Tonglen, Avalokiteshvara.

In With the Bad Air, Out With the Good

Gehlek Rinpoche on the practice of tonglen, the way to awaken bodhimind by doing exactly the opposite of what your ego wants.

By Gelek Rimpoche

Sadaksari-Lokeshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, surrounded by manifestations and monks. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Give and Take” mounted on the breath
is the magic device
Bringing love, compassion, and the special mind.
To save all beings from this world’s great ocean,
Please bless me to awaken true bodhimind.

From “An Offering Ceremony to the Spiritual Masters” by the First Panchen Lama

As the First Panchen Lama suggests, the practice of tonglen—give and take—is a major way of subduing our self-cherishing, ego-pleasing thoughts. Ego is our biggest obstacle to developing bodh imind. When we try to destroy ego, we are training our mind—the mind that ignores all other people, the one that thinks we are the most important person of all. Once we have been able to destroy our selfish, egoistic thoughts, we begin to act as our true selves and we have a real ability to benefit ourselves and others.

Right now, the ego blocks our capacity to help not only others but also ourselves. We have to understand that we cannot really help anyone until we have learned how to help ourselves. But the ego prevents us from helping ourselves by presenting a false notion of what it really means to help ourselves. What does our ego want? Ego wants us to be superior to everybody else; ego wants me to be the best of all. If you are a meditator, your ego would like you to be the best meditator, and if you are an artist, your ego would like you to be recognized as a creative genius. If you’re a businessman, you want to be the most prosperous, wealthy and efficient, and to that end you will do whatever it takes to destroy your competition. Your ego always demands supreme superiority. In Tibetan, we call this attitude dag zin, holding tight to the self.

The more successful you become, the more the demands of your ego will increase. In the beginning, you simply want to succeed, but your ego will not be satisfied. When you become a little more successful, your ego wants to kill your competition. And when you become even more successful, it wants to make you the universal king. There is no telling what ego wants because our desire doesn’t have any limit; therefore, its demands continually increase.

Our ego is so interesting. Just watch your mind when you say, “What do I want? What do I want to take? All the best! Whatever anyone has, I want it!” And what do you want to give? “All the problems and the misery.” That’s ego talking. But it’s not the real you. You are a good and wonderful person. You are kind. You have a compassionate nature.

To free ourselves, we need to turn the tables on ego’s demands. So whatever ego wants, you should turn around and do the opposite. If ego tells you, “Go up,” make sure you go down. If ego tells you, “Go down,” go up. That’s how you have to treat your ego. If ego tells you, “Get all the best!” it means it is time for you to take all the worst. And if ego tells you, “Give all the miserable things,” then take all the miserable things. That is the premise of the practice called tonglen, or “give and take.”

Tonglen practice is united with the flow of the breath. The breathing system we have is to inhale and exhale air. That is basic human nature. We breathe in and out, and if we stop doing either of them, we’re gone. Tonglen uses this basic human function to develop compassion and love. As we breathe in and out, we try to develop love and compassion: compassion-oriented breathing in and love-oriented breathing out.

One important difficulty you might encounter is thinking, “It doesn’t make any difference to me that all these people are suffering. Why should I care?” That is worse than thinking, “I need to help but I can’t.”

Ego’s trick is to make us lose sight of our interdependence. That kind of ego-thought gives us a perfect justification to look out only for ourselves. But that is far from the truth. In reality we all depend on each other and we have to help each other. The husband has to help his wife, the wife has to help the husband, the mother has to help her children, and the children are supposed to help their parents, too, whether they want to or not. You may say, “My mother and my father were supposed to nurture me. It’s okay to help them because they were supposed to help me.” Or you may say, “I don’t really like this difficulty, but it involves my mother, so I can’t look away.” It is very similar to the feelings some people have when they are divorced. A woman might say about her ex-husband, “He’s my daughter’s father”—she dislikes him, she’s angry, upset, yet he is still “my daughter’s father.” She can’t cut that part out. Even when she’s dying to cut it out and tear it into pieces, he’s still her daughter’s father.

This is reality. The connections between people are so serious, so strong and so long-lasting, that we cannot remove them. Our changing lives have made it so that we don’t recognize each other, but we do have a tremendous amount of connection. We have dealt with each other so many times in our previous lives. We put trust in each other, we consult each other, we try to gain some wisdom from each other and we try to solve personal problems for each other. We also try to help the future generations. All these things we do together, and as a result we have a tremendous amount of connection. We are karmically connected. Even though we may feel we cannot connect to “all sentient beings” right at this moment, we are still very much connected to them.

Interdependence is reality, but we human beings have taken an “I couldn’t care less” attitude. Environmentalists have been telling us about the idea of interdependence, so we have begun to understand it on that level. The environment isn’t the only connection, though. The major connection is among the people. If there are no people, the environment doesn’t mean much. What makes the difference is the interpersonal connections. Buddha has presented the idea of interpersonal connection and how important it is, how relevant it is to our lives and how much our lives depend on it. Great compassion, responsibility and caring are based on the interpersonal relationship. The most important interpersonal relationship is bodhimind—caring and committing to others. That’s not a perfect definition of bodhimind, but that’s what it boils down to.

We are connected in a way that is similar to the connections between the parts of your body. If you get a thorn in your foot, your hand will go and take it out. If your foot is suffering from the thorn and your hands say, “I don’t care. I don’t have suffering. It’s the foot that has suffering,” or if the left hand gets a thorn and the right hand says, “I don’t care. It’s you who is suffering, not me,” in the end, the foot will suffer and the hands will suffer. That is how we function. Likewise, whether it is a personal problem, group problem or international problem, we should address it, talk about it and try to solve it together. If you don’t care about other people, it is a spiritual problem. If you don’t care about them, they won’t care about you, and we’ll all suffer and the problems will continue.

Tonglen practice is based on this connectedness, but when we practice tonglen—giving and taking on the breath—are we really helping others? In the long run, the answer is “yes,” we are helping others. No, it is not an immediate help for them, but it is helping us. At this moment we are not even taking their suffering; we are taking our own future suffering. So, we are also giving our positive karma to ourselves first. We try to materialize it, so that we don’t have to suffer. Then we do the same with the people that we care about. Then with the people they care about. Then with their family, children, spouses and so forth. That’s how we extend our practice when we involve ourselves with it seriously.

The practice of tonglen: general instruction

If you are a reasonable person, you want to make those nearest and dearest to you happy. What makes them unhappy? Their mental, physical and emotional suffering. Normally that’s what our lives are all about. When we have physical pain, we say, “Ouch!” When we have mental or emotional pain, we have a long face. When we hear and see pain in those we love, we try to make them happy by removing their suffering. To make use of that urge, we do a mental exercise. The tool we use is our breath. The power of inhalation lifts their suffering. The power of exhalation gives them our joy, and the cause of that joy, our virtue.

You breathe in from the left nostril. While breathing in, you take their suffering. You take it completely, without any fear, without any hesitation, and you don’t leave anything out.

Breathing out from the right nostril, you give all your happiness and the causes of your happiness, your compassion, everything. Without any attachment, without any hesitation, without any miserliness. It reaches them in the form of light, and all become happy and joyful.

The visualization that accompanies the breathing is very important. It makes a big impact on our consciousness. When practicing tonglen, it is recommended to imagine people with faces and names—actual living human beings. You may think, “That way we will only care about human beings. What about the others—my cat, my dog?” This is your cat or dog, but in this tradition you visualize them with a human face and body, simply because it is easier to deal with human beings. And it may also contribute to linking up with a certain good karma, so that the cat or dog may become a human being in its next life.

In your visualization, your friend, your companion, and all the people you care for can be the most important ones, right in front of you—face to face if you want to. They are the object of meditation. When I say, “each and every person with a face and name,” this doesn’t mean that you have to keep on thinking, “Oh yeah, he’s here and she’s there and he’s there.” Your major focus can be on one or two people, but at the same time, you think that all the space is filled up with people. I very strongly object to visualizing nameless, faceless dots, but somehow it easily becomes that. If you have to keep on remembering everybody and go through all of their names and think of all their faces, that would be quite difficult. If we do it the simple way, we imagine that everyone is there, and when we are specifically thinking of somebody, they appear with a name and face.

At first, you may not have that much difficulty, but when you begin to think about it seriously, you may become afraid. You may have fear of taking or you may have hesitation in giving. That’s the ego-controlled part of our human nature. When you begin to take the suffering of people on yourself, your mind is going to have a tremendous amount of resistance. If you don’t think much about it, your attitude may be, “Whatever it may be, so be it.” That’s occurring on a very superficial level, where there are no problems. When you begin to think seriously about this, then you start to encounter resistance. You’ll say, “Why? Why me?”

The practice of tonglen on self

If you are afraid of taking somebody else’s pain, start with taking your own suffering. If it’s in the morning, you take the suffering you are going to experience in the evening; or you take the suffering you are going to experience tomorrow, next week, next month, next year or next life. If we take in suffering that will come to us in the evening a little earlier, it might not become quite so big. It is much easier to take on your own suffering and problems in advance than taking on someone else’s. It is good to keep training your mind in that way.

While breathing in, take your own suffering from yourself. For example, say to yourself, “I’ll take my own suffering of this evening into me now, and tomorrow’s suffering, and next week’s, next month’s, next year’s, next life’s, and the sufferings of my lives thereafter.” Take your own pain into yourself, make it come a little quicker, so you settle for a smaller problem rather than the heaviest difficulties.

Special give and take

Before we take any suffering, either our own future suffering or the suffering of the other person, the question arises, “What do I do with this now? Where am I going to put it within me?” We have to be prepared for that. We need a garbage can, some place to throw it. It so happens that we have an enemy inside: Mister Ego. That becomes our target. This method of making ego our target is called “special give and take.”

Collect your own negativities, which are the deeds of your ego. Collect your negative emotions, which are the thoughts of your ego. Then visualize your ego in the form of whatever you dislike—a big spider or a heap of darkness. Collect all of it. Don’t leave any part of your body or consciousness out. Just collect it all, somewhere at the center of your body, at the heart level.

What we are taking from the others is not only their suffering but also causes of their suffering, such as attachment, hatred and ignorance. All of these things come in through the breath. When these gather, it has an effect like lightning striking a rocky area; or—as we see on television these days—bombs exploding; or a cyclone picking up everything in its path. In that way it hits our ego, shreds it completely and destroys it. Not even a trace is left. Nothing! We don’t have to keep what we took inside us—feeling it and saving it there and suffering. Not only do we not have to do that, we shouldn’t do it.

The practice of tonglen on a one-to-one basis

Step 1. Visualize and connect.

Visualize the person right in front of you, and think of their suffering; the disease they have; or the mental, physical and emotional pain they are going through. When you really see your friend suffering with unbearable pain, tears will come to you. That is true caring. It may not be great compassion, but it is a true feeling of compassion.

If you don’t feel anything when seeing the person you really love the most—your current companion or whomever—then you need to change the focus and try to recollect the suffering you have gone through yourself. Think about when you experienced similar difficulties, or if that’s not possible, any other difficulties: “How unhappy I was, how much pain I went through, how much anxiety I had, and how many times I woke up in the middle of the night with a heavy heart.”

Think of that, and then try to understand that this other person is going through the same kind of pain. Anyone can say, “Poor little thing!” but if we have no feelings, it isn’t very good—it is being out of touch. Being out of touch with compassion doesn’t work. We have to have the feeling. We can only understand and develop that feeling if we think about when we went through that, or something like that. If we think that way, we get a better understanding of what the other person is going through.

This particular feeling is not necessarily just for tonglen. It is important to use it within your family and apply it to all relationships: between husband and wife, between children and parents, among all members of the family. If you don’t understand the other person’s problems, you have to sit down, calm your mind, and think about when you had that pain and how you felt. If you can remember that, then your attitude toward your family members will be different. You will no longer be that short-tempered, snappy person. It will give you a better understanding of what other people’s pain is all about. Otherwise there is a danger for us of falling into saying, “Oh, the poor little things, how they are all suffering!”

Once you have that feeling, once you can really appreciate and understand what the other person is going through, you are giving rise to real caring. You would like to offer some kind of immediate solution. Right now you would like to destroy that pain. “If I can do something about it, let me do it right away, to make that pain go away.” That desire, anxiety and eagerness are what you need. Normally, when you see your child suffering tremendously, you will anxiously ask yourself, “What can I do?” You need that type of anxiety. You have to train your mind up to that level. When you have that anxiety, you will say, “Let me take the pain. Is there any way I can take it?”

Step 2. Take.

When you come to that level, you can visualize it. Take it and lift it up by your own sincerity, by your own compassion, by the power of the truth, by the blessings of the enlightened beings: “I’m here now to take all the pains of that person.” Take it in the form of an undesirable color and breathe it in. Breathe it in—whatever that pain might be, including cancer. Take in the pain itself and the cause of the pain. In your visualization literally pick it up and bring it in. Like a powerful lightning bolt, it will hit that mountain of ego, that heap of darkness you have at your heart level, and destroy it. That is the taking in.

Step 3. Give.

Then you give. You give love, affection, virtue—everything—without any hesitation. You give your own positive karma, your own body. Whatever the desire or need of the person may be, you give it to them. You are giving three things: your body, your wealth and your virtue. That’s the best we have to offer, so we give that. And whatever the need of the person might be, the giving comes in that form. The person becomes free of pain and happy, just as you wanted them to be.

The moment you have any hesitation, the moment you attach a condition, it is not good. People appreciate generosity, but when it is attached to a condition, it becomes difficult to accept it. I remember living in India, which is such a poor country. In the seventies and eighties, America gave a lot of aid but it came with strings attached. India didn’t appreciate it. India kept on saying, “We’d rather have trade than aid.” They even forced the U.S. aid office to close. If aid comes with strings attached, you become a puppet that has to dance on a string. Even India can say no to that. They are very proud of it, actually. And that is a good thing.

The quality of generosity involves not looking for return. There is no attachment, no hope of gaining something back, no looking for gratitude, and certainly no looking for control, influence or power. When you give, give without any hesitation, without any reservation. Just give.

To do tonglen on a one-to-one basis is very helpful. It is a tremendous opportunity, believe me. You can do this between partners. You can do this between healer and patient. You can do this between teacher and student. You can do this between caregiver and patient. For the caregiver it is a great opportunity for practice. For the patient it is an opportunity to thank the caring people. For the therapist it is a good opportunity to make the therapy work better. For the patient it is a good way of expressing gratitude to the therapist.

The practice of tonglen expanded to all beings

From the traditional Buddhist point of view, we are expected to expand our object of focus. First, we can focus on the human level and whatever suffering we encounter there. We begin with one individual and expand our focus to two, three, four or five and multiply that. Eventually, in our Mahayana practice, the focal point becomes all beings, without leaving anyone out—all beings with the physical appearance of the people we know, with all their difficulties, with their normal egoistic characteristics.

The traditional teachings will tell you that when you are focusing on the hell realms, you take the suffering of the hell realm beings completely. You either do the eighteen hell realms one by one, working with their eighteen different characteristics, or you work with them more simply by dividing them in two, taking the hot hells and the cold hells separately. You could also take them all at once, taking the hot and cold hells all together. You do it according to whatever time you have and whatever is convenient for you. Then you move to the hungry ghost realm, then to the animal realm, the demi-god realm and the god realm. You cover all six realms, or even eighteen realms, whatever you want to do. But you always begin with the people you know and recognize.

Visualize those who are suffering in the hot-hell realm. Visualize that light rays of your body manifest there as a cold shower or a rainfall that has a tremendous cooling power. You take their suffering: the heat, the fear, the pain. You take the causes of their suffering: the karmic cause as well as the delusional cause—in particular the anger and hatred—together with the imprints. When you give your light, it goes out and reaches to the hell realms, and just by the touch of the light, it purifies the environment. This is extremely important, because most hell realm people suffer because of the environment. So purify the environment, and take their hot and cold sufferings. Bring it in and use it to destroy your ego. And then give. Empty the hell realms completely; close the hell realms altogether. All those people become free of suffering.

Similarly, you meditate on the cold realms. There, your body’s light rays will manifest as powerful sunshine, something to make them warm. Not only do you separate them from the pain of being cold, but also you give your body to them and they become human beings. You can also transform your body into houses—not shabby old houses but good solid ones. Transform your body into food to satisfy them; give it as clothes for them to put on, as medicine, whatever they need. You can also visualize manifesting your body as a teacher giving them teachings. They are ready to become a buddha.

Similarly you give food to the hungry ghosts, wisdom to the animals, weapons to the jealous demi-gods and lovely flowers to the gods. Whatever their needs are, you fulfill them. For human beings, however, you take a different approach. Human desires are limitless. You cannot make a blanket statement about what they want. So you give them whatever they want, whatever they desire. Manifest your body in that form and give it to the human beings.

Give your wealth and your virtues. You give body, wealth and virtues to your teachers and the buddhas, in the form of offerings, so they may have long life and prosperity. You give all your virtues of the past, present and future. You give your body and wealth of the present and future—you can’t give those of the past, the past is gone.

Compassion in action

Training in compassion is a mental activity. But our mind should also be brought to the level where every action we take is influenced by compassion. That means engaging ourselves in compassion in action. The Judeo-Christian tradition has tremendous examples of compassion in action. In the West, people have built hospitals and schools in peacetime and have also relieved the suffering of people in war. There are groups who look after refugees and address human rights issues. There is a tremendous amount of work being done on social and environmental issues. If this is done with kindness, it is an example of compassion in action. If we get personally involved in such activities, it is compassion in action. If we don’t, it is only compassion at the meditative level. That may not be sufficient.

If we only practice on the mind level, we run a great risk of our compassion being just talk. As we know, talk is cheap. To develop true compassion, we have to put our money where our mouth is. That is why we need to combine the mind training practice of tonglen with compassionate action. We are fortunate to live in a society that provides us with many opportunities to put our compassion into practice. That is what will really make a difference in freeing ourselves from the tyranny of our ego-cherishing thoughts. That is what will help us to gain true control over our lives so that we can be of real benefit to ourselves and others. That is how we awaken true bodhimind.

Gelek Rimpoche

Gelek Rimpoche

Gelek Rimpoche (1939-2017) was the founder of Jewel Heart, a Tibetan Buddhist Center located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the author the bestselling Good Life, Good Death.