to develop these qualities:

  1. Loving-kindness
  2. Compassion
  3. Sympathetic Joy
  4. Equanimity

As we do this physical practice, we can reflect and be mindful of how it makes us feel. Confident? Compassionate? Uneasy? Fearful? Work with step one until it feels natural and relaxed. Each person approaches this practice from his or her own experience, so don’t rush through it to get to the next level. And remember that it is not an intellectual exercise; we want to notice a change in our hearts.

When we feel ready we can move to stage two as described above. Again, we use self-reflection to monitor how we feel. Use the practice as a mirror to reveal if and where we are fearful. When and how do we feel stronger? Slowly work with this practice and observe the changes in your attitude.

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