The Practice of Giving and Taking: “Tonglen”

How to Practice Giving and Taking: Tonglen 

Now, that leads us into our discussion of tonglen and the understanding of how important it is and why then it can be our core practice. “Tonglen” is giving and taking, and is an extremely, extremely advanced and difficult practice to do; it’s important not to trivialize it. The main idea of it is that we are, with a feeling of compassion, wishing others to be free from suffering and its causes. We imagine taking it away from them and taking it on ourselves, and with love, the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness, and we imagine giving them happiness. 

It is done with a visualization. To just make it into a very, very simple type of visualization, with black light and white light – although obviously light can’t be black, but nevertheless, we can refer to it like that – that we imagine black light comes in from others, white light goes out, and we don’t really feel anything and the whole thing is just absolutely trivialized. That’s not at all what is intended here. What we are actually imagining and wishing to happen, sincerely, is that instead of this person suffering this, that we suffer it, with the full courage and willingness to experience that suffering ourselves. That implies a huge development of courage and strength that we need as a bodhisattva to deal with everybody’s problems. In other words, I make your problem my problem, and I will deal with it as my problem. When we give happiness to others, we give them what will not only solve their problem, but counteract it – what they actually need. 

Now, in most cases, this is not going to work – we will not be able to remove the problem from the other – but the main point is to build up the courage, the willingness to take on their problem and experience it. In some very rare cases, when there’s an especially strong karmic connection with the other person and our practice is totally sincere, then our practice may act as a circumstance for a more positive karma to ripen on the side of that other person so that it counteracts their suffering situation, or karma ripens in them to end their suffering situation; it will act as a circumstance for a similar type of negative karma within ourselves to ripen so that we experience something similar. In other words, we can’t actually have a transference of karma from one person to another, otherwise Buddha would have done that with everyone. As Serkong Rinpoche used to say, we should be willing to even die in this process; he actually did pass away in the context of doing this practice with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

[See: Serkong Rinpoche’s Death and Rebirth]

What we are doing here in this one method or one situation in which we do tonglen is to develop this courage to take on the suffering of others, or actually trying to help them. One situation in which we do this is when we ourselves don’t have that problem, or the other situation is when we ourselves have that problem – like we’re sick – and then we imagine that we take on a similar type of sickness from everybody else. Rather than just thinking of “poor me,” we develop this strength and courage to take on the sickness of everyone. Even from a medical point of view, developing that strength and courage strengthens our immune system, and, in fact, does help us to overcome the sickness. When we imagine taking on the suffering of others, we do this with very strong visualizations, so we need to be quite mature and emotionally stable to do this, otherwise we would completely freak out. So, using black light and white light in our visualization is something which is very, very beginner level, but when this is actually taught in the “Real-Thing Dharma” way, we have three levels of visualization. 

We imagine, first, that the problem of others comes to us in the form of dirty substances – like oil, tar, ink, dirty water, mud – all these sorts of dirty substances that we really would not like to get on our hands or on our body, because what we’re doing is “I’m going to deal with your horrible problem” – so that’s really getting our hands dirty – and try to come up with some sort of solution to it that would be helpful for everybody having that type of problem. So, we have to be willing to get our hands dirty. 

The second level of visualization is that we imagine the problems and suffering of others coming into us in the form of diarrhea, vomit, urine, etc. – these types of substances that we have even more resistance to getting all over us, and not just getting all over us, but getting inside us as well. 

Then, the third level is we imagine the problems and suffering of others come into us in the form of whatever it is that we are the most frightened of, so it could be rats, it could be spiders, it could be snakes, it could be fire, whatever it is that we are personally the most afraid of. We can see that in order to be able to sincerely be willing to take that into us and deal with that, it’s an incredibly strong practice to develop strength and courage and overcome our resistance and fears in order to be able to help others. It’s like somebody being willing to rush into a burning building in order to save a baby inside that is trapped. 

When we take on this suffering of others, it isn’t that we just keep it inside us, but we need to be able to, in a sense, let this settle down. For this, I think the mahamudra types of teachings are very helpful, because with that, we imagine that all this suffering and unhappiness and so on that we actually feel from the others, that this is like waves on the ocean of the mind, and it settles down into the natural clarity of the mind. As this calms down into the clarity of the mind, voidness of the mind, it also accesses the innate bliss or happiness of the mind. It is this happiness that we are able to have shine out from us and give it to others in the form of whatever it is that they need, whether it is food, comfort, teachings to attain enlightenment – whatever it is that they need – it could be health, etc. 

This is a very important aspect of the practice – that’s what I was referring to with a description from mahamudra practice – otherwise, it is extremely difficult to make this switch from feeling the suffering and unhappiness of others, to feeling happiness and giving this happiness out to others. That’s very difficult to do on a sincere emotional level without this mahamudra type of practice, but this is very important even in a very modest type of practice. When we go to visit somebody who is extremely sick, or somebody who is dying from cancer or whatever, of course, we feel sad, we feel sympathy in terms of the pain of this person, especially if it’s a loved one. Yet it doesn’t help them for us to sit there and cry and feel sad and unhappy. We need to be able to somehow cheer up the other person with a smile, with kindness and affection. How do we do that? It’s not that we’re happy that they’re sick and suffering, is it? This guideline from mahamudra practice is very important, very helpful, even at this very simple level of this type of practice. 

This is the basic instruction on tonglen. This is not an occasion to do extensive practice on that, but when we do this practice, we also do it in connection with our breathing. We imagine that we alternate. With thoughts of compassion, we imagine the suffering coming into us with the in-breath, with these visualizations, and it settles down with this remembrance or mindfulness of the clarity and bliss and voidness of the mind itself. As we breathe out, then, with thoughts of love – “May the other be happy and have the causes for happiness” – we imagine that the innate happiness of the mind comes out, with a visualization of what the other person needs. As we take on the suffering of others, we imagine it leaves them. The analogy that is used is when we shave somebody’s head, and the black hair – Tibetans have black hair, Indians as well – that this comes off, so the suffering leaves them. Then, when we breathe out with happiness to them, we imagine that they receive this and enjoy and generate happiness with whatever it is that we give them that they need: good health, food, teachings, etc.

Although we have not gone into any detail in terms of how we develop love and compassion here, they are an integral part of the tonglen practice in taking on the suffering of others. That is, with a strong feeling of compassion, “May they be free of that suffering and the causes for the suffering,” and the giving of happiness is with love, “May they be happy and have the causes for happiness.” When we spoke about what all the Mahayana bodhichitta practices rely upon, we mentioned that one of the essential factors is renunciation, which means the determination to be free, and that is a strong wish for ourselves to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering and our striving for the happiness of liberation. We have already developed these attitudes directed toward ourselves, and so when we practice exchanging the attitudes about self with others, then we shift that wish for being free of suffering and to have happiness from ourselves to others. In this way, we apply and develop love and compassion.

Further, this development of love and compassion in tonglen is also based on what we had in these points concerning equalizing our attitude. In other words, it is based on this understanding that everybody equally wants to be happy and not to have suffering and unhappiness, and everybody has the equal right to be happy and the equal right to be free from suffering. It’s on that basis that we can exchange our attitudes. 

Questions about Giving and Taking: Tonglen 

When we visualize that the suffering of others comes into us and enters us, there is one explanation that I have read: that we visualize our selfishness inside our heart, and these sufferings come inside us and they destroy this selfishness. Which visualization is the best? And at which stage is there transforming this unhappiness into something else? 

There are many variations of the visualizations that are used. When we think in terms of taking in these various substances, a further elaboration is that when they come into us, they destroy or smash the self-cherishing attitude, which is imagined as a very tight lump, usually, blackness at our heart and that smashes that. 

We can use our imagination and be creative in how we imagine it. It doesn’t really matter. What is this really representing? We’re not just making a cartoon here, but if we examine and analyze when we have resistance to taking on dirty substances, to getting ourselves dirty, or dealing with some very messy problem that somebody has – whether it’s a legal problem, or health problem, or emotional problem – “it’s messy, and I just don’t want to have to deal with it,” then there is a tight feeling in our heart, that we want to keep this out from us. This is what we’re trying to relax with this visualization of the substance coming in and smashing that lump of darkness in our heart, because in order to access (at least in our imagination) this more subtle level of mind that I was referring to with the mahamudra practice, it is totally essential to be able to relax all the tightness, not just of the body but of the mind and the emotions. In the Kagyu mahamudra texts, they always talk about relaxing and calming down to the natural state of the mind, so that’s represented with this relaxing and smashing this clump. 

How can I replace these objects, these substances that you mentioned (oil and ink and these creatures like spiders or snakes), if they don’t seem unpleasant to me? 

Well, again, what I was saying is that we use our creativity and imagination to imagine whatever it is that we find unpleasant and have resistance to dealing with. Try to use progressively stronger visualizations in order to overcome our resistance. Of course, when we imagine these things coming into us, and they smash this clump of darkness within us, they disappear, they dissolve; we don’t just keep spiders or rats walking around inside us. If there is nothing that we have resistance to and nothing that we find difficult to deal with, then we are probably very advanced already on the bodhisattva path. I mean, if we’re completely free of fear… There must be something that most of us are afraid of – when it’s not an object, it might be loneliness, or it might be rejection, it might be whatever – which we can then represent as some sort of demon or whatever. 

Could it be fear, or any other feeling? 

Right, exactly. Whatever it is that we have resistance to facing and dealing with. The point is to develop the courage to deal with the suffering of others. 

Won’t it strengthen the feeling of fear? Let’s say I’m scared of water, not of spiders. 

This is a very good reason for why this type of practice, tonglen practice, is very advanced. We need to already be quite emotionally mature to be able to do this; otherwise, this practice will just increase our fear. Also, in the instructions in the lojong texts (the attitude training) it always says that this is a practice which is “secret,” it’s called, which means to be done in a hidden, private way; the word “secret” can also be translated as hidden or private. So, there are two points here. One is that we don’t make a display of this – “I’m doing this, sitting there taking on your problem” – because most of the time it doesn’t work, so we make a complete fool out of ourselves: that we build up the hope of the other person, and then we disappoint them. This is not at all to be done that way. The other point is that we keep it hidden – in the sense of don’t teach it to those who are emotionally immature and not ready to practice it – because it will just be emotionally damaging for them or psychologically damaging to try to do this. That’s true of many of the tantra practices as well that one needs to be extremely mature and stable already before attempting them.