Purelands Meditation Retreat Day 6 - October 2013
Tonglen practice is part of the Seven Points of Mind Training. The root text for this practice is The Great Path of Awakening with a commentary by Jamgon Kontrul. There are many different books on the Seven Points of Mind Training which is a Mahayana text about self mastery. I shall tell you what the seven points are.
The first point is the preliminaries or the 4 ordinary thoughts, which we have met already. The four thoughts are: appreciating one’s situation, recognising impermanence, being aware of cause and effect and being aware of general suffering, of dissatisfaction in the world and in ones own life. The preliminaries are the foundation for practice.
The second point is the practice of tonglen. Tonglen is the meditation and the seven points are known as Lojong. It is called Lojong Do Dun in Tibetan because do means point, dun means seven, lo is mind and jong is to train: translated as the seven points of mind training. So the text is Lojong, or Lojong Do Dun and tonglen is the practice of taking and sending. In Tibetan it actually says sending and taking: tong is to send and len is to take. The practice of tonglen is a training in bodhicitta, in loving kindness and compassion, that is the actual practice.
The third point is called transforming negative conditions into the path of awakening. The fourth point is called using the practice in one’s whole life, integrating the practice in every aspect of life. The fifth point is measuring the extent of proficiency in this mind training, the sixth is called commitments of mind training and the seventh is called the guidelines of mind training.
There are many books on mind training but the root text has been translated as The Great Path of Awakening with a commentary by Jamgon Kontrul a great master and very highly respected teacher in the 19 century. The teachings are on bodhicitta, which is defined as the mind that wants to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of others. But you could also say that it really means the union of loving kindness, compassion and wisdom. We all have the potential and ability to achieve all these qualities to a great level, to perfection really, but of course we need training. We have the potential, because we have Buddha nature. We have the seed. We all have some compassion, we all have some loving kindness, we all have some understanding, so the seed is there in all of us but it needs to be developed. We need to train. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of strong motivation but it is possible for anyone.
We need to practice with a recognition that bodhicitta is actually the only remedy for suffering. Loving kindness, compassion and wisdom are how we can overcome suffering, how we can benefit ourselves and others. The practice is based on a very short verse from Chekawa Yeshe Dorje who lived in the 11th or 12th century. He was a great spiritual master and he focused on teaching of the Seven Points of Mind Training. He wrote: Give all gain and success (this word is translated in different ways, sometimes as success, sometimes victory, sometimes profit, or benefit) so give all gain and benefit to others, and take all obstacles and difficulty onto yourself.
Give all gain and victory to others, and take all trouble and difficulties unto yourself.
This verse was actually written by Geshe Langtangpa but it was spread widely by Chekawa Yeshe Dorje. When he first came across this teaching it was not very widely taught. It was taught teacher to student on a one to one basis. Chekawa Dorje made it very widely known through teaching large groups of people about its principle and then through Atisha it became very widely known in Tibet.
You can read about the history of lojong in the text but the main thing we need to understand is the principles of it and then how to apply it, to learn how to do the practice. You can apply these 7 points in formal sitting practice and you can also integrate them into all aspects of your life. This is one of the points of the practice, learning how to make this motivation and bodhicitta part of all your activities,
So lo means mind and jong means to train, practice or transform. Lojong transforms the relative, obscured mind into a pure state of compassion, into the ultimate state of mind, understanding the nature of mind. It transforms the relative into the ultimate, transforming obscuration into purity, which is really what the mind is. When all obscurations are removed the mind is pure in itself. So that is what you are working towards, this purity by using impurity. We say that we are working towards ultimate bodhicitta by using relative bodhicitta. We are working towards the ultimate goal on the relative path. We are using relative bodhicitta like a tool, to get to understand ultimate bodhicitta.
Relative bodhicitta is the level where we deal with duality: I am very important, I am the centre of the world and others circulate around me and all my needs, expectations and my fears, ego, our usual neurosis. We deal with all of that at this relative level. The ultimate level is the nature of mind itself, the result of purification. Ultimate bodhicitta is the result of relative bodhicitta, the fruition of relative bodhicitta. It is a result of purification when we are practicing on the path. As we gradually purify all the obscurations a natural purity emerges. Ultimate bodhicitta is when you go beyond duality, when you no longer believe in duality, when you have seen that it is an illusion.
All of these teachings talk about the cause of suffering as being ego clinging, self obsession, this obsession with me, myself. This is our problem, this is what gives us all the other issues. Whenever we have strong issues or difficulties, big trouble or any kind of pain, we can look right to the core of the issue or pain and see that what is there at the core is a very strong sense of me, myself. It becomes overwhelming at a time like that. That is what we are dealing with in this mind training and tonglen. We are doing exactly the opposite of what we normally do. Normally we take all victory and gain for ourselves and give all loss and defeat to others. Here we are told do the opposite, take all obstacles and defeat to your self and give all gain, profit, benefit to others. We are training ourselves in letting go of ego clinging. And that becomes a seed of realisation, a seed of freedom. Our own suffering and neurosis becomes a seed for developing this understanding of nature of mind, the ultimate bodhicitta. We develop understanding and compassion by putting ourselves in the place of others, trying to understand how others feel, trying to recognise and see their suffering as our own suffering. Our motivation and desire to develop compassion comes from our own direct experience and understanding.
So at the moment we have compassion and some degree of kindness but our kindness and compassion is very partial, very limited. It only goes to a few people that are close to us like our friends, our family. Those who are kind to us, we love in return. We find it very hard to love those who are not kind to us, who don’t benefit us in some way or other. Our love is a very conditional love, it’s not unconditional and it’s not limitless. What we are trying to do here is to develop limitless compassion through understanding that no one wants to suffer. We are aware that just like we don’t want to suffer, there is absolutely no one in the world who wants to suffer. We share that, all living beings share that. Animals don’t want to suffer. If they feel threatened they withdraw. Even an insect withdraws if it feels threatened. Any animal withdraws, and any animal also has the seed of compassion and care. Animals care for their young, they risk their lives for their young ones. So this is something we all share, that we all have a seed of compassion and we all want to be happy. No one wants to suffer.
So through our own understanding, we are trying to extend ourselves so that our compassion and kindness is not just limited or restricted to a few. We try to extend it further and further and that’s not easy. Through training, we gradually try to move in that direction. Ultimate bodhicitta and relative bodohicitta are both part of the practice but ultimate bodhicitta is not very easy to practice. Resting the mind in ultimate bodhicitta means resting the mind in a state of clarity and emptiness, clarity and no-self, clarity and no thoughts, just presence. That’s not something that comes very easily to us because we have lots of thoughts but we try to train in that. We remind ourselves that everything is like a dream, that nothing we see is permanent and real, solidly there. Everything is constantly changing so it’s a bit like a dream. So we train ourselves in this practice in formal sitting resting the mind in ultimate bodhicitta for a very short time at the end, and then in between sessions by reminding yourself of seeing things as a dream. But the main training is in relative bodhicitta which is why it is so applicable for everybody. It is something that is both easy and not easy to practise because it is not easy to be kind and compassionate all the time, but the method itself is easy to practise.
We train in loving kindness and compassion and they are very similar. Loving kindness in Tibetan is called champa which means concern, caring, gentleness, like the kindness of a mother for a child. Compassion is nyinje which means great heart, nying means heart and je means noble. So compassion relates more to the suffering of others, where loving kindness relates to the happiness of others. Loving kindness is about nurturing, making sure that everything is ok and that people are happy, where compassion relates to suffering and trying to protect from suffering or to help free beings from suffering. Compassion is compared to a very good ruler, a powerful king who looks after his subjects with great care. Not a ruthless dictator but a kind and powerful king who cares for his subjects, sort of a fairytale king. The idea of compassion is trying to protect people from suffering, trying to help, putting an effort into overcoming suffering. This idea of compassion is practised mainly through tonglen, sending and taking, but also through developing the four immeasurables of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and impartiality.
Sympathetic joy, or the joy of others, means feeling good when others are happy, healthy, and have good fortune. It is the opposite of jealousy. Instead of being jealous you rejoice in the happiness of others. Impartiality is very important for all of the four immeasurables, in fact sympathetic joy and impartiality support the first two of loving kindness and compassion. We need impartiality so that our loving kindness, compassion and joy are not just limited to those that are close to us, and we can continue to hate our enemies or neighbours and be kind to our friends and family. If we don’t get on with people at work and think that they are terrible, we stamp them with certain qualities and we think that this is who they really are. Impartiality allows us to see how friends become enemies and enemies become friends, and to look at how people pass through our lives. We can see that there is no one we can call a definite, eternal enemy or even a rock solid permanent friend. People come and go in our lives, so it is also about recognising that.
Start the practice with those who are close to you, those that you find it easy to develop compassion for. It is easy to feel compassion for our friends and relatives, our parents and our children, so we start with them. Then we extend our practice and recognise that actually there are so many people out there who are not very different from our children and our parents. And gradually we extend it out even further to those who are more distant and eventually even to those we see as enemies or bad people, people who actually are doing harm, dictators who are suppressing peoples’ freedom and all of this. Nobody is excluded from compassion whether they are the one who suffers or the perpetrator. It’s a gradual path - you start on a personal level and then gradually try to extend out to others.
We also recognise that anything good or positive that happens in our lives, other peoples’ lives and in the world has to do with loving kindness and compassion. These are the qualities that always come through to show that this is what really matters to people. If you remember when the Twin Towers were falling on 9/11 and people had a whole hour more or less when they basically knew that they were going to die, or in the planes when they knew what was happening, what everybody did was they called their relatives and told them, I love you. That is the one message everybody wanted to send out. It is a universal thing, whenever something positive and good is happening in the world it has got to do with one of these: loving kindness, compassion, joy or impartiality. It doesn’t mean you have to be a Buddhist. Buddhists did not invent loving kindness, they do not monopolise it. Loving kindness and compassion existed since beginningless time, since before the Buddha. It is part of our make up. So this principle has always been there and it is the basic cause and condition for happiness. If there is loving kindness and compassion this is what makes us all happy. If somebody is kind to you, it warms your heart. Somebody smiles at you when you are feeling down, it cheers you up. A little word when you are feeling down and it lifts you, but it is always because of loving kindness and compassion. So we have that already and we know because we have experienced it.
Everybody has that potential to develop. Some people are further from developing than others but the potential is there, even in the most negative person. So from that point of view, the Buddhist view is that we all have that potential. We aren’t missing anything but we have to develop and nurture it. So motivation is what we need to develop. We talked yesterday about how important it is to set a strong intention, a focused intention, powerful motivation. When we develop a strong motivation of compassion and loving kindness, then our actions become infused with that. We are able to do great things if we have great motivation. And that actually goes both ways. If someone has very strong motivation to do something negative they end up doing huge harm, huge damage. If you have the intention to hurt or to kill and you keep building and working on that, the intention becomes stronger and stronger until it ends up coming out in actions. So we need to work on developing a positive motivation to make a positive difference. If we all think very strongly that I myself really want to make a positive difference in the world, in my environment, in my life, in my work environment, wherever I am, with the people I interact with, we don’t have to become Mother Theresa. We may, who knows, but if we make a strong motivation, that I myself will make a positive difference, a positive influence in my day to day life then it will happen. It’s only a matter of being clear and strong in our motivation.
So that whole thing of developing that intention is so important. And it is said in terms of metaphors that the difference between someone who has strong motivation of bodhicitta and someone who doesn’t is like a ball of iron. If you have a ball of iron and you throw it in the water it sinks right to the bottom. This means that without bodhicitta all our actions tend to take us down, we tend to go towards the negative. But if you shape a ball of iron into a ship or a boat, then it will float. So a strong motivation keeps us afloat. This image shows us that if our motivation makes a huge difference. With bodhicitta the same material will float, without bodhicitta it will just go straight down.
Try to remember always to develop good intentions. I suggest that when you go home try to have a short session at the beginning of the day. Sit for a little while, rest your mind and develop a strong intention, a positive motivation for the day. Do a bit of meditation then start your day. Even if it’s short if you have strong motivation it will make a big difference.
In terms of training in this bodhicitta we need to develop sympathy for ourselves and for others. We need to develop compassion, sympathy, kindness towards ourselves and then extend it to others. One approach is to begin with whatever you consider to be your greatest difficulty, your greatest obstacle, your greatest negativity. This becomes your link to understanding the difficulties of others. So whether you easily get angry, or whether you are frightened or confused, or whether you have a lot of unfulfilled grasping, desire or frustration, these tendencies and obstacles help us to know and understand the confusion of others and their obstacles.
Shinay and tonglen both focus on the breath but the difference is that in shinay you are training your mind not to dwell on thoughts. You are training to let thoughts come and go, to see the thoughts as insubstantial, which is what they are really, they just come and go. They have no solidity, they appear, dissolve again, and you train not to get stuck on them, not to get hooked on them. In tonglen you also focus on the breathing and you develop some one-pointedness but then you develop sympathy towards your own pain and extend it out to others. It’s not just purely a matter of training your mind into one-pointedness, as it is in shinay. Shinay is purely trying to be one-pointed, trying to tame the mind to become still so that you can go onto the next step, insight. But in tonglen compassion is the focus. And so in a sense that one-pointedness that we are developing in shinay is used to focus on compassion and loving kindness to others. But we don’t have to feel that we are already there, as I said it’s a process, you don’t sit and do tonglen and expect it to be perfect. There is a quality of you on the path. You are training, you are working on it, you are not there already, you haven’t achieved a result already. It’s a process.
You work with two things in tonglen. You work with your own experience, which is the truth of suffering. The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, was the truth of suffering. So it’s your own experience of the truth of suffering, there is suffering in the world. We are not meant to be sitting thinking about our own suffering and becoming very sad about that, but we have this experience, it’s what we have learned in our life. You use your own experience of the truth of suffering but like an echo of your own life. Suffering is part of the world, part of life. And the second thing you work with in tonglen is your own understanding of spaciousness, or your own basic goodness. You can also call it your own understanding of the cessation of suffering that was also one of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha. The Four Noble Truths are that there is suffering, that there are causes,that this is how you get out of suffering and that then there is cessation of suffering. It is possible to become free from suffering, and this is how you do it.
So we are dealing with our experience of the reality of suffering and also our understanding that it is possible to free ourselves from suffering. It is possible to let go of suffering. It is possible to develop a mind where one is not affected or at least is affected less and less. This is what you can call spaciousness or this ultimate and relative bodhicitta. That’s the other thing, that belief in the possibility of change, change for the better. So compassion has to start with some understanding of suffering.
It can also be that we have seen very closely someone else suffer. We suffer due to their suffering. If you feel that you have not had much suffering in your life, but you have observed someone close to you suffering, say your parents dying of cancer or something and you have to be there with them, seeing them go through that, that in itself is a suffering. So it has to start with a direct experience, that’s the point, it’s not just intellectual. If it doesn’t have that sense of personal experience it just becomes words, intellectual, we can all grasp the ideas. We have so many ideas already about so many things so this has to be very real, we have to use it in a positive way. We are not using our own suffering to make ourselves unhappy, to become sadder at the end of the session. Instead we use it in a constructive way to transform, to try to change, and develop.
So how do we do tonglen ? We will spend half the session doing shinay and then we will do tonglen. There are a few stages to it but the core of the meditation is that you begin by thinking of someone who is very close to you who has suffered. Traditionally the texts recommends one’s mother because we have a strong link with our mother. Some people may feel that they don’t have a positive link with their mother so then you choose someone else, someone you feel really helped you, who was really kind to you, someone who has cared for you, someone who has in many ways gone through a lot due to you, sacrificed themselves like a mother. Normally if we really think of a mother then she has sacrificed a lot for us even if some people may think she was not a perfect mother. But if you consider what it takes to be a mother, from the time of birth through childhood and up until now, a child would not be able to function without a mother. So she has suffered a lot due to us, she has gone through lots of difficulties, has often neglected her own needs for us. The quality of the love of a mother is totally self-sacrificing. A mother and also a father quite often but the image of a mother is that first of all the child is in the body so the child is living on the nourishment of the mother. And normally the mother will sacrifice her food, sleep, everything for the children. In this example of the selfless love of a mother to a child she would rather suffer herself than see her children suffer. That is the kind of ideal compassion and love that we should have for all beings, that care and recognition of all beings as being so important, more important than myself. There are thousands of people out there, why should I think I am so important? There are thousands, millions, billions of people out there. So in sheer numbers they must be more important than me, but we still have this sense of I: my suffering, I am suffering, I need this or I need that.
So in terms of the relationship with our parents there is also a sense of responsibility on our part. We recognise that we actually caused suffering to our parents. Perhaps they have neglected their own needs because of us. Maybe we have not always been the kindest. So there is a sense of responsibility for the suffering in the world as well when you do tonglen. We have caused suffering, so we need to take some suffering back. We need to give some goodness to the world and relieve others from suffering because we have caused suffering in the past.
We also need to be aware that we can really make a difference. So in the sending and receiving we understand that we have the potential for positive change and the responsibility for changing. With the out breath we send out goodness as bright light. We imagine that we are sending out good health, all the best qualities. And with the in breath we take on all suffering, as dark smoke. It’s called riding on the breath. So you start off doing shinay, your mind becomes more quiet and still and then you start doing tonglen. First you imagine your mother or someone that you are close to, that you can easily feel compassion towards. You imagine that they are in front of you. You know that they are suffering and you imagine that you take on all of their suffering as black smoke with the inbreath and you send out goodness, all the most positive qualities with the out breath as a bright light, as a moonlight. Taking in smoke and sending out light.
In that process you imagine them gradually becoming freed, you imagine them becoming more and more complete. Generally everybody has this potential to be. If you think of your mother, she has maybe gone through a lot in her life. You can see that if all the right conditions had come together and there weren’t too many obstacles she would have become a perfectly happy and contented being. But due to all the suffering in the world there is another side to her that is full of worry and difficulty. So you imagine that this person becomes what they would have been if their potential had been completely fulfilled. They become a whole human being, a complete, perfect, free human being. I usually think of it like a flower that has been drooping in a pot, drooping but still alive, and if you water the flower it becomes full of strength and radiance again. So you should imagine as you do tonglen, that as you gradually take on all the suffering, you are freeing that person and you are sending out goodness. It is as if that person becomes more and more bright, radiant, happy, complete and fulfilled. They become full of vitality, health and well being, wisdom and sanity, all of those qualities.
That is how you should meditate with the breath and through doing that we are loosening our own ego-clinging. We are loosening our grasping to our own self importance. We are loosening our fixation and we are generating and developing compassion. Compassion grows and our understanding grows. So more than anything tonglen is a training for ourselves, more than anything we benefit. Most likely we don’t have the power to benefit others at the moment, we don’t have the power to take the suffering from other people, but we do have the power to change our own life. So at first we are the ones who benefit, we are the ones who progress. We can use anything that arises in tonglen. If you feel that you have a bad session or you can’t concentrate, you can even take in all the frustrations of all the bad meditators in the world. You think may I free them all through this feeling I have. I take away all their suffering. I send out all goodness to them. So if there is progress or happiness we send it, and if there are obstacles we take them in.
Generally you start the process by taking on your own suffering. As a beginner we may think that we are afraid of taking on the suffering of others so we learn to accept our own suffering. We develop sympathy for ourselves. That means you can just think, whatever I am experiencing or whatever I experience in the future may I never again experience similar suffering, may I never experience negativity that causes future suffering. And may whatever suffering I have experienced purify my karma, purify any negative actions I have done in the past. We make a wish that we may be free of suffering in the future.
The practice starts with what we call guru yoga. So you start the practice by imagining that in the space above your head there is an open lotus flower, and in the centre sits the guru. If you don’t have a sense of a guru you could think of a Buddha, a radiant, transparent ,glowing Buddha, or you could think of a sphere of light representing loving kindness and compassion. This is a representation of perfect loving kindness and compassion. You develop a wish for that to grow in yourself and then you imagine that your own body is hollow and there is a tube of light going from the crown of your head straight down to your heart area, to the centre of your body at heart level. Then you imagine that the Buddha descends through that tube of light and rests in your heart area. Then you feel that now you embody this perfect compassion and loving kindness because sometimes we feel that our compassion is limited. Sometimes we feel that we don’t have very much compassion. We may feel that sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. So the practice of guru yoga means that you feel that you really have this compassion inside of you. And then you start to do tonglen.