Monday, March 10, 2014


I was re-reading a chapter in Ken McLeod's Reflections on Silver River last night and reached the end of "Verse 11" where he recalls the words of his teacher: "If you could really take away the suffering of everyone in the world, taking all of it into you with a single breath, would you hesitate?"

Even though the answer is a clear one--of course not--it's a breathtaking challenge.  McLeod is talking about the Tibetan Buddhist practice of taking and sending.  As I understand it, this practice invites you to breathe in the suffering of others--their physical and emotional pain, their fear, their hunger--and to send out, with the out-breath, your own happiness, peace of mind, stability and so on.  It requires you, in short, to surrender everything you might wish for, for yourself, and send it out to others.

I learned of this practice first through Pema Chödrön--I think it was in When Things Fall Apart, my first real introduction to Buddhism.  It would have been in the early 1990s, a period of great pain and turmoil in my life.  I picked up a copy almost thoughtlessly at a bookshop in Ojai, California--and certainly without knowing what I was getting into.  She opened a door for me that led to the path I have followed ever since.  She used the Tibetan term for the practice of taking and sending: tonglen.  I tried it out, to the best of my ability, when Ellie's stepmother was bedridden, in dread fear of losing the mind she had set such great store by during her lifetime, and approaching death.  I sat at her bedside breathing in the darkness that Pema Chödrön's book described, and exchanging it for as much light I could find within.  I suspect that it might have been more healing for myself than it was for her, but I did hope to pass on some measure of relief.

So would I hesitate?  No, if it were possible.  As I grow older, I struggle with the feeling that I have not done as much for others as I would have wished to do.  I credit myself with having found ways of passing on what I have sought to learn, from this blog, The Buddha Diaries, to my "One Hour/One Painting series"; but I chide myself that these things are not enough, that they reach only a handful of those "others" with whom I'd wish to share the humanity and compassion to which I aspire, and long to find an adequate platform from which to do it.  

So I found myself this morning, in meditation, contemplating this strange "cloud" in which I spend a good deal of my time; and wondering if, and how it might be used for the practice of taking and sending.  You send me your pain, I'll send you goodwill and compassion, along with my wishes for your happiness...?

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