Saturday, 3 October 2009

A Short Note on the Benefits of Tonglen


A Tibetan meditation that has become quite popular in recent years is Tonglen. In this practice the individual voluntarily takes upon herself the suffering of others and in return gives them all of her well-being and happiness. This exchange is usually coordinated with the breathing in such a way that suffering is taken in on the in-breath in the form of imagined thick black smoke and happiness given away on the out-breath in the form of a healing white light. (More detailed practice instructions can be found in Sogyal Rinpoche's Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Lama Surya Das's Awaken the Buddha Within and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's Eight Steps to Happiness).

In this short paper I would like to explore the effects of Tonglen and outline some of the benefits that I believe accrue from its practice. I will begin this exploration by explaining how I believe the practice of Tonglen allows the individual to traverse the essence of the Hinayana path.

Tonglen and the Essence of the Hinayana

The basic Hinayana model of the human predicament is outlined in the twelve steps of the cycle of conditioned co-production, and then condensed into the Four Noble Truths. Both of these teachings describe how human suffering and desire arise simultaneously in dependence upon one another, or how desire leads inevitably to suffering and suffering to desire.

In other words, they illustrate how the natural tendency of the human condition is to seek to move away from suffering and towards objects we believe will give us happiness and how it is this predisposition that leads to us becoming ensnared in samsara.

The path out of this circular dilema is explained by Bhikkhu Bodhi in his paper Transcendental Dependent Arising ( as a noble attempt to halt the forward spin of this "wheel of becoming" and a struggle to reverse its natural direction of movement. Bhikkhu Bodhi then goes on to describe how such an attempt eventually leads to the attainment of all the transcendental stages of development that form the basis of the Hinayana path to liberation.

Now, as far as Tonglen is concerned, it could be argued that by voluntarily taking upon herself suffering and renouncing her own well-being and happiness the practitioner is essentially attempting to perform just such a reversal. So if Bhikkhu Bodhi is correct in his analysis, then when carried out systematically over a period of time we would expect the practice of Tonglen to allow the individual to traverse the entire Hinayana path.

Tonglen and the Essence of the Mahayana

Although Tonglen can be demonstrated to accomplish the essence of the Hinayana path, it is originally a Mahayana practice. The basis of the Mahayana path is the relinquishing of self-grasping and the cultivation of universal compassion. Tonglen realises both of these objectives. By taking on the suffering of others and giving them his well-being and happiness the practitioner overcomes the tendency toward self-grasping and simultaneously cultivates compassion. Tonglen, therefore, is the quintessence of the Mahayana path.

Tonglen and Integrating the Shadow

In Western psychological terms the shadow consists of all the emotions and impulses that an individual has repressed into unconsciousness during the course of her lifetime. Until these aspects of the self are re-integrated into conscious awareness they will exert a pathological influence on the well-being of the individual and cause her to remain entrenched in confused patterns of behaviour. Re-owning the shadow is therefore an extremely important task for anyone aiming at the goal of psychological health. Ken Wilber has even assigned shadow work a prominent place in his own system of spiritual development, although the technique he uses to accomplish it is somewhat limited. A better technique, in my opinion, is the practice of Tonglen.

Shadow elements remain repressed essentially because they are too painful to be allowed into consciousness. Were this not the case then there would be no need to repress them in the first place. According to Wilber these repressed elements are then projected outwards onto other people in the environment.

By voluntarily taking upon himself the suffering of others the individual is therefore engaged in the process of re-owning his own unacknowledged (and therefore projected) suffering, or his own shadow.

Further to this, the thick black smoke that the practitioner imagines to be suffering could be said to be a direct representation of the shadow to his psyche. In breathing this in the individual is therefore "breathing in" his own shadow and allowing it into conscious awareness from where it can be integrated. Thus we would expect individuals engaged in long-term Tonglen practice to significantly integrate their shadow over time. I personally believe that Tonglen will effect a significantly deeper integration of the shadow than Wilber's 3-2-1 process.


In summary, the practice of Tonglen can be shown in theory to have many benefits. It accomplishes the essence of both the Hinayana and Mahayana paths; according to Geshe Kelsang Gyatso it purifies negative karma and accumulates merit; it integrates the shadow; and it works directly on the health of the collective consciousness.

When reports are carried out on the effects of "meditation" it is almost always mindfulness meditation that is studied, and when Wilber himself discusses the effects of meditation it is almost always mindfulness meditation that he means, yet there are many other contemplative practices with, presumably, many different effects. Tonglen is just one of them. It would be fascinating to see these other forms of meditation included in such studies, and for the benefits of their practice to be examined more systematically.


Bhikkhu Bodhi. Transcendental Dependent Arising. 1980.

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