Saturday, January 6, 2018


I woke this morning with thoughts of the ancient Tibetan practice of tonglen, taking and sending. The proximate cause was my conversation, yesterday, with an old friend whose daughter is currently in dire physical and emotional need. My friend is naturally distraught, caught in that familiar, agonizing place where we so desperately want to do something for a person that we love, but know of nothing we can do.

Which is where tonglen comes in. I learned about it first, I believe, in Ken McLeod's authoritative book on the relevance of Tibetan Buddhism in today's Western world, Wake Up to Your Life. I came across it at the time of the last illness and death of a person close to me, and found it to be a useful and comforting way to do something in a situation in which I could otherwise do nothing other than sit by and allow events to unfold as they would.

Tonglen, as I understand it, is the practice of using the breath through the tip of the nose to "take" in all the pain and suffering of another human being (you can imagine it, usefully, as a stream of black smoke), process it within, and send it back out with the outbreath in the form of renewed, healthy, and healing energy. It is better explained in this short piece written by Pema Chödrön with her usual compassion, insight and clarity.

The practice is one not only of compassion but also of generosity. I have found that it works both ways, both for the one suffering--in seeming to induce a kind of healing serenity--and for the one making the genuine effort to practice taking and sending. It can be addressed, of course, not only to a single person, but to the whole of suffering humanity--and don't we need it now more than ever! When I find myself agonizedly thinking, What can I do about this horrible mess we find ourselves in?, I must remember to turn my thoughts once again to tonglen.

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