It's all very well to feel a compassionate response to hearing about a friend in trouble or pain, or to be strongly moved by a story on the news or in a documentary, but how can I put this compassion into action?
Tonglen is a long established Buddhist practice of taking into one's heart the pain of another, or others, whether they be human, animal, bird or insect. I have heard some people expressing concern that by doing this you are inviting illness, or the particular form of suffering you are taking into your heart, to actually take root in your being and make you sick. But then I wonder why so many revered Buddhist teachers, from many different schools, strongly encourage their students to take up this practice, both for their own spiritual development and to relieve the suffering of others. Sogyal Rinpoche, for example, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, says in this book "Tonglen is a Buddhist practice but I strongly believe that anyone--anyone at all--can do it [Tonglen], Even if you have no religious faith, I urge you simply to try it. I have found Tonglen to be of the greatest possible help" (p.202,1992).
Sogyal Rinpoche (and many other teachers I have listened to) does recommend that you always begin by first practicing it on yourself. As he says, "before you send out love and compassion to others, you uncover, deepen, create, and strengthen them [the strength and confidence of compassion] in yourself, and heal yourself of any reticence or distress or anger or fear that might create an obstacle to practicing Tonglen wholeheartedly" (p:202). Sogyal Rinpoche offers several different Tonglen practices in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and these are all excellent. There are many different versions of the practice but my attention was recently caught by a version offered by Lama Palden, a lama authorized by H.E. Kalu Rinpoche of the Kargyu school of Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana teachings, and printed in the Winter 2001 issue of Tricyle, The Buddhist Review. She describes Tonglen as "a practice of the Bodhisattva path: the path of courage, in which we recognize the interdependence and inseparability of all beings". What I particularly like about the practice she describes is the emphasis on identifying with the "mind-essence of all awakened beings united with your own mind" and it is into this awareness (rather than our "little self") that the suffering is invited. I invite you to try the practice. Here it is:
First, take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha [or if you prefer: Wisdom, Compassion and non-clinging awareness].
Call upon Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, to be present and imagine him above your head. He sits on a fully open white lotus, with a flat moon seat; everything appears entirely of white light. His body, too, appears as light, the union of form and emptiness, awareness and emptiness--Avalokiteshvara is an embodiment of all the Buddha's compassionate activity, inseparable from your own teacher's pure awareness. Pray for compassion and wisdom, your Buddha-nature, to awaken, and imagine that Avalokiteshvara, or Chenresi, as he is called by Tibetans, dissolves into light into you. You become Chenresi. Stabilize the sense of yourself as a pure being, a bodhisattva, and feel the heart essence of all awakened beings within your own heart. Feel the mind-essence of all awakened beings united with your own mind, the mind-essence finding expression as a vajra -- a ritual scepter symbolic of the indestructible, all-good true nature -- of diamond-like white light.
Imagine then your ordinary self appearing in front of you. Generate tremendous compassion and loving-kindness for yourself. On the in-breath, draw all your suffering, visualized as black smoke, toward your awakened heart. As soon as this darkness comes close to the vajra, on the out-breath a thunderbolt of white light brilliantly radiates the light of compassion into your ordinary self, the self imagined in front of you. Gradually, the light fills the ordinary self and heals all wounds, all suffering. The light removes all negative habitual patterns.
See your ordinary self as illuminated and awakened.
Repeat this procedure with people close to you, gradually radiating light out to all sentient beings. [i.e. Just as you imagined your ordinary self in front, you imagine the person or persons you wish to help. On the in-breath, draw all their suffering, visualized as black smoke, toward your awakened heart. As soon as this darkness comes close to the vajra in your heart, on the out-breath a thunderbolt of white light brilliantly radiates the light of compassion into their being, the person imagined in front of you. Gradually, the light fills their being and heals all wounds, all suffering. The light removes all negative habitual patterns.] As you continue the practice, imagine that all beings become illuminated and fully awakened. Finally, let everything dissolve into open, sky-like awareness, and rest your mind naturally.
At the end of the session dedicate the merit of the practice to the alleviation of all suffering, to the awakening of all beings.
A pith essence version of tonglen practice can be done in any moment, wherever you are. Simply open to your caring concern and imagine the Buddha-mind as light in your heart. Breathe in the suffering as darkness, and breathe out loving-kindness as the healing white light.
This practice transforms our own heart-minds, and opens up a space for others to heal and awaken to their true nature.
I hope you enjoy this practice and I look forward to hearing any questions or comments.
With warm wishes,