Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Tonglen, "using what seems like poison as medicine"

I heard the Kopan monks chanting a particular verse in Tibetan during a puja in a particular and most melodious tune.  I did not think much of it, until the tune kept coming back to 'haunt' me, even in the middle of the night when I was sleeping. It got stuck in my head all the time that I started to wonder what that verse was. 

Then a week later, when I attended guru puja (jorcho and lama chopa)  the group chanted the exact tune again that I realised it is actually the verse on Tonglen, a meditation on taking and giving, exchanging oneself and others.


Lama Zopa Rinpoche said in a teaching that Tonglen is the most brave practice of bodhicitta. When we recite the above verse, and meditate on this,

"Whatever sufferings there are, may they ripen on me,
Whatever happiness I have, may it ripen on sentient beings."

He said we are collecting limitless skies of merit and it is an extremely powerful purification method and one becomes closer to enlightenment. 

I remember when Gyuto Khensur Rinpoche Sonam Pasang was here, someone asked him about Tonglen. The question was whether by practicing and meditating ourselves taking on the pain of others, for example, someone who is sick, would we also experience the same sickness ourselves and suffer as a consequence.  To this, Khensur Rinpoche replied, "if you think that way, then perhaps it would really happen to you!". I think he meant if we would like to engage in this practice, we should abandon our ego and sincerely unconditionally send positive vibes, healing energy to those who are suffering instead of thinking of "I" all the time. 

Venerable Pema Chodron gave a wonderful teaching on the practice of Tonglen as well. She said, "to care about other people who are fearful, angry, jealous, overpowered by addictions of all kinds, arrogant, proud, miserly, selfish, mean —you name it— to have compassion and to care for these people, means not to run from the pain of finding these things in ourselves. In fact, one's whole attitude toward pain can change. Instead of fending it off and hiding from it, one could open one's heart and allow oneself to feel that pain, feel it as something that will soften and purify us and make us far more loving and kind.

The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering —ours and that which is all around us— everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.

We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting and who we wish to help. For instance, if you know of a child who is being hurt, you breathe in the wish to take away all the pain and fear of that child. Then, as you breathe out, you send the child happiness, joy or whatever would relieve their pain. This is the core of the practice: breathing in other's pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness. However, we often cannot do this practice because we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain, our personal stuckness happens to be at that moment.  

People often say that this practice goes against the grain of how we usually hold ourselves together. Truthfully, this practice does go against the grain of wanting things on our own terms, of wanting it to work out for ourselves no matter what happens to the others. The practice dissolves the armor of self-protection we've tried so hard to create around ourselves. In Buddhist language one would say that it dissolves the fixation and clinging of ego.

Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure and, in the process, we become liberated from a very ancient prison of selfishness. We begin to feel love both for ourselves and others and also we begin to take care of ourselves and others. It awakens our compassion and it also introduces us to a far larger view of reality. It introduces us to the unlimited spaciousness that Buddhists call shunyata. By doing the practice, we begin to connect with the open dimension of our being. At first we experience this as things not being such a big deal or so solid as they seemed before.

Tonglen can be done for those who are ill, those who are dying or have just died, or for those that are in pain of any kind. 

Rather than beating yourself up, use your own stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world. Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.

I think Tonglen is such a beautiful practice, and the Universe has somehow hinted to me to do this practice. I think it came at an opportune time.

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