Tonglen: Exchange Meditation

“Thus have I heard (evam maya shrutam)…” 

The text that follows is neither a personal opinion nor an ‘original’ presentation of Exchange Meditation (Tib. tonglen; Skt. parivartana). On the contrary, although committed to conveying these teachings in the context of place, time, and a particular audience, it is the aspiration of all members of the Suddha lineage to be faithful to the authentic tradition, and to present it without deviation or unwarranted innovation. 

About Tonglen 

Because all suffering ultimately stems from attempting to become happy independently of others, the fundamental cause of suffering is self-cherishing, or the belief that our own interests are more important than the well being of others. If we are to attain happiness, it is indispensable to address self-cherishing. Therefore, the practice of tonglen or parivartana (exchanging ourselves for others) is the paramount method.  

In the practice, one visualizes taking onto oneself the suffering of others, and giving one’s own happiness and success to them. The function of the practice is to: 

  1. reduce selfish attachment
  2. develop mental strength and stability
  3. create positive karma (causes of future happiness for ourselves and others)
  4. develop relative compassion and loving-kindness
  5. develop ultimate compassion and wisdom 

Tonglen is performed in conjunction with breathing, and in relation to ourselves, specific individuals or groups, and all living entities. As we breathe in, we directly perceive in our mind’s eye that all suffering and the causes of suffering (ignorance, selfishness, attachment, aversion, and self-grasping) come into our heart in the form of dense, dark smoke. With every exhalation we directly perceive in our mind’s eye that we offer to others all our happiness and the causes of happiness (wisdom, compassion, loving kindness, rejoicing in the well being of others, and awareness of natural perfection), in the form of brilliant light. This light goes out to the objects of our meditation, so that they obtain present temporary happiness and the causes for ultimate happiness. 

Our ultimate nature is True Purity, True Self, True Bliss, and True Permanence. It is our eternal, ever-present reality, beyond the modifications of the conditioned mind, yet intimately informing it. Like the sun, however hidden it may be by dense clouds of thought, emotion, and sensation, our Natural Perfection is always there, shining brilliantly and effortlessly.  

As human beings, we have the habit of resisting what is unpleasant and seeking what is pleasurable. We resist, avoid, and deny suffering and we continually grasp at pleasure. If we observe our behavior, it is easy to see that we habitually resist and avoid people, situations, and feelings we consider to be painful, unpleasant, or uncomfortable, and we are naturally attracted to people, situations, and feelings we consider pleasant, comfortable, and gratifying.  

According to Buddhist teachings, this behavior is a symptom of fundamental ignorance and is influenced by the defilements of attachment, aversion, and indifference. To break the spell of this dualistic perception, to dissolve the barriers in our hearts that keep us feeling separate from others, and to cultivate deep compassion for all living beings, including ourselves, we need to meet and embrace reality in a radically new way. To accomplish this, we can use the precious heart-practice of Tonglen. 

With the practice of Toglen, we work directly with our habitual tendency to avoid suffering and attach ourselves to pleasure. Using this powerful and highly effective practice, we learn to embrace our life experiences with more openness, compassion, inclusiveness, and understanding, rather than denial, aversion, and resistance. When we encounter fear, pain, hurt, anger, jealousy, loneliness, or suffering, be it our own or others’, we breathe in with the desire to completely embrace this experience –to feel it, accept it, and own it, free of any resistance.  

In this way, we transform our tendency to close down and shut out life’s unpleasant experiences. We acknowledge, touch, and embrace our personal and collective suffering. We do not run away. We do not turn the other way. Touching and understanding suffering is the first step toward true transformation. Rather than avoiding suffering, we develop a more tolerant and compassionate relationship with it. We learn to meet and embrace reality —naked, open, and fearless. 

Although the idea of developing a relationship with suffering may sound somewhat morbid, we must remember that when we touch and embrace suffering, we can finally understand what causes it. When we understand the cause of suffering, we can eliminate it and be liberated. There is an end to suffering; however, we must learn how to meet it in a new way. Tonglen can help us accomplish this shift of awareness, this training of the mind. 

It is obvious that Tonglen is completely contrary to the ways in which we usually maintain our personality. We have defensive ego strategies for coping with the pain, hurt, disappointment, and suffering we encounter in life. We armor, protect, and separate ourselves from our inner and outer experiences in numerous ways, conscious and unconscious. Tonglen does indeed go against our habitual tendency of always wanting things to be pleasant, of wanting life on our own terms, of wanting everything to work out for ourselves no matter what happens to others.  

This practice dissolves and transforms the armor of our self-protection, the psychological strategies and defenses we create to keep ourselves separate from our own suffering and the suffering we encounter in the world. Tonglen gradually wears away our habitual grasping at a false sense of self, and effectively reverses our usual pattern of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In this process, we finally liberate ourselves from a very ancient prison of selfishness.  

With this radical shift of awareness, this new way of embracing our life experience, our heart becomes more tender, open, sensitive, and aware. We naturally feel more alive, more loving and caring, both for ourselves and others. By practicing Tonglen, we connect with a less defended and more open, spacious dimension of our being. The all-embracing compassion of our Natural Perfection begins to shine through and we are introduced to a far more intimate and grander view of reality. With this sublime heart of love, liberated from attachment, aversion, and indifference, we gradually recognize and feel the absolute interdependence and preciousness of all living beings. This is true intimacy with life. This is the cultivation of the awakened heart of compassion and wisdom. 

Breathing in, we allow ourselves to feel the inevitable suffering that occurs in this life. Our heart’s natural response to this suffering, while breathing out, is compassion. We breathe in the pain and suffering of this world like a dark cloud, letting it pass through our hearts. Rather than bracing ourselves against this pain and suffering, we can let it strengthen our sense of belonging and interdependence within the larger web of being.  

When we know in our hearts that we are connected to the insects, animals, trees, the earth, and every living being, we do not cause harm or suffering to any of these parts of ourselves. Rather, we become sensitive and attuned to the cries of the world, and we learn to respond with wisdom and deep compassion. We develop the wish to free all beings from their suffering and its causes; we desire, more than anything, to bring them happiness and peace. Indeed, the practice of Tonglen is an excellent way for us to train our heart and mind to develop universal compassion and help alleviate the suffering of all living beings. 

Generally, happiness and suffering occur as a result of karma, or the effects of our previous positive or negative actions. If we have performed positive actions, then naturally the result will be happiness. Likewise, suffering occurs as the result of negative actions. If we have performed negative actions, then the only result that can be obtained is suffering. However, the karmic results that have not yet ripened or manifested can be averted, and Tonglen is an effective method for accomplishing this purpose.  

This is not wishful thinking or pseudo-spirituality, but practical wisdom. Our everyday conditioned mind cannot differentiate between external and internal experiences, since all experiences, ultimately, are internal. For example, when we look at a red wall, we are under the impression that we are directly contacting the wall with our visual sense, and that our perception of height, width, solidity, distance, and color are inherent in the object itself (the wall).   

However, what we are actually experiencing is an internal representation of the wall in our minds. A cursory understanding of the mechanism of sight establishes that the ‘objects’ we see are not perceived directly. After contact of the visual sense and the red wall takes place, an image of the red wall is presented to the mind, and that is the actual perception that we experience. Thus, in reality, all experience is internal.  

When we practice meditation, the images presented to the mind are not fundamentally different from those presented by the sense organs, and therefore the experiences are indistinguishable. By mentally accepting the suffering of others, we are averting any unripe negative karma, at least for ourselves. When our capacity has become greater through the steady practice of Tonglen, we can identify with others so thoroughly that we may also avert their unripe negative karma. 

In practicing Tonglen, we change the attitude of seeing ourselves as more important than other beings, and we consider others to be more important than ourselves. The common attitude of most people is to think that the happiness of others is secondary or unimportant, but their own happiness is absolutely important. We normally take care of ourselves first, regarding ourselves as more important than others. Through doing this exchange practice, it is possible to transform our attitude, so that it does not matter if we are unhappy or suffering, as long as others are happy and free from suffering. Thus we develop the attitude that we are able to take on the suffering of other beings.  

Some persons new to this practice worry that by doing it they will lose happiness and experience suffering, which makes them fearful. However, there is no need for this anxiety, because whatever happens to us is solely a result of our own karma. Doing this practice does not bring additional suffering.  

Some people practice Tonglen with great expectation. We think of a friend who is ill, unhappy, or otherwise suffering, and we visualize this friend during the practice in the hope that we can remove the suffering. When it does not work instantly, we lose hope and become disillusioned. The fault, however, lies not with the practice, but with the expectation. As long as we practice with the goal of obtaining some result that we desire, it is not Tonglen. The true goal is to cherish other beings as important, rather than regarding ourselves as important. There is no need to worry, fear, or expect a particular result.  

However, the practice does produce beneficial results. In the immediate present we are not able to bring happiness to others or remove suffering directly, but by cultivating Tonglen we will gradually cease to cherish ourselves over others. We will develop the firm desire to benefit other beings, eventually leading to the ability to help beings directly. Consequently, we will be able to give them happiness and relieve them of suffering, and offer them whatever qualities and abilities we have. This is relative compassion.  

Ultimate compassion is realized by avoiding all conceptualizations and extreme dualism of self and other. When our minds are calm, the prana (energy) moves unimpeded and seeks its natural expression. When prana flows unimpeded, one need not strive to act in positive ways, but rather is impelled to do so spontaneously. We then manifest our true nature, and abide in Natural Perfection. This is ultimate compassion.  

The Practice

  1. If you are so inclined, invoke the presence of all the Buddhas (awakened beings) and Bodhisattvas  (beings on the path of perfection), so that through their inspiration and blessing, compassion may be born in your heart. In this way, you are associating with those who abide in True Nature, the inexhaustible source of purity, generosity, and compassion.
  2. Choose an object of meditation among the following three:
    1. yourself –you can meditate on your own future suffering, and thus avert the ripening of the unmanifest seeds of latent karma;
    2. a specific person or group of persons –select a particular individual or group of individuals toward whom you feel some degree of natural compassion, or who share with you some specific suffering (such as a disease, condition, or situation); or
    3. the totality of living entities –although this category encompasses beings with different bodies (insects, animals, etc), regard them all in human form, as it is easier to generate compassion in this way. However, remember that all beings suffer according to the specific conditions created by their unique karma.
  3. Reflect on the immense suffering of the object of your meditation. Allow that suffering to open your heart and awaken your compassion.
  4. Allow yourself to feel connected with the objects of your meditation, and become aware of their difficulties, pain, and distress.
  5. As your heart opens in compassion toward the objects of your meditation, directly perceive in your mind’s eye that all their suffering issues out as a mass of dark, heavy smoke.
  6. Directly perceive in your mind’s eye that you inhale this mass of dark smoke, and see it dissolve into the very core of your self-grasping (ego), at your heart center.
  7. There in your heart, it completely destroys all traces of fear and selfishness (self-cherishing) and purifies all of your negative karma. Directly perceive in your mind’s eye that your fear, self-centeredness and negative karma has been completely destroyed, and your enlightened heart is fully revealed.
  8. As you exhale, directly perceive in your mind’s eye that you are sending out the radiance of wisdom, compassion, loving-kindness, rejoicing, natural perfection, and well-being to the object of your meditation. See this brilliant radiance purifying their negative karma. Send out any feelings that encourage healing, relaxation, and openness.
  9. Continue this Exchange with each breath, repeating to yourself: “I take into my heart all your suffering and the causes of suffering. I give you perfect happiness and the causes of happiness.”
  10. Generate a firm inner conviction that the object of your meditation has been freed of suffering and negative karma and is filled with peace, happiness and well-being.  

The transformation achieved through the practice of Tonglen is beyond what we could ever imagine. Tonglen is capable of healing all our sickness and physical ailments, ending our negative habits, and clearing away whatever interferes with our life. Our life grows longer; our positive potential and store of positive energy increases, as well as our inner reserve of wisdom. We see the fulfillment of our intentions and aspirations. From day to day, the results can be dramatic. And in the ultimate sense, we have future deepening of realization and spiritual experience, leading us to states of awakening. With repeated practice, we become truly capable of benefiting others.

About Tashi Nyima

I am a Dharma student, and aspire to be a companion on the path. I trust that these texts can offer a general approach and basic tools for practicing the Buddha's way to enlightenment. ||| Soy un estudiante del Dharma, y aspiro a ser un compañero en el sendero. Espero que estos textos ofrezcan a algunos un mapa general y herramientas básicas para la práctica del sendero a la iluminación que nos ofrece el Buda.
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