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Michael John Smith

Thoughts On Tonglen

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I know there are people who will say that any old fool attempting Tonglen practice without developing wisdom is not only wasting his time but probably doing harm by taking the suffering of others and giving nothing but his own suffering in return.

I think this is mistaken. I think everyone automatically does some form of Tonglen from time to time because of the altruism that is present in all of us.


Those taking refuge in the three jewels soon begin taking Tonglen practice a step further, even if they have not even heard of it or any teachings on it. This is because their preliminary practice of “considering the preciousness of being born a human being, the fact of impermanence and the problem of samsaric existence†automatically leads them through the most basic meditation to taking an initial interest in training the mind and allowing both absolute and relative Bodhicitta to blossom. From then on Tonglen practice improves and becomes more and more effective.


I would go further in suggesting that early unintentional Tonglen practiced by the unskilled, untrained person actually leads them to taking refuge in the first place. Yes, the novice is probably not taking too much care about causing harm but I think any act of Tonglen itself is protective and so much benefit can be derived from it right from the beginning. How else did did Mahayana vehicle evolve? How else was the practice of giving and taking, based as it is on the naturally altruistic nature of the human being, become formalised and refined? The principal liberating benefits it has of crushing the rock of ego or Self and the generation of the enlightening bodhicitta have already - in other words the result - was already given the cause by the rebirth into the human realm and the natural, altruistic nature of the human being.

In other words, I believe we are all natural Tonglen practitioners and should start practicing it as early as possible.


Of course one could write a whole library of books on the beneficial effects of Tonglen. One of them is that it naturally leads to the enthusiastic practitioner seeing that this cause of altruistic nature is not just limited to humans but is present in all limited beings, just that most are unable to recognise it and thus unable to practice “proper†Tonglen in their present form - in other words comprehension of the cause and effect of the enlightenment of all sentient beings. Tonglen can thus be a cause for an understanding of karma itself…..


For me Tonglen is giving me motivation in all my practices, giving them all meaning and enabling me to hear all the teachings - the seven points of mind training, the six perfections, etc. and the ability to complete them all, including the higher teachings.


For now I am convinced Tonglen will lead me to meditating better and coming to a correct understanding of voidness along with renunciation and bodhicitta. For this reason I am taking an increasing interest in Tonglen and teachings that include Tonglen and would welcome any thoughts on the subject from anyone at all.

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Inspired by discussions with Rinpoche on this site, I undertook some meditative practice this afternoon. I had intended to quiet myself and simply do what Sogyal Rinpoche used to call find the heart’s rest. But I found myself too unsettled for what my master would call letting the meditation have it on you (instead of placing effort on meditating it’s rather that the meditation becomes the subject and you the object of it, as I see it). So as calmly as I could I decided to examine what was on my mind - it tuned out to be death.


I decided instead of finding great peace I would quietly contemplate death, one of my master’s favourite objects of meditation I am sure.


I recalled something Sogyal Rinpoche said about how beneficial it was for a dying person to pass over remembering just one of his/her teachings. Further contemplation on this found me wondering what of all the teachings would I remember, and then again almost immediately, wait a minute, what one of the teachings would be most beneficial with respect to my goal. Could I make use of the power of entering the Bardo of death in furthering my goal and at the same time have a readymade teaching, which happened for me to be the most memorable, a favourite, something very familiar?


Influenced again by my discussion with Rinpoche and a quick trip down memory lane soon brought to my attention the first ever teaching I received from Sogyal Rinpoche, which was a teaching on balance - although the universe appears to be made of chaos, there is a background harmony to that chaos.


So what do we make of this teaching with respect to my last moments in this life - seems to me like entering Rigpa, or state of pure awareness - perhaps I could do what Audious Huxley did and have some LSD handy. Of course if I happened to have been a very good practitioner and become a Dzogchen master really proficient in analysing the unborn state of awareness and truly attaining the realisation of this empty nature of mind, it would be wonderful indeed, otherwise I think no - not sufficiently beneficial with respect to my goal.


So I would have to fall back on my present number one favourite practice - tonglen - training to give and take alternately. This refers to a practice described by Shantideva:


Whoever wishes quickly to become

A refuge for himself and others,

Should undertake this sacred mystery:

To take the place of others, giving them his own.


As Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, master of my master, says:


Enlightenment will be ours when we are able to care for others as much as we now care for ourselves, and ignore ourselves to the same extent that we now ignore others. Even if we were to remain in samsara, we should be free from sorrow. For as I have said, when the great Bodhisattvas gave away their heads and limbs, they felt no sadness at the loss of them.


This Rinpoche goes on to praise this, my own favourite practice, as follows:


For those who can practice generosity like this, there is no suffering at all. Enlightened teachers, Bodhisattvas, come into the world to accomplish the welfare of beings and even when they are ignored by people in the grip of desire, anger and ignorance, who stir up obstacles and difficulties, the thought of giving up never occurs to them and they are totally without anger or resentment.


Not a bad side effect eh? No wonder I get mixed up between taking refuge and bodhisattva vows when I practice tonglen - enlightening and protecting at one and the same time.


Yes, that’s the way I want to go - practicing tonglen - giving and taking alternately with every breath I draw in and out, in and out and ….


Spreading this joy on this site and remembering to dedicate it properly and cautioning that this is my present, as of now, decision as of what to do at my time of death.

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