Buddhism A–Z
What is Tonglen in Buddhism?

Tonglen (Tibetan, “taking and sending”) meditation is a Buddhist practice to awaken compassion. In tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the suffering of others and sending them our happiness. Suffering is taken in with each in-breath, and happiness is sent out on the out-breath. This reverses our usual approach to life, in which we try to ward off the suffering and take in as much happiness as we can for ourselves. 

By directly engaging with the suffering of the world and offering relief to others, practitioners cultivate a profound sense of interconnectedness and an unwavering dedication to the welfare of all beings. In fact, this practice of compassion leads not to more suffering but to great joy, for as His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, compassion and concern for others is the true cause of happiness.

This technique helps to develop bodhichitta, the compassionate and awakened heart-mind of a bodhisattva. It can be done both as a formal meditation practice and on the spot at any moment when compassion is needed.

Tonglen practice is attributed to the great Indian Buddhist teacher Atisha as part of his Mind Training (Lojong) teachings. Today, the American nun and best-selling author Pema Chödrön is famed for teaching tonglen meditation.

How to Practice Tonglen Meditation

1. Connect to Bodhichitta

In tonglen practice, we begin by connecting to the awakened heart-mind of bodhichitta. This can involve having a moment of feeling completely open or connecting to the heart-center. 

2. Take in Suffering

Next, we inhale and visualize and feel the suffering of others — it can be a specific person, group, or all sentient beings. This suffering can be visualized as dark, polluted smoke or tar.

3. Send out Happiness 

Exhaling, we visualize sending out happiness, relief, and love to them. This positive energy can be visualized as a bright light or warmth emanating from one’s heart.

Integrating Tonglen into Daily Life

The principles of tonglen can be integrated into everyday life. Whenever one witnesses the suffering of another — be it in person, through the news, or even recalling past events — one can practice tonglen on the spot, breathing in their suffering and sending them relief and happiness.

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