The Transformative Practice of TongLen

the four noble truths

Before I begin telling you about Tonglen, I would first like to walk you through some Buddhism 101. In my experience most Westerners don't really understand what Buddhism is really all about, so this short introduction may help some of you connect with Tonglen more deeply.

The foundation of Buddhism is a doctrine known as the Four Noble Truths. Very simply stated they are:

  1. Suffering exists
  2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires
  3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
  4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path

Humans are not perfect beings, we make mistakes which lead to our own suffering. Much of our suffering is due to our desire to have things or to control things. For example, sexual desire leads some men to take advantage of women, which leads to suffering for both parties. Sometimes we repress sexual desire, but never really release it in a healthy way, which also leads to suffering. 

In Buddhist teachings, we can liberate ourselves from suffering by practicing non-attachment. By letting go of our desires we also let go of the suffering that comes from our attachment to having and controlling. 

We see this all the time in intimate relationships. People act is if being in a monogamous relationship means ownership of the other person. The desire to control what the other person does, who they speak to, how they dress, act, speak, etc...this kind of attachment, this desire to have the person, to make them our own is not healthy for either party. It ultimately leads to suffering. 

tonglen meditation

Tonglen meditation was introduced to me by my cousin Emily on a recent trip to her farm in Avon, IL. She mentioned it in passing and I was struck by the sound of the word. It seemed familiar to me, and yet I am sure I have never practiced or discussed it before. 

I immediately set the intention to learn more about this practice of compassionately transforming darkness into light. As I looked into it, I realized I have intuitively done meditations like this without formal training or study of this concept. I am sure many other Reiki practitioners and holistic healers have done the same, but I believe it does help us evolve our practice to learn more about ancient techniques that have withstood the test of time. 

This description from the article How to Practice Tonglen struck me as a wonderful introduction to this meditation practice, 

Tonglen practice, also known as “taking and sending,” reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath. In the process, we become liberated from age- old patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others

Try it for yourself

Learn how to practice Tonglen Meditation with Pema Chödrön. Pema Chödrön is a well known teacher who brings the practices of Tibetan Buddhism to Western audiences with skill and grace.