Tonglen: Transforming Pain into Love


“Tonglen is the quickest way to enlightenment.”  His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Madison Wisconsin, June 2008


This is the seventh week of this series of meditation classes. Next week will be the final of this series. Much of my material, okay, all of my material is in reality borrowed wisdom. This week’s wisdom is borrowed from Lama Surya Das and his book: “Awakening the Buddha Within: Eight Steps to Enlightenment.” I highly recommend this and any of his books to further your practice of mind training and meditation.

I imagine that what the Dalai Lama says is true, that the quick path to enlightenment is through the practice of Tonglen. I believe this is so because it challenges our self-absorption. Instead of being all caught up in ourselves, the drama that infects us, or habitual responses to others, we practice Tonglen. What a sales pitch this is for taking on this practice and being fearless about it – enlightenment. Which for me means, freedom. Freedom from pain, assumptions, negative emotional states and all that can come from self-absorption. Wherever there is suffering, you will find self-absorption.

Tonglen literally is translated as “Sending and Taking.” This practice is central to the Mahayana path, the path of the Bodhisattva. I consider it an advanced practice and to be done with the intention of freeing oneself from the pain that results from self-grasping and to do it to benefit one self and all beings. It is not to be done to prove anything and is actually far more powerful if done nobly, without telling others you are practicing it. Grandstanding any of our spiritual practices undermines it and doesn’t result in the benefits of a more authentic, personal practice. Do this transformative work without letting others know.

As all the practices within the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, or any spiritual practice; it speaks to how we are in the world. Tonglen in particular speaks to how we give and receive.

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes . . . “  Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare

It is best to experience this practice as a means to train your mind and to cultivate a spaciousness of mind and heart. It is not about having a powerful spiritual experience. Instead it is about practicing an open heart and mind to self and others and therefore increasing our happiness and the well being of others. Such a practice brings happiness – for me this is far more meaningful, to be free of reactive states than to claim some profound spiritual encounter. Again this and other practices are about how we are in the world. Westernized spirituality tends to take the Tonglen practice too literally or to dramatize it somehow. Regard it as a mind transforming practice, rather than the “taking on” of negative stuff. In Tonglen you become the alchemist, the one who is able to transform pain to love. Wonderful! Amazing. Emaho! At the very least as you do Tonglen, you can’t be caught up in the negative state at the same time. This itself is transformative.

Tonglen increases your capacity for compassion, generosity and an open, spacious heart.

“Toglen is not taught with the idea that practioners should take on the diseases and become ill; it is taught as a way to open up and reverse our conditioned habits of clinging to desired outcomes and aversion to whatever is unwanted.”  Lama Surya Das, Awakening the Buddha Within

Tonglen Meditation: Exchanging Self for Others

Most important is to begin with one self. Practice opening up, and transforming your own negative, reactive states first.  The three stages of Tonglen are: 1. Flashing on Absolute Bodhichitta, 2. Following the breath, inhaling the negative/pain; breathing out the remedy/love. 3. Sitting for a few minutes in Relative Bodhichitta.


1.                     Flash on Absolute Bodhichitta. Bring to mind a time you felt complete and total acceptance. Expand this inward and outward. This first step is important so that you care practicing this in a state of love and acceptance.

2.                     Now begin to breathe in the pain (whatever flavor it may be) and breathe out the remedy. Breathe into your heart the pain, breathe out love. Have the breaths be even. Remain conscious of breathing in the pain; breathing out the remedy. Again begin with yourself. If you feel angry, breathe in the anger, breathe out compassion. At first do this for about five minutes as part of your meditation practice. Then as you feel more confident in it, do it ON THE SPOT, when you are involved in your daily activities. You can breathe in other’s pain and breathe out love or some other remedy. Or do it on the spot with a difficult emotion or state that you experience at any given time. And watch how this transforms your experience.

3.                     Then rest your mind for a few minutes in Relative Bodhichitta, sending love to the particular situation.

“It helps train us to be genuinely present with difficult situations, and to bring more enlightened principles into daily life.”  Lama Surya Das, Awakening the Buddha Within

Remember this coming Friday to come out to Thundering Clouds and visit the Labyrinth of the Three Jewels.










5 thoughts on “Tonglen: Transforming Pain into Love

  1. La combinación puede disminuir la presión arterial a niveles peligrosos. Las bajas concentraciones de testosterona, por ejemplo, pueden provocar impotencia. Consiste en dos cilindros que se colocan en el interior del cuerpo cavernoso.

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