Tonglen: Sending out happiness and taking in suffering

Tonglen is a form of Buddhist practice from the “mind-training” (lojong) teachings given by the important 11th-century Indian master Atisha. An essential part of mind training is overcoming what’s referred to as “self-cherishing,” which in this context means clinging to a narrow, egotistical mindset. Tonglen is one of the tools mind training offers to weaken our tendency to self-cherish. Literally “sending and taking,” tonglen refers to visualizing oneself breathing in (taking) the suffering of beings, then breathing out (sending) one’s own well-being to alleviate that suffering.  

The simplest version of tonglen consists of first taking a moment to rest in the natural spaciousness of the mind, or to ground and settle yourself. You then picture the suffering in the world—you can also home in on a certain person in need or a certain circumstance—and breathe it into yourself in the form of thick, heavy black smoke that dissolves in your heart. Opening your heart to feelings of compassion, you then breathe out the suffering in the form of “white energy,” bringing goodness to those afflicted.

You can practice tonglen formally in this way; however, many find tonglen challenging, so it’s best to practice under the guidance of a teacher. You can also, as the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön suggests, practice “on the spot” when you are confronted with challenges in everyday life or are dealing with strong negative emotions.


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