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What is Tonglen?

The Dalai Lama, a high lama of of Tibetan Buddhism.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
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  • Last Modified Date: 24 March 2014
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Tonglen is a meditative practice used in Tibetan forms of Buddhism. It is a practice that has been in existence for roughly 1000 years, and it is one form of meditation that is embraced by spiritual leaders like the Dali Lama. Tonglen means giving and taking (or giving and receiving), and its main idea is to take the negativity or suffering of others (or alternately yourself) while reaching out with your mind in a meditative state to give love, compassion, hope and strength to those suffering.

There are a number of Tonglen practices. One thing you can do, after calmly meditating for a while is to focus on the suffering of one person. Mentally, you remove that suffering from the person, and at the same time you send the person as much positivism, love, empathy and compassion as you can. Some criticize this practice, for what will happen if you receive the negativity of someone else?

Those who practice Tonglen say this need not be a worry. Christians may understand the practice as similar in nature to intercessory prayer, where you bear the burdens of someone else and offer them your strength. Moreover, you can practice Tonglen toward yourself, by looking at how your mind or soul suffers, receiving that suffering and then “playing Buddha” as described by some, in being able to lift that suffering and yourself out of a suffering posture.

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People who become skilled at meditating in this fashion may do more than focus on one person, or on their self. They may focus on the nature of all who suffer, and take in, as they breathe in, the suffering of the world. In exhaling, they breathe out peace, love, compassion, understanding and calmness, giving this gift of all that is best in their nature to the world.

Many believe that after mediation in this form, extraordinary peace of mind is achieved. If working on yourself, you commit to loving yourself and exhaling that love to surround you. Some find the work particularly powerful, evoking strong emotional reaction. Others simply feel cleansed by this work, which in Tibetan Buddhism also helps to create a person more other focused than self-obsessed.

Tonglen is also believed to promote good karma personally, and perhaps this karma can best be expressed as a feeling of peace and rightness with one’s self if the meditation is practiced regularly. Under these circumstances, though, no one owes you for taking on their suffering. They may be completely unaware that you have ever done so.

Another thought if you practice Tibetan Buddhism is that Tonglen helps with achieving renunciation from sorrow caused by desire of all sorts. These are areas with which people still struggle, and many claim this practice helps with shedding desire and moving to a place of joy and wisdom as a result.

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