Tonglen (Giving and Taking) in the Context of Equalizing and Exchanging One's Attitudes about Self and Others
Munich, Germany, March 2005
Session Four: The Five Decisions and Tonglen
We’ve been speaking about the stages for working ourselves up to the practice of tonglen on the way to achieving bodhichitta, and we started with the type of equanimity which is a mind that’s free of attraction, repulsion, or indifference toward all others – a tranquil, even, open attitude – so that on the basis of a tranquil mind that’s undisturbed we can be open to everyone equally.
Then we’ve been discussing how to develop an equal attitude toward others when we are actually helping them, with which we don’t consider some as close and welcome them, and help them, and others as distant or far from us and we don’t help them. So that when we actually practice tonglen, this giving and taking practice, that we will be even-minded, tranquil, and also be willing to take on the problems of everybody equally, without regarding some as close and some as distant.
In developing this equal attitude without feelings of close or far, we have been speaking about the nine points of view to think about. From a relative point of view, from our own point of view, we started with, “Everybody has been kind to us as our mother. It’s just a matter of when they were our mother.” If we haven’t seen our mother in ten minutes or ten years, they’re still our mothers. So even if we haven’t seen them in ten lives, they’re still our mothers.
The second point was that, although sometimes others may have harmed us, if we look in the long range, in terms of beginningless rebirth, they’ve given us more help than harm. Then, thirdly, we think about death and impermanence: if we were going to die tomorrow, it would be pointless to spend our last day hurting somebody. Similarly, others could die at any time, so it’s pointless to try to hurt them as well. Everybody is equal in facing death at any time.
Then three points from the perspective of others, or considering others, and the first is that everybody equally wants to be happy and doesn’t want to be unhappy. Secondly, everybody is equal in having the need and the right to be happy – like the example of ten school children who all equally would like milk and cookies – and thirdly, that all are equal in having the same need and right to be free from their suffering. We have the example of ten sick people and we’re a doctor. It wouldn’t be appropriate to just treat the ones that we like and the others to say, “Sorry, I’m too tired,” or “I don’t like what you look like.”
Now we’re up to the three points from the viewpoint of the deepest level, and the first of these is that somebody who helps us, or who is nice to us, we label as being close and dear, and somebody who hurts us, we label as an enemy. These are only mental labels and out of our confusion, we think that they truly exist in these categories of friend and enemy, or close and far. But that’s not true. If it were true, Buddha would have seen others in this way, but Buddha didn’t see others like that.
As the great Indian master Dharmakirti wrote in his text on valid ways of knowing, the Buddha is the same toward someone who is massaging him on one side with perfume oil and the person on the other side who’s chopping him with a sword. We can see this also from the example of how Buddha treated his cousin Devadatta, who was always trying to harm him. He had equal concern for him as he had for his own son. So it’s important not to grasp as true the appearance that our mind makes out of confusion: that this one is friend, this one is enemy, this one is close, this one is far.
Now, we don’t have so much time left this afternoon to get through the rest of the material, so we will skip doing the meditation on each point, otherwise we won’t get through the sequence. If we have time to do meditation, we’ll do that with the actual tonglen practice.
The second point here is that, if beings really existed truly in these categories of friend and enemy, close and far, the way that we grasp them to be, they’d always have to stay and remain in that category. In other words, they always would have to be a friend, no matter what they did. They’d always have to be an enemy, no matter what they did. We could never become close to anybody that we didn’t know, that we considered far – and that obviously is not the case.
Remember the teachings on samsara, there’s no certainty in samsara. Our positions relative to each other are changing all the time. We see how marriages – we love somebody and then it ends in a divorce, we hate them. Very common, isn’t it? We can see this with countries, one period of their history they are friends and allies, other periods they are enemies and fighting a war against each other. The status is always changing. This helps us to have this equal attitude toward everyone, not to consider them as close or far, not to have this partiality or favoritism.
The third point is that the positions of close or far are relative to each other and everything depends on the point of view. If there are two mountains facing each other, if we’re on this mountain, then we consider this the near mountain and the other one far. But if we go over to the other side, that one becomes the near mountain and the one that we were on before becomes the far mountain. One person can be someone’s friend, but they can also be somebody else’s enemy. Everything is relative to the point of view. If somebody were truly a terrible person, then everybody should consider them a terrible person, including their marriage partner, including their dog.
Everything is relative and that also helps us to not categorize people solidly as being someone close to me or someone that I have no relationship with, that’s far from me. These are the nine points that help us to gain this equal attitude toward everyone when we’re actually helping them, so to get rid of favoritism. But, as I mentioned before, although we want to get free of favoritism and be willing to help everybody, nevertheless we do have to make choices in terms of how we use our time. So we have to use various criteria for choosing who we are actually going to work to help.
Now, of course, we can help in not such a personal way, in which for instance, you write a book, or you build a stupa, or you make a Dharma website. And that we’re not actually aiming at helping this particular person or that particular person, it just is open to helping everybody. That, of course, is quite good. But also we can’t deny that when we have personal contact with somebody and personally help them, that this has a greater strength in terms of inspiration. And so in the case of actually helping beings personally, then we have to look at whether or not they are receptive to our help – whether they want our help in the first place, and need our help, and whether they’re receptive to it.
Of course, it’s always best if they ask us for our help, but in certain cases we can offer our help, when it is obvious that they could benefit from it and they’re open to it. But even if they ask for our help, we need to also examine – let’s say, if we’re going to help them in terms of teaching them Dharma, that they’re actually going to practice what we teach them, and they not just want to know something out of curiosity, or out of some other type of disturbing emotion, just sort of pride, “Oh, I’m so good. I want to hear it, but I don’t want to practice it.”
Also we see in terms of how much help the other person will be able to give to others on the basis of the help that we give to them – like His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches the great lamas, because they then are able to teach their disciples, rather than His Holiness teaching on the lowest level. So helping somebody to become a doctor, as opposed to helping somebody become a slaughterer of animals.
Also we need to pay attention to ourselves as well in terms of choosing whom we’re going to help, in terms of our own availability of time and health and so on. I’ve asked some great lamas this question about how we decide whom to help, given the fact that we can’t multiply in a thousand forms. And one of the answers was also that we have to accept that we’re still samsaric beings, and so one of the factors – not the main factor, but one of the factors – that we can also consider is how we also benefit, in a sense, from teaching this one or that one.
I’m not talking about the money that we get or something like that, but there are some people that when we help, we gain a great deal of energy and inspiration, whereas other people when we help, they just drain us of all our energy. Since we are samsaric beings and we don’t have an infinite store of energy and inspiration, this is also legitimate to take into consideration – although obviously it’s not an absolute equal attitude toward everyone, but we are after all samsaric beings.
What is always important with these attitudes here is to remember that it’s a state of mind. Like for instance the way that Shantideva describes generosity. Generosity is the willingness to give; it’s not the actual act of giving, because if it were, then a poor person could never develop generosity. So here we’re talking about the willingness to help everybody equally, without considering some close or far, and then obviously we offer prayers and so on to be able to help everybody equally.
Based on this meditation, then we come to five decisions. The first one is that regardless of which point of view of these nine points of view we look, there’s absolutely no reason for considering some beings as close and others as far or distant from us, no matter how much harm or help anybody gives us. This is the decision that, “I’m going to, for my part, have an equal response, and want to benefit them all equally.” We make a firm decision to have this equal attitude.
As my teacher Serkong Rinpoche said, you make the firm decision that, “I’m going to develop this equal attitude,” like when you see a lovely item in a store and you make the firm decision “I’m going to buy it,” “I’m going to get it,” and then you do it. And so we make that definite decision, “I’m going to equalize my attitude toward everyone.”
Now we start to look in terms of what prevents us from really being willing to help others. What prevents us is what is known as the self-cherishing attitude. This is the one in which we are only concerned about ourself and about our own welfare, and we don’t care about anybody else. What we do here is think of the disadvantages of having this self-centered or self-cherishing attitude. Because of thinking just of ourselves, we act destructively and that causes suffering.
For instance, the mosquito is annoying us and so we kill it. This just builds up the habit that anything that annoys us, the solution is to kill it, destroy it. And that produces a tremendous amount of suffering, paranoia and so on – we’re thinking just of me. So if a merchant suffers so much, or a rich person suffers so much, when they are robbed, why? Because they’re just thinking of themselves, “Me, my money, my prosperity.” As Milarepa said in his cave, “I have nothing that could be stolen, so I’m not worried. Why should I be bothered if a thief comes?”
All the way from hellish rebirths – coming from this acting destructively, thinking of myself – or just the problems that an arhat might have of not being able to help everybody because they’re concerned with their own liberation, all of these come from the self-cherishing attitude. If we look at fights between countries, fights among friends, within a family, where does all of that come from? It comes from thinking that, “I’m right. My position is right and yours is wrong.” So it’s self-cherishing, “I want to get my way.”
Somebody points out something and criticizes us, and then we get all upset, and we become defensive, and we start arguing with them; it becomes very, very nasty. Why? Because of self-cherishing. If we just said, “Well, thank you very much for pointing that out. That’s very helpful,” then the whole thing is finished. The best way to end an argument is to agree with the other person, especially if they’re not going to listen to anything we say anyway – a very important piece of advice, actually.
Then the decision that we come to, this second decision thinking like this, is that, “I’m definitely going to stop coming under the influence of this self-cherishing attitude. A public official who only works for their own sake and doesn’t care about the public that he or she is serving – everybody dislikes that person. So the same thing in terms of ourself: if we are always selfish, always trying to get our own way, no one is going to like us. “So I’m definitely going to try to overcome this, this is my biggest enemy, my selfishness, my self-cherishing attitude.”
This is, of course, not so easy, because we think that by being selfish and taking care of ourselves as Number One, as we would say in the United States, that we’re going to become happier, because we have to take care of ourselves. But actually it’s just the opposite. Kunu Lama Rinpoche – the great bodhisattva and teacher of His Holiness the Dalai Lama – used to use an example. He said, “Imagine yourself in a crowd of people pushing with your elbows to get ahead and be the first one, to get the best seat for example. And then stand back and be an observer to this situation, see this one person pushing with an elbow toward everybody – and everybody else, and objectively, who would you favor in this situation? This one person that’s pushing everybody else, or everybody else in the crowd? It’s quite clear that nobody likes somebody who is selfish.” That’s the second decision, “I’m definitely going to get rid of this – it’s like a festering infection inside me – this self-cherishing attitude.” And we request our gurus, teachers, the great masters to inspire us, to give us the help, the strength to be able to do this.
The third point, the third decision, is to think about the benefits and good qualities that follow from cherishing others. We think of how all happiness comes from being concerned with others. For instance, refraining from killing and so on brings us long life, taking care of others helps to bring about better rebirths. If there’s an official who takes care of people, people like this official; whereas if the official doesn’t help anyone and just tries to get a lot of money for himself, everybody hates him.
And if we think of the various good qualities that someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama has, this comes from thinking of others. Why does he have such a huge influence, a positive influence on others? It’s because he thinks of others’ welfare. So likewise, if we want to become enlightened, gain all the qualities of a Buddha, that’s only going to come from helping others all along the way. The more that we help others, the more qualities we gain to be able to help them further.
If we are lonely and depressed, what’s the best medicine to get out of that is to take care of someone else. Do something for someone else, even if it’s just having a dog or a cat and taking care of the dog and cat and feeding it and so on – the best medicine – rather than just sit and feel sorry for yourself. If you sit by yourself and feel sorry for yourself, you’re just thinking of, “Me, me, me, poor me.” Thinking of somebody else, including a pet animal, gets us out of that and brings us more happiness – it’s very true. So then we make this third decision, which is that from thinking of the benefits of the attitude of cherishing others, then, “I’m definitely going to try to develop that.”
These two steps here – thinking of the disadvantages of self-cherishing and the advantages of cherishing others – are what are preliminary for developing what’s called “the exchanging of self with others.” It comes from Shantideva’s teachings. This exchange of self with others means that what we’re going to do is change our attitudes, exchange our attitudes. It doesn’t mean that, “Now I’m you,” but we exchange our attitudes so, “Instead of thinking only of me and ignoring you, I’m going to think of you as I would of myself, and be concerned about the others, rather than about me.”
The fourth point concerns the doubt that arises, “Well, can I really change my attitude from one of self-cherishing to cherishing others?” And we definitely can. We can, first of all, think of the example of Buddha. Buddha was not always a Buddha; Buddha started out the same way as we are now. And the Buddha was able to change his attitude and think of others, rather than his own selfish concerns, and look what he was able to achieve. Look at ourselves and see what we’ve achieved with our selfish attitude. And so if Buddha was able to do it on the basis of Buddha-nature, so can we; we all have Buddha-nature equally. We are capable of changing.
And we definitely are capable of taking care of somebody else’s body with the same concern as we would take care of our own bodies, because, if you think about it, this body now comes from the sperm and egg of people different from ourselves. It doesn’t come from our own sperm and egg, and yet we take care of it as if it were our own body. It’s actually a piece of our parents’ body, and we are perfectly capable of taking care of it, in fact we consider it mine. So like that, why can’t we take equal care and concern about a body that comes from anybody else’s sperm and egg?
It’s very interesting to observe how we are quite able to wipe the running nose of our own child with our finger, and yet we wouldn’t be so keen to wipe the nose of a drunk lying on the street. What’s the difference? A running nose is a running nose. There is this lovely saying, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, one of my teachers, used, which was, “If it’s my lover’s cup, it’s clean; if it’s the cleaning lady’s cup, it’s dirty.” We are quite willing to drink from the cup of our lover, but not the cup of the garbage man or somebody we consider not close to us. So what’s the difference? If we can change our attitude with some people, we can change it with everybody. Like this, we make the fourth decision, which is that, “This change in my attitude is definitely possible.” We decide that, “I definitely can change my attitude. It is possible.”
Then we come to the fifth point, the fifth decision, and here, basically we do a review. We go through the faults of self-cherishing and the benefits of cherishing others in an alternating fashion. This is done in terms of the ten destructive actions and the ten constructive actions. We think in terms of how the effect is similar to the cause, so if we shorten others’ lives, or kill them, that to take their lives – which is basically because of self-cherishing, thinking of me, “I want to get rid of them” – then our own life is short. Whereas if we save the lives of others, or do things to help strengthen their life – we’re just thinking in terms of others – this results in ourselves having a healthier and longer life.
It may not happen in this lifetime, but at least in future lifetimes. So we go through all ten of these actions like that: stealing – we steal because we’re thinking just of me – results in being poor. If on the other hand we refrain from stealing and we give generously to others, that results in having wealth and various facilities to be able to do things for others – that comes from cherishing others. If we’re unfaithful to our partner and have extramarital affairs, then our own marriages will be difficult, whereas if we are faithful, loving to our own partner and refrain from having affairs, our relations with the partner will be harmonious and happy. One comes from cherishing just ourselves, the other from cherishing others. We can go like this through all ten.
We can also think in a more general way: from feeling hatred toward others we get enemies; from feeling love toward others we have friends; if we have attachment to others, then we have these sticky type of relations, in which other people cling to us as well – that comes from thinking of me. If we have relations that are free of attachment and clinging, then likewise we will experience people not having this unreasonable clinging to us, and be much happier. So at the end of this fifth point, we make the decision, “So then I’m definitely – having compared back and forth the results of self-cherishing and cherishing others – I definitely am going to change my attitude and exchange my concern from self-cherishing to cherishing others.”
It’s only on the basis of exchanging our attitude about self and others that we can practice tonglen, giving and taking, in which we – because of our concern for others, and not being concerned only about ourselves – we are willing to take on the problems of others and give them our happiness. So we can see that there are many, many steps that are necessary to go through to be able to develop ourselves, or our attitude, to the point where we really are serious about doing tonglen, and we’re not just doing it on a very superficial level without it really meaning terribly much. Because otherwise we’re just playing with tonglen like a little child playing with a damaru. We’re playing like children; we don’t really mean it, because we don’t really want to feel other people’s suffering.
Do you have any questions relevant to these five points? It’s not an easy topic to work on our selfishness; it’s something that many of us, particularly as Dharma practitioners, are not willing to admit how strong it is.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, if as samsaric beings we have selfishness anyway, we might as well have intelligent selfishness. Intelligent selfishness is being concerned about ourselves, then going for Dharma teachings and doing whatever we can to gain these opportunities, even if we’re doing that in terms of thinking of benefit for ourselves. Even if we think in terms of helping others in order to benefit ourselves – like for instance in the graded stages of motivation, the initial level, that we do things to help others, we do positive things in order to get a precious human life in our future lives – that’s intelligent self-interest.
Question: Is it a kind of selfishness to help others because I want to have a better life in the future?
Answer: Yes, it is a form of selfishness that we help others in order to get a better life, or we help others, as many people do, to feel needed. Especially parents with grown-up children still insist that they help them, even if the children don’t want any help, because it makes them feel needed and wanted; or working in a hospital as a retired person as a volunteer because it makes you feel needed and wanted – this is better than doing nothing. If your children don’t need your help and don’t want your help, of course it’s best not to force your help on them, but to use that wish to feel needed and wanted to help others who actually do need your help.
After all, there’s no reason why we can’t help somebody else with as much enthusiasm as we would help our own child. Unless we’re a liberated being, as His Holiness always explains, our motivation is never going to be a hundred percent pure. So don’t whip yourself for the fact that your motivation is mixed with some selfish concern. Of course it’s going to be mixed with selfish concern, but we try to minimize it. His Holiness always emphasizes not to be a fanatic, to be realistic about what is the samsaric situation that we’re in and to try to make the best of it.
Question: Is it possible to help somebody – one really sees that they need help bitterly, but the person surely gives the sign of not wanting any help – is it then possible to help them?
Answer: If the person really refuses our help, then we certainly can’t push it on them. But often there are indirect ways in which we can help somebody without directly doing anything, but one has to think very carefully. It’s like for instance, somebody needs help in walking, but they refuse to be held, but you can clear the way, so that they won’t stumble.
Question: There was a sad incident in Nuremberg last weekend – it was in the newspaper – that an old couple froze to death in their own house. But in front of the house was a big wooden pile, but they were unable to get some of the wood inside to light a fire. Nobody knows what happened, actually, so maybe that was due to nobody knowing that they needed help so badly, because they didn’t have any contact to anybody else.
Answer: This is of course very unfortunate, but if we do know about a situation like that, we can offer our help. Of course, there are always very difficult situations.
There are people who have elderly parents who absolutely refuse our help as their children and want to be independent and are very, very stubborn about that. This is not an easy situation. And it’s important the way that we offer help in this type of situation. If as the child we yell at the parent, “Don’t be so stupid; don’t be so foolish,” like that, well, if we have this angry attitude toward them – of course, what do you expect? They’re going to be even more stubborn and more angry back at us.
That’s not the way. But if we approach it in a more loving way and we say, “I have such love and concern for you, and I’m really worried. It’s difficult for you to go to the store to buy food and it’s difficult for you to carry it home. What can we do to solve this situation?” And you approach it like a family, with a loving attitude, rather than the boss that’s trying to control the parent, this often brings much better results.
Question: Referring to the old couple: even if there were thousands of chainsaws and other things, nobody would be offering them help, because of missing contact.
Answer: This again leads to taking responsibility for the people around; to pay attention if there’s an elderly person, or a sick person, or a crippled person, or somebody like that living... and we know they live near us, to pay attention to them, to ask, do they need anything? My mother was like that. My mother was an incredible woman. She lived in a retirement village, and she always went, every day, to the neighbors nearby who couldn’t come out of their house, who were sick or something, and she would go and bring their mail to them every day, as a reason to visit them every day and then always asked, to check on them, “How are you doing? Do you need anything?”
This is the type of attitude to develop – take responsibility – and she did it in a very light type of way, because the mailboxes for everybody were outside, and so she would come and knock on the door, “The mailman is here.” Like that, so it makes it very light, because people, particularly older people, need to preserve their dignity and not feel that they’re receiving pity. And so by saying in a very light way, “The mailman is here,” like that, it was very friendly, it wasn’t threatening.
Question: Another case from the newspaper, where it mentioned the death of a nine year-old child in Hamburg, who died in a flat because her mother didn’t care for her, and then afterwards, of course, there was a big fuss in the newspaper about this case.
Answer: Right. This is what we’re trying to work on here, is to develop the attitude with which we change our concern, not just be concerned about ourselves, but be concerned about children like this, or the old couple like this, the same as we would be concerned about ourselves – develop that attitude, then, with skillful means, we can help others. This is the tonglen practice: we take on their problem as if it were my own problem, “I’m old,” and, “I can’t bring the wood inside” – as if it were our own problem – and then we give them the solution, we help them with it – tonglen.
So let’s have our tea pause and then we’ll actually get to the tonglen practice itself.
On the basis of having made these five decisions and ending with that we are definitely going to exchange our attitudes about self and others, now we’re ready to do the tonglen practice. “Tonglen” (gtong-len) means “giving and taking,” but actually the way that it’s practiced is the other way around: taking on the suffering of others, accepting it, and giving them happiness, or the solution to their problems, whatever they might need. If someone is in great pain, we can give them a very delicious meal, they might not enjoy it. So we need to first take away the pain, before then we can give them happiness.
We practice this in conjunction with the attitude of compassion and love. Compassion is the wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering – it takes a certain amount of responsibility to do that – and so with that we take on the sufferings from others, removing it from them. And love is the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness, and with that then we give to them a solution to their problems and happiness. We do this together with the breathing process, when we breathe in we imagine that we remove the suffering from them and take it on ourselves, and when we breathe out we imagine that we give them the happiness that they wish.
It can be combined with words, specifically things like the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM while we’re doing this, the mantra of Chenrezig, an exercise in compassion. When we do this practice, as I said, we have to be perfectly willing to experience the suffering of somebody else. We accept their suffering as if it were our own suffering and this is the exchange of self for others. And it’s not sufficient to just sit nicely in your meditation room and imagine you take their suffering and you give them happiness, but you don’t actually do anything about it outside of your meditation room.
But if we really can feel the other person’s pain – let’s say if they are unemployed, and they really have a problem in terms of living and so on, and they’re very depressed and so on – if we can actually feel, empathetically feel their pain, as if it were our own pain, and then take it seriously, “Well, what would I do if I were out of work with the same qualifications of this other person?” Then you actually think, what would be a solution – how to go about finding work, or dealing with this situation – and you give it to the other person.
So you try to do it in a very practical way, not just this vague, “I take your suffering and I give you happiness.” Take their problem seriously, as if it were your own. You really have to feel the pain of the other person to take it seriously, how difficult it is for them. But it is important, as we mentioned in the beginning of this course, to not just let that suffering and pain sit inside you and just get bigger and bigger like the martyr, because eventually you’re going to crack.
What we’re doing here is, when we take on the suffering of others, we imagine it in a visual form, a graphic form, so we represent it with various visualizations, and when we give them happiness, we also imagine that in various visualizations. One way, a very simple-minded way of doing it, is that the suffering comes in, you experience it, and then in your heart it sort of goes down the drain like in the bathtub and is finished. This is just an example of a visualization that we can use to represent our understanding of voidness, with which we dissolve any type of projection or feeling of solidity to this suffering that makes it into some sort of monster.
We can also do this in connection with mahamudra practice, that we bring this suffering inside, we feel it – there’s so many different ways of doing mahamudra – we can see that this is like a wave on the ocean of the nature of the mind and so on, and let the mind settle. We see that the experience of it is in the nature of the mind, both conventional and deepest nature of the mind, and then, on the basis of recognizing the natural qualities of the mind in terms of mahamudra, we are able to tap into the basic blissful nature of the mind. This blissful nature of the mind is then something that we can use as the basis for sending out happiness to others.
Otherwise it’s very, very difficult; you take in, and then you feel the pain like that, and then just instantly, “OK, I’m so happy, and I send out happiness to others.” That’s quite, quite difficult to do without being just absolutely weird. But if we think in terms of the nature of the mind with mahamudra meditation, then the whole thing makes sense.
What I’m trying to do is not to frighten you about tonglen meditation, but to show that we need to actually respect this meditation for what it is and not trivialize it, because many, many people trivialize it and then they never go any further. It’s something that we need to approach slowly, in stages, seeing the great value of it, but understanding it for what it actually is.
When we imagine that we take on the sufferings of others, then there is a great deal of resistance that is going to come up from our self-cherishing attitude, and we are basically afraid to feel this suffering, and we do not want to get involved. Most of us don’t even want to accept and feel our own suffering, and we put up walls and deny it. We don’t want to face our own problems, so we distract ourselves with entertainment, or alcohol, or whatever. What we’re trying to develop here is on the one hand to smash this resistance of the self-cherishing attitude and on the other hand to develop the tremendous courage of a bodhisattva to really take on difficulties.
Now, there are various steps to the visualization. The simplest step, the one that’s done for beginners, is simply, when we imagine we take on the sufferings of others, it comes in the form of black light and comes in through our right nostril – although, of course, light can’t be black, but Tibetans aren’t worried about that, light by definition is not black – it comes in our right nostril, and it goes down to our heart, and it dissolves in the heart, and then when we breathe out, we breathe out white light. This represents the suffering and the happiness.
When we breathe out, we could imagine not just white light, but we can imagine whatever it is that the other person might need – a job, a house, friends, love whatever – we represent it in some sort of form. And, as it says in the Seven-Point Lojong (mind-training, attitude-training), we start with ourselves, so we start taking on our own problems. “I’m lonely,” and so on, “Well, what do you want?” You take away that loneliness, “I want to be loved,” so you give love back to yourself.
[See: Seven-Point Attitude-Training.]
So we can work on that beginner level with different-colored light, or in the light, imagine – especially when we’re giving to others – we give what it is that they might need. But also we can work on much deeper levels with much stronger visualizations and there are many variants, variations on how to do this, not just one way. We can imagine that we’re taking the problems away from the beings of the six realms for example, but I think that most people find this too vague to really make very much of an impression. It is far more powerful to actually do this with people that we know personally who are having problems. Then it becomes much more real.
We can think, with an individual person, in various rounds to take away the actual problem – let’s say they are hungry or they’re without a job. That’s one level that we can think of, but we can also work in terms of taking away from them the causes of their suffering, and so we think in terms of the disturbing emotions, the confusion and so on, we take that away from them. And let’s say they’re very sleepy, or they’re very naive, or they’re very angry, or attached, or whatever – it doesn’t mean that we sit there and now we really want to cultivate very strongly being stupid or confused. But it’s important to appreciate the problem of that, to feel how horrible that actually is, how disturbing that is, before we dissolve it.
Then we want to go more deeply and take away the tendency to get angry, and then the much deeper habit that produces it. So we can work on many, many levels and each of these would be represented by a different type of visualization. And because there are so many variants, I think it really doesn’t matter how we correlate the visualization with what we’re taking away, that’s not so much the point. What is important are the stages of heaviness of the visualization, regardless of what each stage represents. They could all be representing the same thing that we take away from somebody.
The most effective, strong, super-Real-Thing Dharma version of this is what His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches, so this is what I always prefer – no Dharma-Lite version. And so we start with imagining that the suffering – or the disturbing emotion, or whatever it is that we take from the other one – comes into us in the form of dirty substances – oil, grime, grease, ink, all of these things that would make us dirty. These practices are not for the light-hearted, because what you want to do is really fight, smash, punch in the face, as it would be, that selfish me inside that says, “I don’t want to get dirty; I don’t want to get my hands dirty; I don’t want to deal with your messy problem.”
And so resistance comes up when you imagine these dirty, filthy things coming into you, that, “I don’t want this.” That’s what you have to fight, the self-cherishing that’s there that says, “No, I don’t want this.” It all comes into your heart, inside you, and then of course you dissolve it, as we were saying, with mahamudra. Now, there’s many, many levels on which this practice is working, and this is a very important one to smash that self-cherishing, that “I will accept this. Resistance is futile.”
So that’s the first level. The second level is that – when we’re able to do that – then we imagine that the problems – or the tendencies, or whatever it is, however you want to correlate it – come into us in the form of urine, feces, mucus, vomit, these type of things. Because for that, we usually put on much more resistance, that, “I really don’t want to get my hands dirty with that. I don’t want to touch it.”
And when we’re able to deal with that, then the next level is to imagine whatever it is that you’re the most frightened of coming into you, whether it’s spiders, snakes, scorpions, rats – whatever it might be – wild animals, thugs in the street that beat you up and rob you and rape you. Whatever it might be that you’re the most afraid of, you imagine that it comes in in that form. This is really a very strong medicine for how to really smash this self-cherishing and this fear and resistance that we have to actually deal with the sufferings of others and to develop the courage of a bodhisattva. “No matter how horrible the problems are, I’m going to deal with it as if it were my own problem.”
This is a very deep practice, not something which is simple, not something to be trivialized. It’s very easy to trivialize, “Ah, black light comes in, white light goes out. How nice,” while we’re sitting here, nice and clean in our meditation room and feel nothing. That doesn’t go very far in terms of developing our bodhisattva qualities. So, this is the way that it is actually done on The Real Thing Dharma level. Any questions?
Question: Where can we buy the courage of the bodhisattva?
Answer: Well, the courage of the bodhisattva, where can we buy it? It’s not something that we can buy, it’s something that we can try to develop, but it’s not something you can develop so easily, so quickly. It requires a great deal of work. It’s like saying, “Well, given the reality of the situation in Iraq, now what do we do?” Do I just forget about it? Or if I’m really a bodhisattva, I try to think in terms of huge amount of causes and circumstances and situations and so on and try to actually find some solution – if we’re in the position to be able to do that. And it is messy, absolutely messy, and it doesn’t help to complain about the situation, we have to accept the reality, “This is what’s happening.”
This is what is very strong here in this tonglen practice: you are accepting the reality of the situation and dealing with it. So an important part of the practice is to accept the conventional reality of the suffering that either we have or that somebody else has. It doesn’t help to complain. We can see this in our regular practice, in daily life. If something bad, so-called “bad,” if something difficult happens – the plane is cancelled, or you didn’t get what you wanted and so on, or some big problem has arisen – what is your instant response?
Somebody says they can’t come. We were expecting them, we had prepared all day. Do we say, “Oh,...” and the word that follows from that, and complain and really feel bad about it, or do we instantly accept it and say, “OK, now what do we do? Now what do I do? This is the reality. I accept it instantly and now how do I deal with it?” This is what we need to develop. You are at the doctor, and the doctor says you have this sickness, or that sickness. Instantly, not feeling sorry for oneself, “OK, I accept this. Now, what do I do?” We take it on ourselves, we accept it, there’s no fear and so on. It’s just suffering, nothing more. There’s nothing to be afraid of. You take it, it’s just a sensation, just a feeling, and then we give – in this situation – peace of mind, clarity of mind to be able to go on and see, “OK, I have cancer and now what do I do, what’s the next step?”
I always think of people like His Holiness the Dalai Lama – a great example – when he heard that his mother had died, and he was teaching in Bodh Gaya at the time, I was there. And then he received the news, and he just announced it to the whole crowd that was there and said, “OK, that’s all for the next ten/fifteen minutes, everybody say OM MANI PADME HUM.” Rather than crying, rather than getting upset, accept it, “OK, this has happened, and now we do this.” And the same thing with receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Just, “OK,” you go on, what are you going to do now? Now what comes?
So, let’s try this practice – there’s no need to do it on the more challenging levels of visualization We start slowly, start with the level of black light and white light, but try to actually feel the problem of the other person without being afraid. Visualize black light coming in the right nostril, the white light out the left.
I teach this in the sensitivity training as one of the more advanced practices and this is in the context of overcoming blocks with our feelings. This is a very relevant issue when it comes to tonglen. If we have a block with our feelings, which so many people have, then you’re not going to feel anything when doing this practice, and a block in feelings is usually based on a fear of feelings.
And so how I train people is, first do it yourself: tickle your palm, and scratch your palm really hard, and just hold your hand. These three feelings, one is pain – and scratch it hard, so it hurts – tickle it, so it’s pleasure, and just hold your hand, which is neutral. What’s the difference? They’re just sensations, there’s nothing more, just a sensation. Then, more challenging is having somebody else scratch your hand or tickle it or hold your hand. But why not do that with your own palm? What’s the difference? It’s just a sensation, it’s no big deal.
As the young Serkong Rinpoche, the incarnation of my teacher, always says about almost everything, “Nothing special.” That’s the nickname that I’ve given him, the “Nothing Special Rinpoche.” There was nothing special in America during his sightseeing tour, and with the sensation there’s nothing special, it’s just a sensation, what’s the big deal? So let’s start that. Please scratch your hand hard, tickle it – whichever order you want to do it in, it doesn’t matter – hold your hand, and you do feel something. And then the same thing is going to be true in terms of mental happiness, mental pain, and neutral. They’re the same. So, please do it for a moment.
So is there anything special about one or the other? It’s just a sensation, there’s nothing more. By the way, that’s very helpful when you bang your foot in the dark against a table. It hurts, and so what? What else is new? It’s no big deal; you accept it and go on. So on that basis, as I say, seeing that it’s the same thing with mental happiness or mental pain – it’s just a sensation, it’s just a feeling; there’s nothing to be afraid of. Happiness, unhappiness, sadness – OK, it’s there, it’s experience, we can have a preference, certainly, but there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Now we can do this tonglen practice with somebody that we actually know who has a problem, not just some theoretical sentient being. Imagine taking it on – we can use just the black-light image – feeling it, dissolving it with the contact with the natural happiness of the mind, sending out happiness and a solution to them with white light. Although it sounds in the texts as though with each in-breath you breathe in the problem, and each out-breath you give them the solution, that is a little bit too fast to actually feel anything. And so what is far more practical is to spend one period of time just taking in and actually feeling it, and then dissolving, and then giving, otherwise there’s no time to feel anything.
And then, when we are more familiar with the process and more accustomed to it, then we can do alternating with each in-breath and out-breath. But that takes a while before you can actually do it like that; it’s not what you do in the very first stages of practicing this. Let’s try this for a few minutes. Naturally, when we’re taking a longer time to remove the problem, you don’t just breathe in, obviously you breathe out. Don’t think of it like we’re blowing up a balloon, and putting in more and more suffering, and then we let it go, and all the air comes out, it’s not quite like that. And remember – taking seriously the other person’s problem as if it were our own – that’s the exchange of self and others.
It would be nice to, of course, to be able to practice this longer, but unfortunately I have to make an airplane, so we don’t have so much time, but this is a little bit of a taste of the practice of tonglen. The steps that follow that is that we want not just to help them overcome the specific problem that they have now, but we take the universal responsibility, the exceptional resolve, that, “I’m going to help them and lead them all the way to enlightenment.” And then bodhichitta: we see that the only way that we can really do this most effectively is if we ourselves become a Buddha. So we aim for our own future enlightenment with the intention to attain it in order to benefit everyone.
So, those are the teachings as I received them from my teacher Serkong Rinpoche, which is on the basis of the collected works of one of his teachers, another teacher of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Trijang Rinpoche, in his commentaries on the Lama Chopa (Bla-ma mchod-pa, The Guru Puja), as it is in the Gelug tradition from the first Panchen Lama on the model of the Drigung Lama Chopa, which came earlier, what you have in the Drigung tradition, where they also have the Guru Puja. This is the source of this method of explaining.
Let’s end with the dedication prayers. May whatever positive force and understanding that has come from this act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.
Join us in trying to benefit others.
Support our work!
This website relies completely on donations. Its maintenance, preparation of the remaining 70% of our planned material, and further translating is costly. Although we currently have 80 volunteers, 23 essential team members require payment. Help us raise the 100,000 euros (US $150,000) required each year
to continue providing our website free of charge.
Reaching Our Goal (35%)