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 TONGLEN -a Tibetan Buddhist technique to release the transformative power of compassion 

Tonglen is a technique used in Tibetan Buddhism for transforming negative energy into compassion. This is not so much a meditation technique, though it can be used as part of a sitting meditation, as an active method of coping with negative emotions, feelings, energies both within oneself and in one's environment. It is a powerful technique for healing on many levels.

The technique has a long history, and goes back to a saying of Guru Rimpoche, otherwise known as Padmasambhava, whom legend credits with converting the wild and ferocious Tibetans to the Noble Middle Way of the Buddha in the eighth century C.E. The saying translates roughly as, "Giving away all victory, and taking unto oneself all defeat." It is also desribed by the early Buddhist sage, Shantideva, as," exchanging self for other."

Tibetan Buddhism belongs to the Northern Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, specifically a sub-branch known as the Vajrayana, or Diamond/ Adamantine Vehicle. It is also known in the West as Tantric Buddhism. Tantra is a Sanskrit word meaning "weaving," but the essence of Tantra is transformation, specifically transformation of awareness. In the Tantric schools of Buddhism, no human emotion or energy is considered unfit for use in the great undertaking of transforming ordinary mind into "buddha-mind," in pursuit of liberation. Anything can be used as "dung on the field of bodhi." This approach is known as "upaya," or "skilfull means."

Amongst the very many techniques of energy transformation, Tonglen is one of the simplest and yet most profound, and it works.

In practical terms, it can be described as follows. Faced with hostility, anger, negativity, for example, there are many ways you can react. But the skillful means of Tonglen allows you to use the threat as a source of strength, rather than an excuse for violence, a trigger for rage, or a cause for fear.

In brief, given such a situation, before it builds to a point beyond control, the following process can totally transform the energies circulating between those involved.


Visualise the negativity as a cloud of black smoke. Inhale deeply, drawing the imaginary smoke into your very core. Here it dissolves the seed of ego-clinging identity which is trying to protect itself from the negativity. The smoke dissipates "into the belly of emptiness," turning into radiant light and compassion. Then you exhale this light back to the source of the negativity, where it dissolves the underlying fear and tension.

This technique can be used within the individual to deal with an area of the body that is sick. It can be used to send healing to other people who are sick, in pain, or suffering. It can be used to diffuse an angry situation between two people. It can be directed to entire groups, communities, or even countries. HH the Dalai Lama has spoken of practising Tonglen on China as a whole.

If the practitioner cannot cope with the idea of actually absorbing the "black smoke" in person, they can visualise a higher being ( of whatever tradition with which they identify, or none, as appropriate ) who resides in their heart and does the job.

Its supreme value is that it is empowering, allowing the practitioner to absorb and transform any threatening, negative energy that would otherwise be a source of oppression and stress. In its absolutely simplest form, you can say to yourself, as you breathe, " darkness in, light out..."

Or you can do a sitting-meditation in which you connect with your own feelings of peace, joy, relaxation, and breathe those out to anyone you wish to benefit, before inhaling their tension or stress and dissolving it into emptiness. Done on a one-to-one basis, it produces great empathy between the participants, while enabling both to generate some space between them and their apparent "negative" energies.

There are countless Tibetan Buddhist texts which describe this practice, but among the most accessible is Sogyal Rimpoche's "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying," published by Rider, 1992. See also Pema Chodron's "Tonglen", available from Snowlion Books.