Exchanging Our Happiness for Others’ Suffering

Brief Review

The Eight Verses of Mind Training comes from a long tradition, beginning with Shantideva’s text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, then with Atisha, who heard of these teachings from Dharmarakshita, who wrote Wheel of Sharp Weapons, and then traveled to Sumatra to receive this mind training lineage from Serlingpa. Atisha later wrote A Bodhisattva’s Garland of Gems and transmitted these teachings to Tibet. There, our author, Langri Tangpa, wrote our text and, following this, Geshe Chekawa wrote Seven Point Mind Training and Togme Zangpo – 37 Bodhisattva Practices. All of these texts basically cover the same themes, which are equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others, the giving and taking practice, tonglen, and how to transform negative circumstances into positive ones, particularly by practicing patience.

These two themes are very important, because often we meet people who are very negative and filled with disturbing emotions. Sometimes even the people we’ve been very kind to are ungrateful, do unkind things or say cruel things that hurt us. It’s very important not to get thrown off or depressed by this; instead, we need to see them as giving us golden opportunities to practice patience. It is also important to develop more compassion for others and to realize that our experience of others’ unkind behavior is the ripening of our own karma.

Thus far in the Eight Verses of Mind Training, we’ve seen how we can look at others who are acting unkindly in this way as if finding a great treasure. We can see them as our teachers of patience, or at least as children who are sick with disturbing emotions. Therefore, there’s no reason to get angry with them, but instead we need to be even more kind and understanding. It’s really the only alternative that makes any sense in dealing with such situations; otherwise, the other options are to get depressed, unhappy and suffer.

Emotional Resistance and Challenges

These practices, of course, are very difficult to do. They’re challenging because they go against our instinctive ways of reacting to people and such situations. Instinctively, we get upset and depressed, or we get angry and feel sorry for ourselves. A lot of attachment comes up as well, attachment to ourselves and to our own self-interest. This is especially true if the person who is cruel toward us is someone we’ve been very kind and friendly toward.

When we try to meditate on these mind-training points, although we might intellectually understand them, we have a great deal of emotional resistance to accept them on a gut level. The only way to try to break through the barrier between an intellectual understanding and an emotional gut feeling is to really assimilate the points of this teaching through repeated meditation. We need to focus on the healthier attitudes they suggest so that eventually we can quiet down our resistance. Like the image of a dog tied to a chain barking and trying to get away, the ego rebels against this new way of looking at things.

However, if we can just relax enough, eventually we start to feel something change. This is because we come into contact with the natural Buddha-nature qualities of understanding, warmth, acceptance, openness of heart, and so on. However, to transform ourselves like this takes an awful lot of practice, effort and determination. Basically, it takes the strong resolve of renunciation: “I’m not going to suffer. I’m not going to let myself go down and down with depression and being upset.”

Tonglen: Giving and Taking

We’ve now reached verse seven of the eight verses:

(7) In short, may I offer to all my mothers, both actually and indirectly, whatever will benefit and bring them joy; and may I hiddenly accept on myself all my mothers’ troubles and woes.

This verse refers to the practice of tonglen, giving and taking. We want to do this practice by giving both directly and indirectly. “Directly” means actually giving other people material aid and assistance, giving them Dharma teachings, or giving whatever help we can actually offer with our body and speech. “Indirectly” means giving in our minds through tonglen practice.

The sutra sources of tonglen practice are the Gandavyuha Sutra and the Vajradhvaja Parinamana Sutra, Vajradhvaja's Transferences (of Positive Potential) Sutra. We also find them in Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, in which he states,

May their negative force ripen on me and may all my positive force ripen on them.

Tonglen is a very effective way of dealing with others who are very cruel and under the influence of their disturbing emotions, particularly if they act in a self-cherishing and nasty way toward us and others. Through the practice of tonglen, we actually imagine taking on and removing others’ disturbing emotions. In addition, we offer them whatever solutions would be suitable for the particular type of problem or disturbing emotion that is afflicting them.

This practice reminds us of many different aspects of Buddhist teachings that we’ve encountered. For example, when we read the Mahayana scriptures, one Kadampa Geshe advised to think of all mistakes, negative qualities and disturbing emotions described in them as being our own and all the good qualities as others. We can combine this way of reading the scriptures with tonglen practice.

For instance, when we read about self-cherishing, we think about our own self-cherishing; we also have this same attitude. We then think of everyone else who suffers from the same disturbing emotion and wish for their suffering and its cause to leave them and come to us. Because we’re taking it on from everybody else, we’re working to solve that problem in ourselves, not just for our own sake, but also for the sake of everybody. In addition, we’re providing the solution not just to ourselves, but also to everybody else. This way of dealing with our disturbing emotions becomes a real Mahayana practice. By not just dealing with our own personal troubling emotions, but by taking on everybody else’s and giving them the solution, we come to realize very deeply that we’re all equal and we all have the same types of problems.

Shantideva echoes the point that we’re not only addressing others’ problems and suffering, but our own as well:

(VIII.136) Therefore, for the sake of quelling my own suffering and for quelling the sufferings of others as well, I shall give myself over to others, and take (others) on as myself.

(VIII.120) Thus, anyone who wishes to give safe direction swiftly to himself and others needs to practice the most sacred secret: the exchange of self with others.

By calling it “the most sacred secret,” Shantideva is using the same word, “secret,” found in verse seven of our text. There, I’ve translated it as “hiddenly” in the expression, “hiddenly accept on myself” or “secretly accept on myself.” This means that when we practice tonglen, we practice it privately, and not by making a big show out of it. We don’t go around waving hands in front of the other person and telling them, “I’m doing tonglen,” and “I’m going to heal you of your problems by taking them on and giving you happiness,” as if all of this is going to happen with a simple wave of our hands. On the one hand, such way of practicing can be a big ego trip, that we’re putting on a big show. On the other hand, if it doesn’t work – and in most cases it won’t work – we just make fools of ourselves, causing the other person to be really very disappointed and to lose faith in us. Therefore, it’s best, when we do this tonglen practice, not to tell the other person at all, let alone do it in front of them.

Another reference to the need to practice this privaely is from Geshe Chekawa in the Seven Point Mind Training. In the fourth of the eighteen closely bonding practices he states:

Transform my intentions but remain normal.

In other words, on the outside just remain perfectly normal. Don’t go on a big ego trip when we’re doing this kind of practice.

Shantideva goes on:

(VIII.131) For those who haven’t exchanged their happiness for the sufferings of others, Buddhahood will be impossible to attain and there’ll be no happiness even in samsara.

Shantideva makes this essential strong point that tonglen is a very necessary practice in order to gain both our happiness in this world and ultimately enlightenment. As explained, without this practice, the alternative is that we get very depressed with everybody being so caught up in the problems and suffering in this world.

Therefore, in Shantideva’s prayer at the end of his text, he says:

(X.56) Whatever sufferings wandering beings might have, may all of them ripen on me, and through the bodhisattva assembly, may wandering beings enjoy happiness.

Not only through our giving happiness to others, but also through all bodhisattvas working for the sake of everybody, may others enjoy happiness.

Togme Zangpo, in 37 Bodhisattva Practices, says this as well:

(11) A bodhisattva’s practice is to purely exchange our personal happiness for the sufferings of others, because (all) our sufferings, without an exception, come from desiring our personal happiness, while a fully enlightened Buddha is born from the attitude of wishing others well.

This example indicates that through the practice of exchanging self and others, we will be able to achieve enlightenment.

How to Practice Tonglen

As for how we actually practice tonglen, Geshe Chekawa says in the Seven Point Mind Training:

Train in both giving and taking in alternation, mounting these two on the breath.

The way that we practice is to first take in whatever difficulty others may have. We imagine taking on the suffering of others as we breathe in, and we do that with an attitude of compassion: “May they be free from their problems and the causes of their problems.” As we breathe out, envisioning what will be of benefit to them, we imagine with love: “May they be happy and have the causes for happiness.”

We begin this practice by breathing in, through our right nostril, all the sufferings, problems, and so on of others, which we visualize in certain forms. These visualized sufferings go down to our hearts and dissolve there. This technique will be explained further in a moment. Then again, as we breathe out, we visualize the happiness and other things that we’re giving them leave our body with our out-breath through our left nostril. We don’t have to hold our nose while doing this; we just have to imagine it like that. When we become proficient in the practice, we can do it with each individual cycle of breathing; however, in the beginning that’s a bit too complicated and difficult to do. Instead, we do a period of focusing on the breathing in. Obviously, we have to breathe out, but first we focus on the taking on aspect and dissolving it in our hearts, and then shift to the out breath and the aspect of giving.

It’s important to realize that this practice is not going to work in almost all cases, unless we have an unbelievably pure motivation, perfect concentration, bodhichitta and a really strong karmic connection with the other person. Additionally, we really need to have overcome self-cherishing, ego-grasping, and all these sorts of self-centered attitudes. Unless we have all of these qualities, tonglen is not going to work. Because of that, we need to make the strong wish to be able to reach the point where the practice will work, but with the understanding that all we can do is provide the circumstances for the other person to overcome their problems. As Buddha said in one of his sutras, a Buddha can’t remove the suffering from others like pulling a thorn out of somebody’s foot. All a Buddha can do is show the way to enlightenment.

In addition to providing circumstances for somebody else’s positive karmic potentials to ripen, we are actually providing a circumstance to weaken their negative karmic potentials that are ripening or would ripen. If someone is already blind, for instance, we can’t take their blindness away; but if they’re sick, that sickness can become weaker. We can affect the ripening of other people’s karmic potentials like we do, for example, when we offer prayers for somebody that is in the bardo period in between rebirths.

It’s not that we are taking some piece of their karmic situation and throwing it into ourselves, like catching a ball or something like that. It’s not that we’re actually giving something solid from our own side. But as I said, even if in most cases it’s not going to work, still, we want to develop a strong wish, “May I be able to benefit others like this.”

The Power of Mantra: Shaping the Breath and Energy

We might have some confusion and ask, “Aren’t there a lot of Tibetan lamas who blow their breath on other people in order to heal them? What’s going on with that? Is that tonglen?” That practice is slightly different. It’s actually not the practice of tonglen, giving and taking, but has to do with the power of mantras.

As Serkong Rinpoche often used to say, “There are three most powerful things in the world: medicine, technology and mantras.” I always used to find that a little bit difficult to understand; however, he always emphasized that the power of mantra is extremely strong. The more that I thought about the actual purpose of a mantra, I realized that the purpose of the mantra is to protect the mind, which is literally the meaning of the Sanskrit word “mantra.” When we recite mantras, we need to accompany them with focus on the meaning behind them. For instance, OM MANI PADME HUM is the mantra for compassion. By focusing on compassion while reciting this mantra, we protect our minds from going in a negative direction and set them in a positive direction instead.

Mantra is really a shaping of the breath and shaping the breath is shaping the energy. On a deeper tantra level, we want to shape the breath in order to gain control of our energies. With control, we can dissolve the breath and the subtle energy into the heart chakra in order to access the clear light level of mind for the most efficient understanding of voidness. This is the ultimate purpose of mantra recitation.

By shaping the breath through special mantra recitation techniques in advanced tantra practice and, through that, shaping the subtle energies, someone who has done an unbelievable amount of mantra recitation with pure motivation and pure concentration can project that concentrated subtle energy outwards with the breath.

In tantra visualizations, we imagine light and nectars going out from us and helping others. Similarly, on an advanced level, we send our breath, and with it our subtle energy, out to help others. After all, what are the lights and nectars actually symbolizing? They’re symbolizing the illusory body, the type of forms that we can fashion out of the subtle energy. So, if we can shape that subtle energy and send it outward, it can have an “uplifting effect,” which is usually translated as “blessing.” It can uplift other people and help act as a circumstance or a condition for others’ positive karmic potentials to ripen, if they have the positive potential, for instance, to get over their sickness. If they don’t have that karmic potential, nothing is going to happen.

Similarly, if we go on pilgrimage to a place where a great spiritual being has lived and meditated, we can feel, if we’re sensitive enough, the uplifting force or “blessing” of the place. This type of so-called “blessing” can also occur when a great lama blows his or her breath on other people, or into water, which is then given to people to drink. Receiving such “blessings” can help others going through difficult situations. There are also what are called “hand-blessings,” the uplifting or blessing by means of touching the other person with the hand. It’s the same as when lamas take their rosary and touch it to the top of somebody’s head; this is when they’ve done a tremendous number of mantras with the rosary. Again, this is not giving and taking, not tonglen, although, of course, the lama could practice tonglen at the same time as these practices.

Overcoming Self-Cherishing

One of the main emphases with tonglen is that its practice enables us to overcome our self-cherishing, that ego-grasping and grasping to a self, which says, “I don’t want to get involved; I don’t want to get my hands dirty with such a mess. It’s too much bother and I’m too busy; I have difficulty enough with my own problems.” The point is to develop the courage of a bodhisattva to overcome these types of feelings. The visualizations we do with tonglen are very much connected with developing this kind of courage, as we’ll get to in a moment.

When we imagine that we take on the sufferings of others and give them our happiness, we also need to be fully prepared to accept their suffering on ourselves. We need to really mean it when we say or think, May all of their sufferings ripen on me and may this act as a circumstance for all my negative karma that’s similar to theirs to ripen.” In short, we have to be totally willing to suffer the same thing that the other person is suffering and, in this way, fully take on their problem.

Tonglen practice also involves accepting the problems of others in the sense of dealing with them as if they were our own problems. For instance, another person is unemployed, lonely, or sick and we think, “I will deal with this the same as I would with my own problem.” This is why Shantideva says that just as we label the “me” onto a body that was actually the sperm and egg of our parents and not ours, we can likewise label the “me” onto the body of somebody else. By this logic, we can have the same regard for others as we would for ourselves. Then, we can more readily solve whatever the issue is that is troubling them as if it were our own problem.

The key point is that we need to be fully willing to experience the problem ourselves and deal with it as our own; otherwise, the practice won’t work. Overall, we build up a tremendous amount of courage by doing tonglen.

Dissolving the Suffering into the Subtlest Mind

When we take on others’ problems, it’s not that we hold onto the suffering. We’re willing to experience that suffering, but we dissolve it with the understanding of voidness into the clear light mind, the subtlest level of mind at our hearts. Even though we’re not actually able to access that subtlest level, still we imagine that the suffering comes to our heart and dissolves there. In a sense, the suffering passes through us; however, we still experience it. 

We might wonder how can we give anyone happiness if we’ve become so unhappy experiencing their sufferings? That’s why we need to think in terms of the clear light mind. It’s only when we dissolve the disturbing energy of that unhappiness and suffering into this subtlest mind that we can truly calm down. It’s only when we have become sufficiently calm that we are able to access and bring out the Buddha-nature qualities, like innate tranquility and happiness found on this subtlest level of mind. It’s on this basis that we give happiness to others. Otherwise, how could we instantly switch from feeling sad that someone has cancer to feeling happiness and giving that to them? It’s only in terms of accessing the clear light level of mind that the practice makes any sense.

Once we think in terms of calming down the disturbing energies of others’ suffering into our clear light minds, we can then add visualizations on top of this. As our visualizations of others’ sufferings become more and more horrific, they attack our ego-resistance to really deal with others’ suffering. In this way, we eventually build up the courage of a bodhisattva.

Questions and Comments

Thinking in terms of our own faults, do we also take on the shortcomings, mistakes or faults of others?

Yes. Suffering is a large category. It includes faults and mistakes. But what would be a fault or a mistake? It’s being selfish, self-cherishing, and acting under the influence of all our disturbing emotions. These are all forms of suffering. When we do tonglen, we don’t just take on the sickness of somebody else; we also take on their disturbing emotions and the mistakes that they’ve made. It’s the same process.

But, then aren’t we busy with applying antidotes against them?

You’re right. That’s why it’s an incredibly advanced practice, not at all a beginner practice or a beginner Mahayana practice even. It’s a very advanced practice, and we have to do it quite slowly. When we think in terms of applying the opponents, first we take on this or that mistake or disturbing emotion and calm it down. We will then be better able to access and apply the antidotes with this calmer and subtler level of mind.

We have to be a little bit delicate here. When we take on the stupidity of others, for example, it’s not that we sit there and imagine that we’re more and more stupid or try to generate more stupidity. It’s not quite like that, but we try to have a feeling or understanding of the suffering that’s involved in being stupid.

Don’t we also see ourselves as stupid?

Yes, we can think this as well. There are many aspects to this practice. One aspect is knowing that we have this same affliction as they have. With stupidity, it’s easy; we all are stupid in one way or another. On the other hand, if the other person has cancer, we can think, “Yes, from beginningless time, I must have the karmic potentials to also have cancer.” We think in terms of not being totally unrelated to this person. Therefore, we’re able to empathize with their problem and suffering, because we have experienced or could easily experience something similar.

Another aspect of the tonglen practice is when we have an illness or disturbing emotion, we wish, “May this problem in everybody who has it come on me.” Even when we don’t have the manifest problem of others, as another aspect of the practice we would think, “May I take on this problem of others to smash my self-cherishing.”

Smashing Self-Cherishing with Strong Visualizations

Dharmarakshita strongly emphasizes this aspect of smashing of our self-cherishing and resistance in Wheel of Sharp Weapons:

(94) With all of the sufferings that others experience, smother completely our selfish concern. The sufferings of others arise from five poisons; thus whichever delusion afflicts other beings take it to smother delusions of self.

(95) Though we have not a doubt, for we recognize fully the cause and the root of mistakes we all make, if there is still left a part of our minds that would tend to support this delusion of self that we have, then destroy the firm hold of this part of our minds that, against our true wishes, makes fools of us still.

(96) As all that is wrong can be traced to one source our concern for ourselves whom we cherish the most, we must meditate now on the kindness of others. Accepting the suffering that they never wished for, we must dedicate fully our virtues to all.

(97) Thus accepting ourselves all deluded non-virtuous actions that others have done in the past, in the present and future with mind, speech and body, may delusions of others as well as our own be the favored conditions to gain our enlightenment, just as the peacocks eat poison and thrive.

(98) As crows may be cured after swallowing poison by a powerful antidote given in time, let’s direct to all others our virtuous merit, that this may replenish their chances for freedom. May all sentient beings reach Buddhahood soon!

The whole emphasis in The Wheel of Sharp Weapons is to trample our self-cherishing attitude and so smother the life out of our ego-grasping. How do we do this? By taking on the sufferings of others and giving them our happiness. But, to be most effective in getting rid of self-cherishing, we need to do this in a very forceful manner. We do this through the visualizations that accompany this practice.

The recommended visualizations are actually very strong, but we work up in stages to apply them. The simple visualization that people start with – a light version of tonglen – is to imagine that the suffering and problems of others come into us in the form of black light, and our happiness goes out to them in the form of white light. Of course, this is a contradiction, because light can’t be black; but anyway, this is the beginner version.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Serkong Rinpoche explain the more advanced visualizations in terms of three stages. There are several ways to apply the three stages as ways to purify various levels of our self-cherishing and disturbing emotions, but it’s the visualizations that are important, not so much what they represent.

For example, if we’re talking about the sufferings of disturbing emotions, sicknesses and so on, the first stage is to imagine that these come to us from others in the form of really dirty substances like oil, grease, ink, soot and coal mixed with water – all these sorts of dirty things. Naturally, we have resistance to this: “I don’t want to get myself dirty.” Our self-cherishing comes up strongly when we really imagine these dirty substances coming into us.

Next, we think of the tendencies, the seeds of the disturbing emotions of others, or their negative karmic tendencies and potentials coming into us in the form of diarrhea, vomit, urine, pus and blood. These are the types of things that we would have even more resistance to wanting to take on and actually have inside us to deal with. Thereby, it’s an even stronger visualization.

The third level involves the deepest habits that support others’ disturbing emotions and karma. We imagine that these come into us in the form of whatever is our greatest fear – whether it’s spiders, snakes, scorpions, fire, or whatever it is that we’re the most afraid of. We imagine that they come to our hearts and dissolve there into our clear light minds; however, we’re fully willing to experience these problems of others. But that doesn’t mean that we keep anything inside. As explained, this dissolution process has to be done with the understanding of voidness, although when dissolving these horrific visualizations, we can imagine, on a simpler level, that they’re going down the drain in the bathtub.

It’s a big mistake to hold on to these dirty substances that we’ve taken inside us as if they were solidly and truly existent substances inside a solidly and truly existent “me.” That’s why the dissolution practice needs to be done with an understanding of voidness of these substances and of “me.” Both are dependently arising phenomena and not self-established by something findable, inherently existent from their own sides. It is the understanding of voidness, emptiness, plus these terrifying visualizations, that together smash through our ego-grasping, our self-cherishing. And, of course, the basis for doing this practice is, before doing this meditation, thinking about all the disadvantages of self-cherishing.

We can see with these visualizations that tonglen is a very strong meditation and very advanced. Obviously, it is not for the light-hearted or the beginner who would freak out doing something like this. But it’s the “real-thing” practice as His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches it, and obviously practices.

We can see, then, just as Dharmarakshita emphasizes, that this practice is really aimed at developing the courage of a bodhisattva and smashing self-cherishing. It smashes such thoughts as: “I don’t want to be involved with helping others. It’s too messy. It’s too frightening.” In addition, by the stages of visualizations becoming increasingly horrific and terrifying as they counter deeper levels of problems and their sources, the practice counteracts the tendency we might have of just doing a superficial job in helping others, not going deeply enough. We don’t want to just get rid of the superficial symptoms of someone’s sickness, not really going down to the root of the problem. We don’t think, “I can’t be bothered to go deeper.”

For example, we might just give some money to a young beggar who’s run away from his or her parents, as opposed to really helping them overcome the psychological and emotional reasons of why they left their parents’ home. The latter approach is a much deeper involvement with the person than just giving them money for a meal. Applying these visualizations to go into deeper and deeper levels of the causes behind others’ problems, then, really builds up the courage to go all the way to help others.

Although we can do a lighter version of tonglen, it’s important not to trivialize the practice. It’s very unfortunate when people just think, “It’s so easy, any beginner can do it; it’s just black light in and white light out and wishing everybody to be happy.” Not only does this kind of thinking trivialize the practice, but it also creates a lack of interest to go any deeper.

What We Give to Others

I’ve not heard of a lot of descriptions of what we visualize giving to others in tonglen practice. Usually, what is explained is on a material level. If someone wants a house or money or something like this, we imagine these things in the white light that goes out to them. All the various things that we give are presented to them as such.

The texts say we can give many other things as well: good qualities, insights, and eventually liberation and enlightenment. But I don’t have specific instructions of how to visualize this. Maybe we can just leave it abstract. We can imagine that the white light we send out to them is filled with insights into the sources of their problems and how to get rid of them, and so on. Furthermore, the white light could give them the blissful attainment of the omniscient state of a Buddha. We can work in this way.

Applications of Tonglen in Daily Life

We can approach the practice of tonglen in our everyday lives in different ways, depending on the actual circumstances going on. For example, if one of our friends has a very serious problem, a sickness, or if we meet someone suffering from a very strong disturbing emotion, we can take that on ourselves and do the practice. At the same time, we also recognize that we ourselves have that same problem as well. When we give good qualities to others, we can think, “It’s not that they don’t have any good qualities; what I’m giving them is just strengthening and enhancing the good qualities that they have.”

We can also tie this into the practice that is described in the earlier verses when somebody whom we have been kind to and raised like a child says very cruel things to us. We take that on ourselves as well, taking on whatever disturbing emotion that has caused that person to behave in that way and giving them the solution to their problems. As in the earlier verse, if somebody out of envy says horrible things to us, we can also take that on. In these cases, we work with specific persons; we can also do the practice for animals that are suffering. Further, there are practices we can do with the beings in the six realms and so on, but I find tonglen far more effective if we do it with actual specific beings.

Of course, when we ourselves have a serious problem, perhaps experiencing the sadness of a sickness, old age, or a relationship ending, we can work with these kinds of problems as well. In these cases, we can imagine taking on the similar type of problem from everybody in general, not from specific beings. It all depends on the circumstance.

It’s important in any meditation like this, and particularly in analytical meditation, that our practice doesn’t become stale by always repeating the same thing with the exact same disturbing emotion and the exact same person every day. The practice, then, loses its effectiveness. We need to apply tonglen to situations as they arise in our life. It’s very helpful to do when there’s somebody that upsets us. Rather than getting upset, do tonglen practice with them in mind. This is because when we’re upset, obviously our self-cherishing is even stronger.

Also, on a practical level, Geshe Chekawa says to start with ourselves when practicing tonglen. We need to accept our own problems first, such as sickness and old age. We need to take them on, not deny them, and deal with them now, even if they’re not currently happening. In fact, we will have to face many problems in the future: the problems of old age, our parents dying, our own future sicknesses, and eventually our own deaths. Also, there is the suffering we might have in future lives. By taking them on now and dealing with them, we can avoid being completely shocked and unprepared when these things happen.

In terms of our sickness and old age, we can think of showing and giving to others the dignity of how to deal with old age and sickness. We can show this to others by keeping our self-dignity, by not complaining and feeling sorry for ourselves. This type of behavior is very helpful to give to others; it’s not only beneficial to able to act like this, but it also demonstrates to everybody how to deal with these issues in a proper, healthy way. Clearly, as we can see, there are many ways in which we can practice tonglen.

Question about Practicing Like a Martyr

How is this tonglen practice different from some Christian monks beating themselves with a whip or whatever, with the thought that “I’m taking on the sufferings of others.”

The main difference in tonglen is that we’re doing the practice with our minds. We’re not doing it in a physical manner. It’s similar to what we explained about our taking on the sufferings of the stupidity of others. When we take on the stupidity of others, we don’t purposely make ourselves more stupid and try to be more stupid. Likewise, when we take on the pain of someone, we don’t purposely hurt ourselves in order to feel it.
Another big difference is that, in the Buddhist practice of tonglen, we emphasize the understanding of voidness. It’s not that we’re concretely taking on a concrete suffering of somebody else, and a concrete “me” is concretely experiencing it. From a Buddhist view, physically beating ourselves while we imagine that we’re taking on the suffering of others would be making it too concrete. But I don’t want to criticize a practice in another religion, because I don’t know what understanding they have behind what they’re doing.

In Buddhism, we don’t want to do tonglen with the mentality of being a martyr. There could easily be a bit of grasping to a “self” if, with a martyr mentality, we look down on others with pity and think, “Me, I’m going to help you.” However, this doesn’t mean that all martyrs are like that; most of them are quite selfless, but not necessarily selfless from an understanding of selflessness and voidness. In any case, we’re certainly not practicing being a martyr with this tonglen practice. When we imagine taking on others’ suffering, the main thing we’re working on is developing the willingness to experience it.  

We can think of an example like the old Serkong Rinpoche who died doing tonglen, as he took on a life-threatening obstacle from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I don’t think he did this as a martyr. He always taught tonglen, quoting Khunu Lama Rinpoche that we should be willing to die in doing the practice. At one time, we questioned him about that: “Wouldn’t it be terrible if a great master were to die like that, and leave all the disciples and everybody else behind?” Serkong Rinpoche said “No.” He explained that by doing that type of practice, aside from helping others, we build up an unbelievable positive force that can take us to a much higher level of realization.

He explained further, “If an astronaut were to be killed in an accident in space, that astronaut would become a hero and the government would support his or her family. Likewise, if a great master were to die doing tonglen, that master’s attainment would take care of the disciples. It would inspire them and teach them even more.” And, of course, such a master would come back through rebirth and continue to help the disciples.

However, this certainly doesn’t mean that we purposely go out and beat ourselves or something like that. Remember, Rinpoche wasn’t taking on the negative karma of a fly to be eaten by a spider. He was taking on a major obstacle to His Holiness’ life. Serkong Rinpoche had a connection with His Holiness that very few people do. He had that level of closeness and attainment that enabled the practice to actually work.

[See: A Portrait of Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche: Serkong Rinpoche’s Death and Rebirth]

Here’s another example. Let’s say that our computer crashes and then we go into the kitchen and a glass breaks and then the light bulb burns out. Instead of getting upset and depressed about it, we can say, “More, give me more. May more come. Let’s see what’s going to come next.” In a sense, we welcome these kinds of situations so that we can take them on from others.

This doesn’t mean that we then walk into the living room, smash the television on the floor and break all our windows. This type of behavior would be analogous to whipping ourselves on the back, to use an absurd example. In a sense, we almost laugh in the face of these types of problems. It doesn’t mean that we don’t take things seriously; we just don’t get upset about it. We simply ask, “What else can go wrong today?”