How to Practice Compassion Meditation: Introduction to Tonglen

Chenrezig personification of compassion

In this article, we’ll examine tonglen meditation, a powerful compassion practice from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Compassion is one of the Four Immeasurables in Buddhism, along with loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These are four virtues of mind that we can develop endlessly: there is no such thing as “too much” of them.

For centuries, Tibetan Buddhist practitioners have found tonglen meditation a powerful way to nurture our minds’ natural compassion.

For more than nine centuries, Tibetan Buddhist practitioners have found tonglen practice to be one of the most powerful ways to nurture the compassion that is naturally present in our minds. Here, we’ll delve into the meaning of compassion itself, and how to begin to explore compassion meditation through tonglen.

Compassion Meditation: Understanding Compassion

Before we practice compassion meditation, we must understand compassion itself. This isn’t as easy as it might sound. The Tibetan Buddhist sense of compassion has many shades of meaning which our language does not capture.

The Tibetan Buddhist sense of compassion has many shades of meaning which our language does not capture.

In English, the root of the word compassion means “to suffer with.” (Com- is “with,” and passion is “suffering,” as in “the passion of the Christ.”) The present definition of compassion in English is: Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.

In Tibetan, by contrast, the word for compassion is nyingjé, which means: Noble heart. (The word’s two roots are nying, “mind, heart”, and jé, “lord.”) Nyingjé includes concern for the suffering of others, but also a wealth of other meanings; and it is quite distant from what we now call pity, whose original meaning—”compassion, kindness, generosity of spirit, and disposition to mercy”—was quite close to nyingjé, but which now carries a sense of wretchedness and even condescension.

In Tibetan, the word for compassion is nyingjé, which means noble heart.

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has spoken in depth on compassion, nyingjé. Tibetans consider the Dalai Lama to be a human emanation of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig (“Lord Who Gazes Lovingly Upon the World”), who is the personification of compassion across Mahayana Buddhist traditions; so the Dalai Lama has a particularly strong connection to this specific quality.

Chenrezig personification of compassion
Chenrezig, the personification of nyingjé.

Here is the Dalai Lama on nyingjé:

” [Nyingjé] has a wealth of meaning that is difficult to convey succinctly, though the ideas it conveys are universally understood. It connotes love, affection, kindness, gentleness, generosity of spirit, and warm-heartedness. It is also used as a term of both sympathy and of endearment. On the other hand, it does not imply ‘pity’ as the word compassion may. On the contrary nyingjé denotes a feeling of connection with others, reflecting its origin in empathy.

…It is both the source and the result of patience, tolerance, forgiveness, and all good qualities.”

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

So when we practice compassion meditation, this is the quality of mind we practice with: not merely “pity and concern,” but rather an underlying empathy that brings connection with others, and that is imbued with “love, affection, kindness, gentleness, generosity of spirit, and warm-heartedness.” This is true compassion, nyingjé, and it is this quality of mind that we practice and discover as one of the Four Immeasurables.

Compassion Meditation: The Practice of Tonglen

Now that we understand compassion, what is compassion meditation? How do we work with, express, and cultivate our heart’s innate nobility?

A key compassion practice in Tibetan Buddhism, dating back just under a thousand years, is tonglen, “sending and taking.” (Tong in Tibetan means “sending” or “giving,” and len means “taking” or “receiving.”)

A key compassion practice in Tibetan Buddhism is tonglen, “sending and taking.”

What Tonglen Meditation Is

“Sending and taking should be practiced alternately.
These two should ride the breath.”

Lojong (Tibetan mind training) Slogan

Like mindfulness meditation, tonglen meditation is a meditation practice that works with our breathing. However, unlike mindfulness meditation, tonglen practice involves actively using our imaginations to bring specific things to mind.

Like mindfulness meditation, tonglen meditation works with our breathing. However, tonglen practice also involves actively bringing things to mind.

The name “sending and taking” refers to what we imagine while we do the practice. On the inbreath (as we breathe in), we bring in what is painful from our own and others’ experience; and on the outbreath (as we breathe out), we share out anything that would alleviate suffering and bring happiness.

As we breathe in, we bring in what is painful from our own and others’ experience. As we breathe out, we share out anything that would alleviate suffering and bring happiness.

Because of this exchange, tonglen is also known as “exchanging self for other.” The engine of tonglen’s transformative effect as a compassion practice is the rhythm of being willing to literally take in beings’ suffering on the inbreath, and then giving out whatever might help them on the outbreath.

Here is a succinct description of tonglen practice from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche:

“The practice of tonglen is quite straightforward; it is an actual sitting meditation practice. You give away your happiness, your pleasure, anything that feels good. All of that goes out with the outbreath. As you breathe in, you breathe in any resentments and problems, anything that feels bad. The whole point is to remove territoriality altogether.”

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

And here is a definition from Pema Chödrön:

“We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person whom we know to be hurting and wish to help. For instance, if we know of a child who is being hurt, we breathe in with the wish to take away all of that child’s pain and fear. Then, as we breathe out, we send happiness, joy, or whatever would relieve the child. This is the core of the practice: breathing in others’ pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open-breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever we feel would bring them relief and happiness.”

Pema Chödrön

Is Tonglen Meditation Dangerous?

Is tonglen dangerous? This answer may come as a surprise: Yes, it can be.

Although tonglen can have life-changing benefits, we should begin tonglen meditation practice carefully, and only when properly prepared.

Beginning to practice tonglen warrants both care and preparation.

Why could tonglen be dangerous? The reason is because tonglen works with suffering—our own and others’—and, in fact, heightens our connection with the suffering in the world.

Some tonglen practitioners react negatively to this heightening: we might feel overwhelmed by the level of suffering we contemplate, or desperate but unable to take concrete action to combat it, or even physically sick from the suffering we are taking on. Most commonly, we might just really dislike tonglen practice, or feel that it doesn’t “work” for us.

If you find that any of this happens to you, don’t worry. Anyone can practice tonglen with proper preparation.

Tonglen Meditation: Approaching Tonglen Correctly

The steps below will make sure that you practice tonglen meditation in the appropriate spirit, and with the proper resources.

1. Find Appropriate Support

Tonglen is best practiced with the support of a meditation community and a meditation instructor. This is true for anyone, and especially true if you have tried a practice like tonglen and gotten mixed or negative results.

Lastly, if you are experiencing mental health or mood conditions like depression or bipolar disorder, the ideal support could be both a qualified meditation coach and a licensed mental health practitioner.

2. Understand and Practice from the Intended Spirit

As we discussed above, tonglen practice itself works to cultivate nyingjé: noble heart. However, in the West, our experience of our own and others’ suffering is often tied to a general feeling of wretchedness—that nothing is okay, that we or the world are fallen, doomed, ruined, or broken. This is quite different from nyingjé, and it is not the spirit of tonglen.

In the West, suffering often carries an additional sense of wretchedness: that we or the world are fallen, broken, or doomed. However, this is not the spirit of true compassion, or of tonglen.

In general, this quality of wretchedness is a form of aggression: the impulse to view some aspect of the world as the enemy. In the Buddhist view, aggression is always confused, mistaken. As individual practitioners, we do each bring some degree of confusion and aggression to our paths. However, the spirit of Buddhism itself is categorically nonaggressive.

This principle of nonaggression extends to tonglen practice, which deepens our connection to ourselves and other suffering beings from a place of tenderness, love, and equality—and not pity, horror, or revulsion—and which is not a practice of obsessing over the world’s shortcomings.

Tonglen is not a practice of obsessing over the world’s shortcomings.

If you wonder how you could possibly contemplate the experience of others without noticing that the world is doomed (what about climate change?) or fallen (what about oceanic microplastics?), then you may honestly want to examine the extent to which you are carrying a cultural conditioning of aggression. All beings’ lives are pervaded with great suffering: this is the First Noble Truth, the first thing the Buddha taught. However, acknowledging this is different from developing an overriding negativity about life itself. That is not at all what the people who developed and practiced tonglen for the past millennium had in mind, and it can make your tonglen practice both unpleasant and potentially harmful.

3. Develop Maitri First

People who wish to practice tonglen should first gain a solid grounding in maitri: universal, all-encompassing friendliness.

As an antidote to the challenge of aggression mentioned above, people who wish to start tonglen practice should first gain a solid grounding in maitri: universal, all-encompassing friendliness. True compassion is all-inclusive and bountiful, not biased or halting, and the maitri spirit of universal benevolence is the basis for this.

The maitri spirit of universal benevolence is the basis for true compassion.

Maitri is an innate quality of the mind, which we uncover with practice. To the extent we uncover it, we find ourselves actively and wholeheartedly wishing happiness and flourishing, for all beings.

Most importantly, our maitri must include a strong and active element of self-love. If we cannot extend sincere, unhesitating love and friendliness to ourselves, then working with the suffering of others in our tonglen practice will certainly be lopsided, and may be fruitless or even harmful.

If we cannot extend true love and friendliness to ourselves, then working with the suffering of others through tonglen will be challenging, and may even be harmful.

If we are solidly grounded in maitri, then actively practicing compassion through tonglen will feel like a natural step, and one that only intensifies our good wishes for ourselves and all beings. This is the practice’s intended effect.

4. Begin with One’s Own Experience

“Begin the practice of sending and taking with yourself.”

Lojong (Tibetan mind training) Slogan

This piece of advice is for how we proceed through tonglen practice itself. It simply says that, in a given practice session, the first person you practice tonglen for should always be yourself.

The first person you practice tonglen for should be yourself.

This bit of technical advice is helpful enough that it’s been a Tibetan mind-training slogan for around 1,000 years. It’s helpful because it encourages us to check in with our own love for ourselves, and our own difficulties, instead of racing immediately into the problems of the world.

Pema Chödrön discusses this beautifully:

“It is true people fear tonglen practice. Particularly if people have a lot of depression, they fear it is going to be tough to relate with the suffering so directly.

I have found that it’s less overwhelming if you start with your own experience of suffering and then generalize to all the other people who are feeling what you do. That gives you a way to work with your pain: instead of feeling like you’re increasing your suffering, you’re making it meaningful. If you’re taught that you should do tonglen only for other people, that’s too big a leap for most people. But if you start with yourself as the reference point and extend out from that, you find that your compassion becomes much more spontaneous and real. You have less fear of the suffering you perceive in the world—yours and other people’s. It’s a lot about overcoming the fear of suffering.”

Pema Chödrön

Tonglen Meditation Instruction: How to Practice Tonglen

Below are three guided instructions in tonglen meditation practice from contemporary Buddhist teachers.

1. Tonglen Instruction by Pema Chödrön

This brief audio instruction by Pema Chödrön gives a wonderful four-stage breakdown of tonglen practice:

  1. Resting the mind.
  2. Working with texture.
  3. Working with personal situations.
  4. Expanding out further.

2. Tonglen Instruction by Khenpo Sherab Sangpo

This long tonglen instruction is helpful because it gives a clear flavor of the Tibetan thought and culture surrounding tonglen practice itself.

3. Tonglen Instruction by Judith Simmer-Brown

An in-depth tonglen instruction by Judith Simmer-Brown.

Tonglen Meditation: Additional Resources

Here are several book recommendations that go deeply into tonglen meditation and the associated teachings and practices:

Tonglen is also an integral part of the Bodhisattva path of love and compassion, which you can study in-depth on Shambhala Online in our A Year of Deepening in Compassion series:

Compassion Meditation: Try Tonglen Today

Tonglen meditation can transform not only our own lives, but—as the world fills with people whose nyingjé, noble heart, is in full blossom—the world itself. I hope this guide has given you a good starting point for this powerful compassion practice.

This article is part of the Community Blog, which offers reflections by Shambhala community members on their individual journeys in meditation and spirituality.

One thought on “How to Practice Compassion Meditation: Introduction to Tonglen

  1. I wish I had known about this earlier in my life. I already had noticed that I review or scan images of world suffering during prayer, which was my way of presenting these needs to God. But this practice is so much more profound.

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2024-05-25 02:03:19