Today I read a talk in Pema Chödrön's book, The Wisdom of No Escape, where she explained to her Buddhist retreat students what the practice of tonglen is all about -- something I'd never heard about before.
I found a web page where Chödrön describes tonglen in the same way as she did in her book. Check out "How to Practice Tonglen." Here's an excerpt.
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.
Tonglen awakens our compassion and introduces us to a far bigger view of reality. It introduces us to the unlimited spaciousness of shunyata (emptiness). By doing the practice, we begin to connect with the open dimension of our being.
Tonglen can be done for those who are ill, those who are dying or have died, or those who are in pain of any kind. It can be done as a formal meditation practice or right on the spot at any time. If we are out walking and we see someone in pain, we can breathe in that person’s pain and send out relief to them.
This fits with another description of tonglen that I found.
On the outbreath: soothing rays of light—like moonbeams—that fill the world with their benevolent healing power. On the inbreath: a smoky, pitch-like darkness. Inviting it in on the inbreath relieves the world of its negative presence. The darkness is transformed by your positive intention and the natural goodness of your heart.
There are many different versions of this practice, both traditional and modern. The simplest form is simply connecting motivation and breath while you meditate. You are essentially accepting the unpleasant and sharing the good.
As taught today, tonglen is often practiced in stages. After settling the mind in meditation, we choose an object of compassion: a person, animal, or group whose situation touches our hearts. We breathe in the smoky darkness of that specific distress, imagining that the object of our meditation is relieved of all difficulties, whatever they may be. We breathe out the soothing light of compassion; it touches the object of compassion, bringing comfort and peace. This is followed by a phase of expanding the visualization to others who experience similar distress. And expanding yet again until all suffering is alleviated and all goodness is shared.
The intentions here are admirable. However, even though I practice a form of loving-kindness meditation every day that similarly entails visualizing good things happening to both myself and other people, I have a problem with viewing tonglen as purely a form of visualization and imagination.
Both loving-kindness meditation and tonglen are pretty much worthless, in my decidedly personal opinion, unless the alleviation of suffering and the sharing of goodness are manifested in some physical fashion instead of just being mental.
I realize that many people believe in the reality of prayer. But prayer typically entails an appeal to God or some other supernatural power, which then supposedly may intervene in a situation described in the appeal, such as a person suffering from a serious illness.
OK, I don't believe in God, nor in the efficacy of prayer, but at least prayer usually is directed at altering something physical for the better. Tonglen doesn't appear to have that grounding. In her book, Chödrön says:
The essence of the practice is willingness to share pleasure and delight and the joy of life on the out-breath and willingness to feel your pain and that of others fully on the in-breath. That's the essence of it, and if you were never to receive any other instruction, that would be enough.
Like I said, this sounds fine to me, yet it doesn't seem to be enough. Maybe this is so obvious that it isn't stressed in tonglen practice, but if we don't actually act to relieve the pain of others and act to bring them pleasure, tonglen seems akin to a recipe for delicious food that never is actually made in the kitchen.
To offer an example from my own life, my wife and I, being in our mid-70s, have frequently wondered if we should continue to live in our house in rural south Salem, Oregon, that sits on ten non-easy-care acres.
I've been more willing to move into town than my wife is, even though I love where we are now about as much as she does. It's just clear to me that Laurel needs a lot of nature nearby, along with walking trails on bare earth rather than asphalt or concrete, more than I do.
I love Laurel. I want her to be happy. Currently, if we sold our house and moved into town, Laurel wouldn't be nearly as happy as she is now out here in the country. So I no longer bring up the question of moving, something I did in the past.
It isn't that I've become some sort of self-sacrificing saint. I simply feel better when I act in accord with what makes my wife happy. That isn't a sacrifice. It's a pleasure. Because I think there's a better moral adage than "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," the so-called Golden Rule.
I want to do for Laurel what she wants done for her. Which is for us to stay in our current house for the foreseeable future. I don't see any point in visualizing or imagining Laurel being happy here. By not exerting any pressure on Laurel to move, I'm acting in a way that makes Laurel happier.
And that is the point of tonglen for me: using the mental as a springboard to physical action that makes life better for other people.