Practice after Formal Tonglen Meditation

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The Three Objects and the Three Poisonous Attitudes

The text continues with what we do after formal meditation on the tonglen giving and taking practice for developing relative bodhichitta. It says:

(In regard to) the three objects, (take) the three poisonous attitudes and (give) the three roots of what’s constructive, (while) training with words in all paths of behavior.

This line refers to both types of situations: us having problems or other persons having problems. The problems here are specifically with the three types of objects we encounter in daily life. By the three objects, we mean those that we find attractive, those that we find repulsive, and those that we find neutral and uninteresting, whether they are sights, sounds, smells, tastes or physical sensations, or objects having these sensory qualities, such as our own or someone else’s body. The phrase, take the three poisonous attitudes, refers to attachment, repulsion, or naivety (which is indifference). What we would do after taking them in and dissolving them is, give the three roots of what’s constructive: detachment, imperturbability, and lack of naivety, which are the opposites of the three objects.

When we are experiencing the three poisonous attitudes ourselves, rather than giving in to them, we think, “Not only am I going to deal with them and get rid of them in myself, but may everybody’s attachment and attraction to beautiful looking people or whatever ripen on me and may I get rid of all these disturbing emotions. In handling them for myself, may nobody have to suffer like this.” Obviously, other people will continue to suffer from these kinds of problems; it’s impossible for us to take on all the suffering in the world. We’re not talking about a Jesus Christ type of situation here.

Giving and Taking with Words

While we’re doing this practice in daily life after our meditation sessions, we can train with giving and taking with words. Reciting something like, “May everyone’s suffering come on me, may my happiness go to them,” can keep us mindful of the practice of tonglen.

Even without the connection to tonglen, when we walk into a building we can think, “May I and all sentient beings enter into liberation and enlightenment.” When we walk out of a room, “May I and all beings come out of samsara.” When we eat, “May everybody be able to enjoy such wonderful food.” If we verbalize, it helps us to be more mindful – although of course it doesn’t make what we say more real.

This is one of the reasons why, when Tibetans read texts or do their practices, they always do them out loud, not necessarily screaming out loud, but they do them out loud. They do this even when they are just reading a book. The reason – if they’re mindful of the reason, if it’s not just by habit and custom – is that we imagine that there are an infinite number of beings around us listening and that they are also benefiting from what they hear. Similarly, when we’re making prostrations, circumambulating or doing other positive actions, we imagine that everybody is doing the same along with us. We then try to verbalize this, “May everybody be involved in such positive acts, and may the positive force from that ripen on everyone.”

Starting with Ourselves

In our edition, this section concludes with:

As for the order of taking, start from myself.

In some editions of the text, the order of the lines is different. There the verses concerning relative bodhichitta read:

Train in both giving and taking in alternation, mounting those two on the breath. As for the order of taking, start from myself. (In regard to) the three objects, (take) the three poisonous attitudes and (give) the three roots of what’s constructive, (while) training with words in all paths of behavior.

With this version of the verses, As for the order of taking, start from myself would refer to tonglen practice during formal meditation. Then, unlike the Dalai Lama’s guideline instruction to start the practice by thinking of the problems of all the beings in each of the realms in order to stabilize our equanimity, we start with taking on our own problems first and then gradually extending the scope of our practice to all others. With this method, we first deal only with problems that we ourselves have, and only after we have dealt with everyone else who has the same type of problems do we deal with problems of others that we do not have ourselves. 

If the line comes after the verse for our formal meditation practice and therefore concerns what we do after meditation, it underlines that the main problems we face as we go about our daily lives come about because of our three poisonous attitudes, especially toward the sensory objects we encounter. Although everyone else experiences the same types of problems, if we are going to help them, we need to work on overcoming these disturbing emotions in us first. But this is just the first step. After that, we need to expand our scope and take on the problems other people have with the disturbing attitudes as well. This line also implies that the teaching on renunciation of our sufferings needs to come first, before we can sincerely develop compassion.

Ideally, if we have trained with tonglen very well in our formal meditation sessions, we would be able to apply the tonglen method to our disturbing emotions and attitudes as they arise in daily life. We would not need to apply the methods only during formal meditation. But if we lack the experience and skill to do this in daily life whenever a disturbing emotion comes up, we can train with additional meditation. I think a helpful way to do this is the way we practice in the sensitivity training program I developed, called “Developing Balanced Sensitivity.” There, because we train in groups, we usually start focusing the practices on others in magazine photos, then on the others in the group and only at the end on ourselves. This order is designed for people who lack the experience of introspection. With Dharma practitioners, however, first we work on overcoming our own problems, and then we work to help all others. So, we can use the methods to work first on ourselves.

[See: Balanced Sensitivity: How to Practice]

To imagine taking on our own problems, we would start by looking at ourselves in a mirror or, if we don’t have a mirror, visualizing ourselves in front of us. Using the various visualizations that we’ve learned, we imagine taking on first whatever might be our strongest of the three poisonous attitudes and actually deal with it. We dissolve all the fear that’s involved with confronting it and give to ourselves in the mirror calmness, wisdom, or whatever else we might need. As with formal tonglen meditation, we do this while combining it with our breath. We can then go on to taking on the other two poisonous attitudes.

The next step adopted from sensitivity training would be to practice without any props – so, without a mirror or a visualization of ourselves. Instead, we imagine directly taking on the problems we have with these poisonous attitudes. To do this, we imagine that the poisonous attitudes and the problems they cause leave us from the skin level of our bodies, come to our hearts and dissolve as we breathe in. Then we breathe out with the antidotes.

After that step, what I find very helpful – I added this into the sensitivity training – is to deal with our past, either by looking at past photos of ourselves, especially from difficult periods in our lives, or thinking of ourselves during those times. There are certainly periods in the lives of most of us when we’ve had tremendous pain and difficulty because of our disturbing emotions. Often, we didn’t really resolve these issues, as we would rather not think about those times, or we’re ashamed of ourselves and how we acted at those times. With this step, we resolve these issues by taking on those poisonous attitudes and sufferings and problems now. Then, we give the antidotes and resolution to the “me of the past.”

We can also think in terms of future problems – for example, the poisonous attitudes we might have at the future death of our parents or at the time of our own death. We need to start dealing with these types of future problems now.

Extending to Others

Slowly, we can begin to extend the scope of our tonglen practice to others. I think the Theravada method of meditating on the four immeasurable attitudes – love, compassion, joy and equanimity – is very helpful here. We don’t start our practice by extending tonglen to the beings in the six realms (hell beings, ghosts, animals, humans, anti-gods and gods), since this is so abstract and doesn’t mean anything to most of us. Instead, we start dealing with the problems of our friends, acquaintances, relatives, or students, if we’re a teacher. This is a tremendous practice, especially if we have friends or relatives who are really suffering from an emotional problem, illness, or whatever. To advance the practice, we continue with those that are more distant, usually the people in our neighborhood, our city, and eventually to people we don’t like. After doing all of this, then we can start with the other realms.

As we can see, the practice of tonglen is extremely advanced, and I always find it a great shame when it is taught and practiced prematurely. In such cases, people tend to trivialize it by just sitting there imagining black light coming in and white light going out. It really becomes like a Disneyland thing. We don’t feel anything, and it doesn’t really mean anything on any sort of emotional level. This is very sad, because if that’s the level at which we’re practicing, although we can, of course, be led to do it on a deeper level, we build up this habit of practicing on a superficial level and trivializing the Dharma. This, I think, is very unfortunate.

These are very precious teachings. They’re very difficult, advanced and profound practices, so we need to treat and approach these teachings with the proper respect. If we’re not ready to do them, put them respectfully up on the altar or the shelf, so to say. In our minds we can think, “This is something that I hope that I can develop and eventually have the emotional maturity to practice in the future, because I can see how powerful a medicine this can be. But I’m not able to take it now.”

The Importance of Preparation

We might think it could be a good idea to give people a taste of the practice, even if they’re not ready to practice it fully. Personally, I don’t find this so helpful. What often happens is that people then ignore the earlier preliminary steps, and they think, “I’m really practicing Mahayana now!” This especially happens with tantra. We just stay at a very trivialized level because we haven’t taken the teachings seriously, worked very hard on the earlier steps, or have the proper foundation to do the more advanced steps. When we do this, we often experience serious problems in making progress.

Now, of course there are two approaches to studying Dharma. One is to have an overview of the whole path first, and then go back to work more deeply, point by point. The other is not to actually know what follows and just work step by step. I’ve had the experience of doing both. I studied the lam-rim in India before it was available in any Western language, so I had no idea what was coming next. But regardless of which way we study, we need a great deal of so-called faith and confidence – knowing that “this is very worthwhile.” It is what we get from seeing the example of highly realized masters. We would think, “My goodness, they reached their high attainments by studying this material. To become like them, I’m going to study and practice like they did. I’m going to do it correctly and not be impatient.” That means doing all the preliminaries and preparatory practices before going on to the advanced ones.

Anyway, this has been my experience. I’ve seen so many people around the world doing these more advanced practices on such a trivial level and it having very little effect on their lives. That’s sad because they then become bored with the Dharma and give it up.

These tonglen teachings are unbelievably precious. They’re part of the Dharma Gem. The Three Jewels of Refuge are called “Gems” because they are rare and precious gems. The sincere conviction deep in our hearts that these teachings are so rare and precious will serve as the basis for our practice even if we lack any depth of understanding of how they work.

I’m reminded of an insight by George Dreyfus, who was the first Western Geshe. He was top of his entire Geshe class and, in my opinion, he has the best understanding of Dharma out of all the Western students and practitioners. He recently wrote a book – The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk – in which he comments about the study of Abhisamayalamkara, A Filigree of Realizations. Study of this text covers five of the twenty or more years of study for earning the Geshe degree. This text is an unbelievably detailed analysis of everything advanced practitioners realize on the way to liberation and enlightenment. It gives these incredible lists of a hundred and fifty-three of this and that. It’s unbelievably detailed and thorough, and rather complicated.

Some people ask, “Well, what’s the use of it? What’s the practical application?” In response, George would say that it had no practical application that he could see, in terms of our actually putting most of its teachings into daily practice. They deal only with very advanced levels of attainment. The practical use of its study, however, is that it gives us real confidence in the path. He emphasized the amazement you get from realizing how well all the details are worked out and how many people must have gone through and experienced them all. How wonderful it is to have all the details of what actually happens all the way to enlightenment, at every little step.

Such realization gives us tremendous confidence in the effectiveness of the Dharma, and it also gives us unbelievable respect for the Buddha who taught all of these teachings, putting them all together. It’s the same with tantra, we see how unbelievable it is, these tantra texts – so many things intertwined, so many different levels of one thing. That’s the benefit and the practical application of learning in depth the details of the advanced levels of the teachings. With this understanding and confidence, we gain a real refuge or safe direction in our lives, “Precious Dharma, rare Dharma, incredible Dharma,” and we really put our full effort into it. Having studied Filigree of Realizations a little bit – not for five years, but for one year, and just on a non-debate level – what George says makes a lot of sense.