When the Buddha was a young child, he led a sheltered life, brought up in a wealthy family. His father was a regional king, and as such, officiated at ceremonies and state occasions. One of these annual celebrations was the planting festival, which took place when the farmers were about to sow the year’s crops. It was a big event, with booths and games and entertainment, and the local farmers and villagers would come from all around to celebrate. The highlight of the ceremony was the ritual plowing of the first furrow. Only after this official opening of the planting season and the blessing of the crops would local farmers begin to sow their fields.
At one of these planting ceremonies, when the Buddha was just a young boy, he was happily playing with his friends until he saw the plow go into the earth. As the plow cut through the soil and made a furrow, he became upset. The young Buddha was touched by how much life was disrupted and destroyed in the simple act of planting food. He saw the little bugs scurrying away from the plow and the worms cut in two. He saw lots of confused little grubs and other beings that were down below abruptly thrust to the surface, and beings that used to be on the surface buried down below. As their world was flipped upside down they seemed to be totally disoriented and unhappy. So many beings were suffering.
The Buddha was so struck by this experience that he left the festivities and sat by himself under a tree to think about what he had seen. It appeared to him that just to survive on the earth, we must inevitably cause other beings to suffer. No matter how kind we try to be, we cannot avoid it. And seeing the suffering of others, we experience suffering ourselves. We could stop eating meat, we could be vegetarians, we could wear screens over our faces like the Jains, but nonetheless we can’t go through a day without causing someone harm. Even the seemingly innocent act of growing food inevitably causes some beings to suffer and die.
That realization, which took place when the Buddha was just a boy, was like a seed that later ripened and inspired the Buddha to begin his personal search to understand the nature of suffering, why there is so much suffering in the world, and whether anything can be done about it. The awareness of suffering had touched his heart and awakened his kindness.
When we open ourselves to others, we are also opening ourselves to pain. As in this story of the Buddha, when we are aware of the suffering of other beings, as well as of our own suffering, kindness arises as a natural response. But we have a tendency to shield ourselves from pain and cover over that awareness. We reject those parts of our own experience that are painful and we also avoid facing the pain we see all around us. By distancing ourselves from pain, we distance ourselves from one another. We lose the ground of connection that makes kindness possible.
The only way to maintain that connection is to extend our awareness to include all of our experience, not just the parts that we find comfortable. Meditation practice is a good way to begin because it is a process of becoming aware of whatever comes up in our mind, both good and bad, painful and pleasurable. We are learning to be open to who we are, and whatever we are experiencing. So meditation practice is not just a mental exercise; it is a way of making friends with ourselves at a very basic level. Step by step we are learning more about ourselves and accepting and integrating those parts of ourselves we had rejected.
As we learn to accept ourselves, we are at the same time learning to accept other people. It may seem that there are always other people around and we have no choice but to accept them, unless we throw everyone out or become a hermit, but just putting up with people is not the same as accepting them. Acceptance is the tender and gentle process of opening our hearts to others, to ourselves, and to our common ground of suffering. Kindness begins at this immediate, personal level of experience.
By cultivating an attitude of acceptance and fundamental friendliness, we can lessen not only our own fear and tension, but also that of the people around us. We can actually shift the atmosphere in the direction of relaxation and kindness, and in that way be a force for healing. To the extent that we are relaxed and open ourselves, the people around us begin to pick up on it. It is like putting a drop of water on a blotter—one little drop just spreads and spreads.
Exercise: Accepting One Another
This exercise takes two people. To begin, sit quietly together, either next to one another or facing one another. Take some time to settle your mind, placing your attention lightly on the breath. Do not rush, but allow enough time to settle and to be at ease simply sitting together in proximity.
The next step is to consciously include your partner in your practice. As you breathe out, extend your attention out to her and as you breathe in consciously include her in your awareness. Be as straightforward here as possible. You are not analyzing your partner’s state of mind or trying to figure her out, but simply being aware of her presence.
Finally, pay attention to the space between you and your partner and your connection to one another. Into that mutual space, as you breathe out, project a quality of acceptance and simple friendship to your partner. On the inbreath, take in and receive the acceptance and friendship that you partner is extending to you. Feel the energy of acceptance and friendship circulate between the two of you.
To conclude, spend a few minutes simply sitting together quietly.
When we sit quietly like this with another person, we gradually become more aware of that person’s presence. We begin to accept and appreciate her or him. Those two qualities, awareness and acceptance, are the ground of kindness. But we keep getting absorbed with ourselves, and losing our awareness of others. When we are caught up in our own concerns, our appreciation and awareness vanish. They completely disappear—poof!
We might prefer to ignore our tendency to focus on our own concerns and ignore the concerns of others. However, if we want to cultivate kindness, we first need to understand our own selfishness. That is where we begin. We need to stop and take a good look at this fixation with ourselves.
Most of the time, we are so used to being selfish that we hardly notice it. Our self-interest is like a background noise we no longer hear. It is a constant buzzing that we cannot seem to shut off. As we go about our business we are always saying, “What’s in it for me, what’s in it for me?” That undertone is there whether we are robbing banks or working in intensive care. Because of it, our actions always have a twist.
With children, selfishness is more on the surface. If you ask a child to cut two pieces of cake, one for her and one for her sister, it is likely that her piece will be a little bigger—or if not bigger, it will have the icing flower on it. Clever mothers have one child cut the cake and the other one choose which of the two pieces she wants. In that way you get surgically exact cake cutting.
By the time we are grown-ups we have been told about sharing and we know better than to let our selfishness display itself so blatantly. This does not mean it is gone, however, only that we are more sneaky. We may just put one little extra particularly yummy looking mushroom in our rice, or we might graduate to a more advanced form of selfishness and give away the best mushroom in order to bask in how virtuous we are.
Our fixation on ourselves may not be so crude; it could be as subtle as the unquestioned assumption that we are the center and all else is the fringe. Our approach is that although other people matter, we happen to matter just a little bit more. If you look at a room full of people, chances are that each one has her little circle around her, of which she is the center and everyone else is the fringe. So everybody is looking out and checking back, looking out and checking back, each from her own little world. It is like a game I used to play with each of my daughters in which I would say, “I’m ‘me’ and you’re ‘you.’” And she would respond, “No, I’m ‘me’ and you’re ‘you.’” Of course this game could go on and on forever, because no one would budge from their position as the center of things.
When we are in the greatest pain, we have the hardest time stretching beyond our own concerns. There is a famous story in which the Buddha encounters a grieving woman carrying the body of her only child. This woman was completely stricken by grief. She had lost everything—her parents, her husband, all her family, and now she had lost her only son. She would not let her fellow villagers take him or bury him; she refused to even acknowledge that he was dead.
When her friends heard that the Buddha would be passing through their area, they suggested that she go and see him and ask him to cure her son. In desperation she traveled to the Buddha and asked for his help. The Buddha told the grieving mother that he could indeed help her, but only if she brought him a sesame seed from the home of a family that had not experienced death.
In great relief, the woman set out to find that seed. But as she went from house to house, she did not find a single one that did not have a tale of loss. In her search for the sesame seed, she was gradually drawn out of preoccupation with her own pain as she realized the level of suffering all around her. And when she went back to the Buddha, she was ready to bury her child.
The contemplative practice called tonglen in Tibetan, or “sending and taking” in English, works directly with this powerful tendency to focus on ourselves. The practice of tonglen exposes the depth of our self-absorption and begins to undermine it. It is a practice specifically designed to remove that obstacle and the many other obstacles that stand in the way of our natural impulse towards kindness.
The practice of tonglen is sometimes described as a practice of “exchanging self and other.” This is because the goal of tonglen is to flip that pattern of self-absorption around completely, to the point where instead of putting ourselves first, we put others first. So if I were continuing that game with my daughter, it would go differently: “I’m ‘you’ and you’re ‘me.’” No, I’m ‘you’ and you’re ‘me.’” Tonglen practice goes from the starting point of putting ourselves first, through the middle ground of viewing ourselves and others equally, to the fruition of putting others before ourselves.
If our view is to focus on ourselves, then our actions will tend to feed that view by grabbing on to whatever builds us up and getting rid of whatever threatens us. Our habitual activity is to protect ourselves by constantly picking and choosing, accepting and rejecting—but in tonglen practice once again we reverse our usual approach. Instead of taking in what we desire and rejecting what we do not, we take in what we have rejected and send out what we desire—basically the opposite of “normal.” Tonglen practice completely reverses our usual way of going about things.
Why in heavens would anyone want to do tonglen? For one thing, our usual way of going about things is not all that satisfying. In tonglen, as we become more aware of the extent of our self-absorption, we realize how limited a view that is. Also, self-absorbed as we may be, we cannot help but be affected by the degree of pain and suffering in the world and want to do something about it. All around us we see people suffering and, on top of that, creating more suffering for themselves daily. But so are we! In fact, we are they—that’s the whole point. The confusion we see—that’s our confusion. When we see all those people suffering—that’s our suffering. We cannot separate ourselves out from others; it is a totally interconnected web.
In tonglen practice, we are cultivating the same tenderness of heart that started the Buddha himself on his journey to awakening. If we are losing heart, tonglen is a way of reconnecting with it. Tonglen has nothing to do with being a goody-goody, or covering up our selfishness with a patina of phony niceness. The point is not to berate ourselves or force ourselves to be kinder. If we think we are not kind enough, it may not be that we are less kind than other people but that we are more honest. So tonglen begins with honesty and acceptance and goes on from there.
In the same way that it is possible to cultivate mindfulness and awareness through meditation practice, we can cultivate kindness through the practice of tonglen. Through tonglen practice we learn to work straightforwardly with the difficulties we encounter and extend ourselves more wholeheartedly to others. Tonglen is training in how to take on suffering and give out love. It is a natural complement to mindfulness practice, a natural extension of the acceptance and self-knowledge that comes as a result of sitting meditation.
Each time you practice tonglen, begin with basic mindfulness practice. It is important to take some time to let your mind settle. Having done so, you can go on to the practice of tonglen itself, which has four steps.
The first step is very brief. You could think of it as “clearing the decks.” You simply allow a little pause, or gap, before you begin. Although this first step is very brief and simple, it is still important. It is like cracking the window to let in a little fresh air.
In the second step you touch in with the visceral world of feelings and emotions. Each time you breathe in, you breath in heavy, dark, hot, sticky, claustrophobic energy; and each time you breathe out, you breathe out light, refreshing, clear, cool energy. With each breath the practice shifts direction, so there is an ongoing rhythm back and forth. You are taking the habit of grasping and rejecting and you are reversing it.
The third and fourth steps take that same approach and apply it to specific topics. Start as close to home as possible, with something that actually affects you personally. You should work with a topic that arouses real feelings, something that actually touches you or feels a little raw. It does not need to be anything monumental; it could be quite ordinary. For instance, maybe someone screamed at you when you were driving to work. You could breathe in the aggression they threw at you and you could breathe out to that person a wish to free them from the pain of that anger. If you yourself have just come down with a sickness, you could breathe in that sickness, and breathe out your feeling of health and well-being. The point is to start with something that has some reality or juice in your life.
Once you are underway, it is good to let the practice develop on its own and see where it takes you. In this case, no matter what comes up in your mind, you breathe in what you do not like and you breathe out what you do, or you breathe in what is not so good and breathe out being free of that. For instance, after you breathe in that driver’s aggression and breathe out your soothing of that anger, what might come up next is your own anger at being so abused first thing in the morning when you had started out in a pretty good mood. You could breath that anger in and breathe out the ability not to take such attacks so personally. In that way your thoughts follow along naturally, revealing more and more subtle layers of grasping and rejecting.
In the fourth step you expand the practice beyond your own immediate feelings and concerns of the moment. For instance, if you are worried about your friend, you expand that concern to include all the other people now and in the past who have had similar worries. You include everybody who has suffered the pain of seeing someone they are close to in danger or trouble. You breathe in all those worries and breathe out to all those countless beings your wish that they be freed from such pain.
Tonglen practice is a radical departure from our usual way of going about things. It may seem threatening, and even crazy; but it strikes at a very core point—how we barricade ourselves from pain and lose our connection with one another. The irony is that the barricades we create do not help all that much; they just make things worse. We end up more fearful, less willing to extend ourselves, and stunted in our ability to express any true kindness. Tonglen pokes holes in those barricades that we create.
Tonglen is always about connection: making a genuine connection with ourselves and others. It is a practice that draws us out beyond our own concerns to an appreciation that no matter what we happen to be going through, others too have gone through experiences just as intense. In tonglen we are continually expanding our perspective beyond our small self-preoccupied world. The less we restrict our world, the more of it we can take in—and at the same time, we find that we also have much more to give.
From Making Friends with Death by Judith L. Lief © 2001 by Judith L. Lief. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.