How the Tibetan practice of taking and giving teaches compassion
Does the idea of sitting across from a friend who has a serious disease and taking in as much of their suffering as you can scare you? What if it’s a total stranger? Do you think it would hurt or that you might somehow catch their disease and suffering? The Tibetan practice known as Tonglen asks us to take those risks gladly and to return their suffering as a clear stream of healing light.
As New Agey as this sounds, the practice is a great teacher of compassion, as we give up fear for our personal wellbeing and entirely focus on helping others. And it is completely harmless to the giver. You can’t ‘suck in’ another person’s pain and then feel it. But for those of us who live in the self-centered West, the risk is frightening. Yet this simple practice might show you a path to a more selfless life.
Taking and giving
The practice is simple, like any true meditation practice should be. The person you are helping does not even have to know you are doing anything. In fact they don’t need to be physically present when you practice it. And as my closing anecdote will show, this can be powerful stuff.
I first encountered Tonglen in Ani Tenzin Palmo*’s book Reflections In A Mountain Lake, which is a series of lectures on Buddhism that she delivered while touring to raise money for a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery she founded in northern India. Palmo was born in Britain in the nineteen-forties and discovered Buddhism is the late fifties when she was a teen. At the time, Western understanding of Buddhism was extremely limited, and hampered by many odd notions often cobbled together from myths and stories, many of which had no roots in Buddhism at all. But she saw the teachings as her calling and at 19 she moved to India to study under a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, eventually spending 12 years meditating in a cave in the Himalaya.
You’d think that experience would make a person crazy or that she may have been all along. But as the book shows, she is the opposite: extremely sane, compassionate, highly intelligent, and, in my view, a Bodhisattva, one wholly dedicated to compassion for others. The book is extremely pragmatic, in fact I would call it the exact opposite of the New Age mumbo-jumbo that dilutes the power of practice like Tonglen. So, how does it work?
You picture the person who is suffering sitting across from you. You imagine their suffering as a cloud of black smoke that you gather to you and suck into small dark pearl in your heart. When you have gathered it all, the pearl expands into a glowing light source and you funnel healing clear light back into the person. That’s the entire practice. Yes, it’s a visualization and like any other visualization, the more you can make it a visceral sensation that you can both see and feel, the more powerful it becomes, for you.
The screaming baby
I was both intrigued and skeptical about this practice, but Tenzin Palmo is so practical-minded that I assumed she wouldn’t get into telling us about it without a reason. I believe the overarching motivation is that this kind of act is a way of learning selflessness and overcoming fears of suffering in others. I thought I might try it when the opportunity presented itself. Very soon after it did.
I was riding on a very crowded city bus on a hot Saturday afternoon. The bus line ran to a public beach and the bus was jammed with families trying to get some relief from the heat. There were so many people trying to get on this bus that everyone was helping others out to make sure everyone could get on. People had stranger’s children sitting on their laps and those of us who were healthy or unencumbered were standing so others could sit. I was near the front of the bus where two rows of seats along the wall created space for wheelchairs and people with packages.
The bus stopped and a young woman with several bags of groceries and a small baby in her arms got on. There was barely any room by that point, but she was given a seat and others took her groceries to hold. The ride itself was a testament to helping others. Unfortunately for her (and us) the baby started crying, which then became piercing screaming. The mom looked exhausted as she tried to calm her child.
She was opposite me and I thought would try Tonglen with the baby. It certainly couldn’t make things worse! I focused on drawing the screams and crying into me and turning them into a flood of calming light aimed at the child. And the child stopped crying. I looked at the baby and it was smiling at me the way only a baby can. It was an incredibly powerful moment, in the most unlikely setting.
I don’t really know what happened on that bus other than what I‘ve described. The atmosphere of selfless helping was already in full force on the bus, so maybe I tapped into something. What I do know is that many of these techniques are ages old and have been refined by teachers and practitioners for hundreds of years. I believe this explains their simplicity, with ritual stripped away over time and just the essence of the practice left. Whatever you believe, I can only say it’s worth a try when you encounter suffering. It won’t hurt you and who knows, you might help someone.
*Tenzin Palmo, now Jetsunnma Tenzin Palmo, is the Abbess and founder of one of the first nunneries for girls in the Tibetan tradition, Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery. They have now graduated advanced teachers in a tradition that was almost completely male-dominated. Her books are some of the best books on Buddhist practices and thought for Westerners. Proceeds go to support her nunnery. Her story is a great read.