Friday, August 2, 2019


Can a lay person like myself learn the ancient Tibetan practice of tonglen? Sometimes called “taking and sending”, it teaches the practitioner to breathe in the suffering of self and others—eventually of the entire world—envisioned usually as a stream of black smoke, converting it with a “brilliant lightning strike” into pure love, and sending it out again in the form of healing compassion.

Even this oversimplified nutshell version suggests the depth, perhaps even the danger of this challenge. You’d think that it requires years of immersion in the study of Buddhist teachings (the dharma) and more years of retreat with distinguished gurus and of personal meditation practice. But Lama Palden Drolma (who, not incidentally, brings all this experience to her book on the subject) is persuasive in suggesting that even a lay person can be taught. In Love on Every Breath: Tonglen Meditation for Transforming Pain into Joy she walks the reader through eight progressive steps to learn the practice.

Those steps lead us through “Resting in Open Awareness”—what I think of as the “big sky” mind—and “Seeking Refuge in the Awakened Sanctuary” of the Triple Gem—the Buddha, the dharma and the noble sangha—to “Cultivating Awakened Mind” and “Stepping into Love.” These carefully detailed initial steps are critical preparation in making the essential connection with the heart and opening it for the real work ahead: the “Taking and Sending” first, importantly, for oneself, and only then for others. The practice concludes with “Dissolving”—a necessary letting go after the intensity of the experience—and “Dedicating” its benefits “to the happiness and liberation of all beings.”

Readers should make no mistake: tonglen is no easy path, as I can attest, as one who has made the effort to follow it in the past. It is serious business for both mind and heart to consciously breathe in, with intention, so much suffering. So it’s important to note that Lama Palden writes with the love, the depth of seriousness and the respect that both her subject and her reader require. To read her deeply caring, patient and thorough instruction manual requires every ounce of the rapt attention she so lovingly describes in her early pages. To read the book as it demands to be read also requires the exercise of each “complete meditation” practice the author outlines at the conclusion of her discussion of each step along the way. (The “on-the-spot” meditation she offers as an alternative in the stress of quotidian events is useful, but is practicable only, in my view, after the reader has experienced the complete version).

This is a rewarding book for the attentive and committed reader who wants to heal the world as well as him- or herself. With so much suffering everywhere we look, it is also a timely one. Would that this depth of compassion which, as Lama Palden is at pains to point out, can be found in every human heart, were more common currency. This world would be a better place indeed.

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