Tonglen

Avalokiteshvara - who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas

Human suffering tends to gather. Just as it gathers in certain parts of the body, perhaps this muscular system or that organ, it tends to gather in certain portions of society, or in certain geographical areas. Around such areas densities of resistance and denial are built up. We create a band of hardened muscle around the injury. We build a six lane highway, curving round the edge of the poor housing estate. We set up razor wire fences in the face of desperate refugees.

This is so rarely a good answer.

In the remarkable Tibetan meditation practice of tonglen we breath in the pain and suffering of others and breath out any peace, compassion and kindness we have accumulated in our own heart as a gift to those others.

It’s the very opposite of our culture’s dominant spiritual materialism, where our practice can so easily become another clever accumulation strategy, a sophisticated defence manoeuvre of ‘the land of me’. It’s best to start slow and small, but it’s a radical and uncompromising practice eventually.

In tonglen we don’t hoard our own good fortune, our accumulated merit, or bask in our rediscovered sense of spaciousness. We give them away. We take into our own space, instead, the dark and unpleasant cloud of suffering we sense shrouding the lives of others. It is an exchange, in which we may seem to be the conscious, deliberate losers. If we begin to develop a sense of merit or martyrdom, or frustration at our incapacity, we know we have slipped back into the accumulation phase. Maybe, somehow, somewhere more important, a healing occurs which we might also benefit from. But that is not the point. The point is to develop the non-defense of our borders, to make them a little more permeable. To stop ‘me-ing’ all the time.

Tonglen is typically done in seated meditation, as part of developing compassion and selflessness.

Yet the seat is but one place in the continuum of living. If, rising from our seat, our old borders immediately rise as well, just as impermeable as before, then we have simply been a momentary tourist in the land of compassion, staring at lifeless museum statues of kindness. Perhaps we should have taken a selfie? Here I am standing in front of compassion.

Our practice eventually leads, awkwardly and inconveniently, to real world implications. It’s not a dreamy, new-age ‘breath out light to the world’, then do nothing kind of thing. It’s practical and concrete. The private cultivation of internal generosity is but preparation for a public enactment of generosity.

Yet such real world implications go beyond the dimensions of an individual life. Doctor Martin Luther King Junior said that the public face of love was justice. He constantly drew our attention to the necessary (often missing) alignment between private morality and public policy. We have urgent need of such an alignment of public policy today.

On the borders of Europe over the Christmas period 2000 people every day have been fleeing violence and destitution, crossing hungry seas, to ask for refuge. Their presence, their clear and concrete human need call out to us for a compassionate and practical response, individually and collectively. We are invited to cultivate our humanity. Many of you will already be responding on different levels. Donating money, tents and medical equipment. Offering services. Pressurizing policy makers. Changing opinions.

We sit.
We breath in suffering.
We breath out our good fortune.
We drop our own borders.
We stand, we walk, we work with others.
We drop our own borders.

P.S. For more resources on the practice of Tonglen this short video by Pema Chodron is a great place to start. She has written books pointing out important and helpful tips about practicing it too.