I sort of stumbled upon Tonglen as a practice when I was reading a book by the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. My twelve-year-old son chose it from among the books at the Northshire, our local bookstore, and put it in my Christmas stocking last year. It's called Comfortable with Uncertainty, which is really relevant to me, as I suspect it is with most of humanity, because I have never really been "comfortable with uncertainty." This has to do, I know, with fear. So the second part of the title of Chodron's book is "108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion," and something that I learned in its pages is that both of these ways of being (compassionate and fearless) can be cultivated through Tonglen.
Tonglen is a meditative practice. The word Tonglen essentially means "sending-and-receiving," and it has to do with allowing ourselves to receive, or sit with, what is painful, grievous, or harmful in the world. Suffering exists. The Buddhist dukkha. Indeed. So to sit with it, with all of the emotions surrounding it, breathe it in, we connect with it...in ourselves and in others. Then sending, with the out-breath, we exhale, we send into our circle of compassion all that is healing, peaceful, and positive. When we start, we might be alone in our circle of compassion, but through the practice of Tonglen, that circle can grow...and grow...until it encompasses the whole world! The universe.
Tonglen is a way of cultivating fearlessness and also compassion in our lives. Often our first impulse is to move away from someone who has sustained an inconceivable loss. But the older I get, I find myself leaning in to these people. I find myself less fearful and less tentative. It has to do with being willing to receive what aches in them and knowing that my compassion, sent innocently and without judgment, sent simply with my intention, with my breath, is adequate. I don't need to "say (or even do) the right thing." I just need to be willing to share in their sadness, their loneliness, their grief. Compassion is always adequate. It is, in fact, what heals us. Not only does it connect me to others in an authentic way, but it cultivates in me a kind of courage I know I want.
I want to walk this Earth and connect with others fearlessly. By practicing Tonglen, we train ourselves to do this, and at the same time we remember our own compassion. We remember how to love without condition. We remember that what we have suffered and have seen suffered is nothing new--"There is nothing new under the sun," intones the philosopher in the Book of Ecclesiastes. There are new faces, new stories, new shapes of things, but the suffering and the pain are universal. They are ancient. But so is the love, so is compassion. Through the practice of Tonglen, we can open ourselves to these two fundamental truths and practice connecting with others and with the Divine that inhabits us all.
If you'd like to listen to a discussion I recently had with Reverend Paulette Pipe on the subject of Tonglen over the airwaves, just click on the link below. In the broadcast, we chat for about 15 minutes on the topic, and then I lead a guided Tonglen meditation, which is about 12 minutes long. Paulette's radio show, "Touching the Stillness," is a rare find and I am honored to have been her guest.
Radio Interview with the Reverend Paulette Pipe: "And Unwrapped Gift" on "Touching the Stillness"