Welcome to the Tonglen Practice Circle & Instructions

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  • Jundo
    Treeleaf Founder and Priest
    • Apr 2006
    • 39205

    Welcome to the Tonglen Practice Circle & Instructions

    Dear All,

    I would like to thank Kokuu for taking the lead in guiding this Tonglen (Giving and Receiving) Practice Circle. Tonglen is an ancient Practice originating in Tibet but now adopted by many Zen and other Western Buddhist Sangha, for the transformation of suffering, anger, sadness and the like within ourselves and in the world, and transforming the same through visualization into peace, joy, acceptance and other positive emotions.

    I recommend this Practice and this group to all our members who may struggle with such suffering. Kokuu himself has lived with serious and difficult health issues for many years, and this Practice has helped bring him some strength, Wisdom and Compassion toward his own suffering and the suffering of others. I am sure that it will for so many of you too.

    Gassho, Jundo

    Last edited by Jundo; 01-06-2020, 01:57 AM.
  • Kokuu
    Treeleaf Priest
    • Nov 2012
    • 6750

    Thank you very much, Jundo. I am very pleased to be able to share this practice with members of the sangha, although doubtless some (or many) already have some familarity with it. I claim no mastery or ownership but am happy offer some basic instruction in the practice of Giving and Receiving (tonglen) here.

    1. Background

    The Practice of Giving and Receiving (Tonglen) is part of a set of practices originating in Tibetan Buddhist practices but being adopted by Zen and other Buddhist groups of many kinds. The aim of these practices is to transform, through visualization, the human way we encounter difficulties into the way a symbolic Bodhisattva would approach them with openness, forgiveness and compassion.

    The teachings are said to have been initially given to the Indian master Atisha Dipamkara by Serlingpa, a teacher in Indonesia, and Atisha is said to have been responsible for bringing them to Tibet in the eleventh century where they have become an intrinsic part of Tibetan Buddhist dharma.

    The following instructions contain the heart of the practice of Giving and Receiving (Tonglen):

    Train in taking and sending alternately. Put them on the breath.

    And Begin the sequence of taking with you.

    In some respects Tonglen is similar to sending Metta (see our Recommended Daily Metta Practice HERE) but Tibetan Buddhism has a tendency to amalgamate a number of practices into one and Sending and Receiving is certainly one example of that. As well as developing Metta, Giving and Receiving is part of a series of practices which aim to increase our concern for others while being less concerned with oneself. Usually we try to hold onto all the good things for ourselves and avoid the bad elements of life. This practice completely turns that way of thinking on its head.

    Giving and Receiving is also a method of experiencing the suffering of others and feeling connected to them. It is a way of opening the heart to what we fear and then using that open heart to send out metta. When the heart is open, there is no separation between our self and others. This is a pure Mahayana practice designed to increase the aspiration for awakening to help all beings (bodhicitta).

    A Practice such as Tonglen and Metta can go hand-in-hand with our core Practice, Shikantaza. Although we do not engage in such Practices during Zazen, it is good each day to engage in such an additional Practice for developing compassion, and to work on helping others in our lives. It is hoped that Giving and Receiving may occupy a warm and helpful place in our practice and our hearts.

    Further Reading
    Joan Halifax Roshi - Tonglen

    2. The Practice

    The basic instruction of Giving and Receiving (Tonglen) is to breathe in the suffering of others and breathe out love and joy. This is most commonly done as a visualisation of seeing the suffering as black smoke which is breathed into the heart and the love and joy as white light going out as the out breath from the heart. Visualizing such imagined images helps us to truly feel such emotions.

    As with the Metta Verses it is best to decide what kind of suffering from which people you are going to practice and sticking with that. Personally, I have found that using a kind of suffering you are familiar with or that is affecting you (maybe a war, famine or natural disaster that is currently occurring) works better than something more abstract. If you are sick, grieving, depressed etc. these can work well too. However, it is up to you. It can be good to start small and work up to really traumatic events to avoid being overwhelmed. Feeling strong emotions is not a totally bad thing but working with your neighbour’s grief over the loss of their dog (and, by extension, the grief of all people who have lost a loved companion animal) is just as important as practicing with the victims of a brutal terror attack.

    There are a few things worth noting as this point:

    1. Giving and Receiving is not a magical or mystical practice and we are not actually breathing in the suffering of others (although if you could, would you hesitate?) but transforming our own mind and heart. We find that we have boundless capacity to take in the poisons of the world, and boundless capacity to send forth goodness. The more negativity that can be taken in, the more peace and goodness there is to breathe out into the world. It takes time, but the Practice becomes very balanced and natural.

    2. We are not transforming the suffering into happiness and joy and breathing that out. We are breathing in the bad from outside and breathing out our love and happiness from within. However, during the meditation, distinctions of inside and outside can cease to become meaningful.

    3. We may become fearful that there is not enough room in our heart for all of the suffering in the world but just as the amount of love we have to give is boundless and only increased by the number of people we give it to, so is our capacity to take on the fear and pain of others. However, as said above, it is still good to start small and work up in practice.

    Just as with the Metta Verses, we begin Giving and Receiving with our self and this has always been the instruction from the time this practice was first developed. We breathe in our own pain and suffering and breathe out love and joy to ourselves before proceeding to work with the suffering of others. This is an important first step. There is nothing wrong, and everything right, about kindness and healing for ourself so long as we use it as a base to bring kindness and healing into the world for the benefit of all sentient beings.

    3. Formal Practice

    If we are not practicing Giving and Receiving as part of a Zazenkai or at the end of a Zazen sitting, it is good to have a period of Zazen sitting before starting the practice even if this is only for a few minutes. After this we can proceed with Giving and Receiving on our self, then Giving and Receiving with whatever form of suffering we have chosen to work with. Finally, we expand our focus to Giving and Receiving the suffering of all sentient beings. These three stages can be as little as a minute each or extended for a longer period.

    So, the stages are as follows:

    1. Zazen (if not already sat)
    2. Giving and Receiving for yourself
    3. Giving and Receiving for chosen form of suffering
    4. Giving and Receiving for all beings

    We can close the practice by chanting the Bodhisattva Vows three times to remind us of the Mahayana motivation:

    To save all sentient beings, though beings numberless
    To transform all delusions, though delusions inexhaustible
    To perceive reality, though reality is boundless
    To attain the enlightened way, a way non-attainable

    4. Informal Practice (or practice ‘on the go’)

    Often, we will come across suffering we wish to respond to in the course of our daily life, when it is not possible to go through all of the stages of formal practice. This might include seeing someone crying on the street, watching a traumatic event on the news or your own pain or emotional discomfort.

    In this situation, it is perfectly fine to just do stage 3 of the practice for as long as is necessary. Just one breath can be sufficient. This is a traditional use of the practice.
    Last edited by Kokuu; 07-09-2017, 03:16 PM.