Tonglen, or “exchanging self with others,” is a practical exercise that centers on your willingness to forgo your own pleasures and peace by sending them to others who are in need. What can be more radical in our modern self-centered society?

It is a practice that can be applied in many circumstances: for those who are sick, or dying, or suffering from an immediate and harmful circumstance. You can also practice tonglen for yourself—for those parts of your egoic mind that are suffering from upheaval or confusion. This powerful practice dissolves suffering and creates virtue and merit for the practitioner.

Begin by letting your mind rest. Rest in meditation and imagine that with every breath, you exhale white light through which you give away all your happiness, enjoyment, fame, pleasure, success, good fortune—whatever positive qualities you have and desire for yourself.

Imagine that you are giving all of that to other sentient beings. As you exhale, it is all emitted in the form of white-colored prana, or energy, which then dissolves into all other sentient beings. You exhale from your own being all the sources of happiness, all your good fortune, your reputation, and all material acquisitions, as well as the simple happiness of the moment, and you give it away to others. As you imagine this white-colored prana dissolving into other sentient beings, you feel that all their sorrow is completely dissolved and they become possessed of happiness and good fortune. When you inhale, imagine that you are taking away from them all their pain, suffering, negativity, and obstacles in the form of dark smoke. You are relieving them of their pain and drawing it into yourself. Your wish and aspiration that accompanies this is, “I pray that I can take all the agony of others onto myself and that I can give away all my happiness, prosperity, and good fortune to all sentient beings.”

Your compassion can be as vast as the ocean, filled with beings in distress. 

You don’t literally take on others’ suffering, though. For example, if someone has a broken leg, you do not suddenly have a broken leg while theirs heals. Rather, you take on their pain in your mind. It is an exercise to counter your ego’s defenses: when you open to the sorrows of the world, there is no “me” here taking them on like a martyr. As you develop confidence in this view, your practice expands because you recognize that suffering does not have to be something to run away from. Your compassion can be as vast as the ocean, filled with beings in distress.

For ages, many enlightened beings, great bodhisattvas, and extremely accomplished practitioners have done these practices and achieved the result. Therefore, we can have confidence that these practices will in fact alleviate our suffering and bring us happiness. The result is not instantaneous. It takes time and continued dedication, but if you do the practices and maintain them, the results will blossom in your being.

When I lived at Larung Gar, in eastern Tibet, my primary teacher, Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche, had tens of thousands of disciples. When he bestowed Tantric initiations, he would go to a temple at the top of a mountain that we called the Temple of Magical Display. Near the temple, we had set up an outdoor pavilion surrounded by an enclosure that could hold the tens of thousands of people who came to receive the initiations.

As his attendant, I would escort Rinpoche by car up the narrow road to the top of the mountain. There he would perform the Tantric empowerment ceremony. From his throne, he could overlook the throng of students, recite prayers, and perform the initiation.

Often when we were driving up the road, crowds of people would rush in, sometimes even stampeding to get closer to his car. Each person wanted to get a glimpse of Rinpoche because he was not often active among the people, whose devotion to him was strong. Along that path, yaks also gathered, picking up little pieces of fruit dropped by the crowd or simply grazing on the grasses along the road.

One time, while I was escorting Rinpoche, a herd of yaks blocked the narrow road as the car approached. A large crowd rushed in, wishing to be of help. They shouted to scatter the yaks so that the car could pass. The stunned yaks panicked and did not know where to go. People began throwing rocks at them as Rinpoche watched the scene unfold.

Eventually, the yaks scattered and we reached the top, where Rinpoche sat on his throne to give an initiation. But before he could say a word, he started to weep. He told his disciples, “Today there were yaks on the road, and people were scaring them away, throwing rocks at them.” He said the yaks were so scared that they did not know what to do. Rinpoche cried and cried. He had taken on the yaks’ pain. He had experienced their overwhelming fear, anxiety, and confusion, and their terror at being cornered and trapped.

To everyone else in the crowd, throwing some stones at yaks to get them out of the way seemed like a relatively harmless and innocent action—not a big deal. Most people saw it as a silly thing, funny, even a game. But Rinpoche, a great bodhisattva, intuited and experienced the actual pain experienced in the minds of the yaks. He took that on. That is the difference between an ordinary person and a great bodhisattva like my teacher.

Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche’s many disciples often came to him with their burdens and challenges. Some of them had personal problems, and others were struggling with difficult conditions in their lives. Every time a person met with Rinpoche, they felt relieved of their suffering. Such was the power of his blessings; this is what the power of compassion does.

The power of tonglen is that at the right time, you will be able to lighten others’ burdens, like my teacher did. If you practice tonglen, eventually you will have the power and skillful means to remove, alleviate, and pacify the sorrows of yourself and others. Even shortly after you start the practice, you will notice changes in how you experience day-to-day hardships.

As we train ourselves in this potent practice for finding freedom from suffering and pacifying woes and sorrows, we are building our warrior-like quality of valor. In Tibetan, pawo means “warrior”—a powerful, courageous, fearless being. How can we become warriors of the mind?

We become warriors of the mind when we stay present to and no longer run away or shield ourselves from internal and external challenges. Through the power of facing suffering, taking on the misery of others, we build strength of heart and courage, developing a warrior-like power. As warriors of mind, when we have that kind of great spiritual confidence, we can dispel and pacify suffering.

Typically we look for ways to avoid suffering. But the day will come when we choose not to run anymore, knowing that no matter which direction we run, suffering is unavoidable. Best to fearlessly face what we previously ran from. The courage to stay causes the innate instinct of compassion to grow, and we develop the strength to confront any challenges that befall us. This is the fruition of warriorship of the mind.

If we are not at a place in our lives where we can take up this practice, at the very least we can appreciate the incredible qualities and benefit that it brings. We can rejoice in the bodhisattvas who are able to put this into practice. We can aspire and long to have the ability and capacity to emulate them. Merely holding this aspiration and longing will contribute to freedom from suffering in the world.

The powerful benefits of bodhisattva practice, and tonglen in particular, radiate out to all beings, easing the sorrow and longing in our world. In many ways, the benefits of this practice continue to unfold and develop with each step along the path. First, the warrior practitioner will recognize immediately that as their self-grasping is dispelled, so is their own suffering. Second, their strength of heart—their warrior-like quality of valor—will continually increase so that they will not be put off or repulsed by any distressing events and will be able to handle the weariness and torment of the world’s conditions.

Taking happiness and suffering as the path requires the noblest aspiration.

Third, their compassion, lovingkindness, and caring will increase, giving birth to a sense of fruition in their life. Through these great qualities, they gain a poignant appreciation for how others may have come to suffer and why they suffer in the ways they do. Strength of mind and conviction in this path increase as compassion expands to all beings. These powerful benefits will come from practicing tonglen. One becomes able to take on the suffering of others through sympathetic imagination. As familiarity with the practice is cultivated, one’s mind becomes more powerful and courageous, and it is supported by the valor of generations of bodhisattvas whose warrior-like attributes continue to inspire and illuminate the path. In this you join in a great lineage of humans dedicated to the highest and most selfless challenge.

Shantideva said, “All those who would cause me harm are equal to finding a wish-fulfilling treasury of jewels.” He understood that those who would antagonize and harm him were providing him the opportunity to increase his strength of mind and patience. We too can regard suffering in this way, as a great opportunity and a skillful means. We can understand that through this experience and practice, suffering can be dispelled and happiness can be increased. All of this is possible through the practice of tonglen.

Taking happiness and suffering as the path requires the noblest aspiration, a kind and courageous heart, and skillfully developed endurance. May this teaching and practice inspire you in your journey and may many beings benefit from your compassion. May all beings be unconditionally happy and free from suffering.

Adapted from Loving Life as It Is: A Buddhist Guide to Ultimate Happiness by Chakung Jigme Wangdrak © 2024. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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