from “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche

The Preliminary Tonglen Practice

The best way to do this practice, and any practice of Tonglen, is to begin by evoking and resting in the nature of mind. When you rest in the nature of mind and see all things directly as “empty,” illusory, and dream-like, you are resting in the state of what is known as “ultimate” or “absolute Bodhicitta,” the true heart of the enlightened mind. The teachings compare absolute Bodhicitta to an inexhaustible treasury of generosity; and compassion, when understood in its profoundest sense, is known and seen as the natural radiance of the nature of mind, the skillful means that rises from the heart of wisdom.
Begin by sitting and bringing the mind home. Allow all your thoughts to settle, neither inviting them nor following them. Close your eyes if you wish. When you feel really calm and centered, alert yourself slightly, and begin the practice.

(4.) Tonglen for Others
Imagine someone to whom you feel very close, particularly someone who is suffering and in pain. As you breathe in, imagine you take in all their suffering and pain with compassion, and as you breathe out, send your warmth, healing, love, joy, and happiness streaming out to them. Now, just as in the practice of loving kindness, gradually widen the circle of your compassion to embrace first other people whom you also feel very close to, then those whom you feel indifferent about, then those you dislike or have difficulty with, then even those whom you feel are actively monstrous and cruel. Allow your compassion to become universal, and to fold in its embrace all sentient beings, all beings, in fact, without any exception:  Sentient beings are as limitless as the whole of space. May they each effortlessly realize the nature of their mind, And may every single being of all the six realms, who has each been in one life or another my father or mother. Attain all together the ground of primordial perfection.

The Main Tonglen Practice

In the Tonglen practice of giving and receiving, we take on, through compassion all the various mental and physical sufferings of all beings: their fear, frustration, pain, anger, guilt, bitterness, doubt, and rage, and we give them, through love, all our happiness, and well-being, peace of mind, healing, and fulfillment.

  1. Before you begin with this practice, sit quietly and bring your mind home. Then, making use of any of the exercises or methods I have described, whichever one you find really inspires you and works for you, meditate deeply on compassion. Summon and invoke the presence of all the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and enlightened beings, so that, through their inspiration and blessing, compassion may be born in your heart.
  2. Imagine in front of you, as vividly and poignantly as possible, someone you care for who is suffering. Try and imagine every aspect of the person’s pain and distress. Then, as you feel your heart opening in compassion toward the person, imagine that all of his or her sufferings manifest together and gather into a great mass of hot, black, grimy smoke.
  3. Now, as you breathe in, visualize that this mass of black smoke dissolves, with your in-breath, into the very core of your self-grasping at your heart. There it destroys completely all traces of self-cherishing, thereby purifying all your negative karma.
  4. Imagine, now that your self-cherishing has been destroyed, that the heart of your enlightened mind, your Bodhicitta, is fully revealed. As you breathe out, then, imagine that you are sending out its brilliance, cooling light of peace, joy, happiness, and ultimate well-being to your friend in pain, and that its rays are purifying all their negative karma.
    Here I find it inspiring to imagine, as Shantideva suggests, that your Bodhicitta has transformed your heart, or your whole body and being itself, into a dazzling, wish-fulfilling jewel, a jewel that can grant the desires and wishes of anyone, and provide exactly what he or she longs for and needs. True compassion is the wish-fulfilling jewel because it has the inherent power to give precisely to each being whatever that being most needs, and so alleviate his or her suffering, and bring about his or her true fulfillment.
  5. So at the moment the light of your Buddha streams out to touch your friend in pain, it is essential to feel a firm conviction that all of his or her negative karma has been purified, and a deep, lasting joy that he or she has been totally freed of suffering and pain.
    Then, as you go on breathing normally, in and out, continue steadily with this practice.
    Practicing Tonglen on one friend in pain helps you to begin the process of gradually widening the circle of compassion to take on the suffering and purify the karma of all beings, and to give them all your happiness, well-being, joy, and peace of mind. This is the wonderful goal of Tonglen practice, and in a larger sense, of the whole path of compassion.