Unpacking Tonglen

Unpacking Tonglen:
Exchanging Suffering for Compassion in the Time of Covid-19
By Rev. Andrew Blake

Thoughts + teachings on tonglen are summarized from Dzigar Kongtrul’s book, The Intelligent Heart: A Guide to the Compassionate Life 

Tonglen is considered a very deep and advanced practice, a practice and journey born by the Bodhisattvas, or those who have chosen to free themselves and all beings. Like tonglen, that journey has many stages. Here are some thoughts to meet the reality of living in a world of Covid-19, supported by the 3 Stages of Tonglen: Equality of Others, The Four Types of Exchanges, and Caring for Others More Than Oneself.

Thinking about how this or that may satisfy us will never leave our minds. These thoughts of what will make us happy: this drink of water, this afternoon cocktail, this holiday, the end of social distancing, the return of evenings out and friend’s houses.  All of us have these thoughts: if only I had more sleep, more money, more good looks, more time, then I’d be in a better state and I’d be happier. My life would be good then, if only I got what I wanted and needed. And what do we do in those moments when we don’t get what we want or things don’t go the way we’d wished they had? We may become agitated, heated, or even angry and hostile towards others, or we cut off from others and distance ourselves in a cold way. We say more than we should or nothing at all, but we are not happy. We may get caught in fear thoughts about what may or might be in the future—something disastrous for ourselves and others. We may doubt ourselves, our sense of worth, our confidence, or doubt others around us.  Or we may get inflated about our own self importance and get annoyed by a world not listening to us or seeing us. All of this kind of thinking doesn’t make us very happy and leads to more unhappiness. 

We also all think about our loved ones and the uncertainty of life, especially these days. It seems more than ever in our Western lives we are facing a loss of control, grief and fear. We have thoughts that lead us towards happiness and others away from it: If my children and elders are safe, I am happy. If there was no danger whatsoever, I feel even happier. If I could control life and death and prevent any illness, physical or emotional harm, then I’d be really happy, because then I wouldn’t have anything to worry about, right? I want to protect those I love from injury, danger, illness and suffering of any kind and if I could I’d be perfectly happy. But then I realize, I can’t control the world. The world isn’t in my control and neither is their life. Their destiny or karma isn’t mine, so I feel unhappy because I can’t change what happens or stop things that will happen. There is danger and harm lurking, and I’m very unhappy about this uncertainty that may lead to something awful.

And then there’s the Little Rascal in us, the wounded little child within us, who wants and sometimes demands: comfort, acknowledgment, security, encouragement, approval, attention, caring, being seen, being heard, rescued from harm and danger. The Little Rascal grew up in a state where their needs didn’t get met and they felt scared, distrusting, unforgiving, impatient, needy, unlovable, insecure, unsure, self-loathing, disgusting, and unacceptable, or may have felt better than, above it all, numbed and distant from what was happening.  And somehow many of us felt that something was wrong about us, something that others seem to ignore or avoid or fail to see in us. And even though we know that our parents were wounded by their parents too, this voice of the little rascal doesn’t stop talking in our ear. They can sometimes be the most important voice in our heads, at least that’s how it feels. They are the neglected voice of our own inner needs. Neither right nor wrong, they need to be acknowledged, but just not invited to dominate our lives…yet they do.

Realize that this is everyone. Everyone. In my state of wanting to be happy and finding unhappiness and getting caught in my inner child’s needs, I’m the same too.  Everybody has the same wishes for wellbeing and tends to get attached to things going the right way, and they also become unhappy when life isn’t working out and shitty, devastating things happen. And they wish, like us, that their families be protected from harm, danger and illness and experience ease, material prosperity, and health too. And like you they too have a rascal within telling them to avoid saying this or to inflame things by saying that.  Each one of us has this woundedness, just like our ancestors did. We are not alone, we are all one.

The problem is we get caught in all of this: in our thirst, in our needs and wants, our demands and regrets, in our attempting and failing, our longing and desire. And we fail to let go. We fail to see how it’s all about me; our self importance. Some call this kind of ruminating “selfing”, it’s how we make the picture and experience of I-me-mine real in our heads. In shamatha practice we let it go, and we keep letting it go until we reach a state of abiding calmness. In tonglen, we open up to it. We get in touch with how equal everyone is in this oneness as a humanity and how unequal it actually is at the frontline.

Tonglen: Equality of Others

As an entire human race, no one is better or more deserving. There isn’t a way the trees and plants say, “Oh, I’m not going to give my oxygen to some humans.” Yet we put the conditions on our caring. We favour those we love over those we don’t. So tonglen is going beyond that by bringing that love we reserve for those closest to those outside of our circle of care.  

By first seeing our equality, we soften the hard sheath around our heart. We see the child in Sierra Leone, the child in Bangladesh, in Russian, in Israel, in Nunavut, all the same. We love each of them. Then we open another layer and see that each person is deserving of our loving affection. We must see this first. The one we exclude is the one we most need to include, and it may be us.

Tonglen: The Four Types of Exchanges

1. Exchange of Affection for Intolerance

If we want to reach all beings, there can’t be an exception to our giving and our taking. What we fail to see here is that we give ourselves, or someone we care about, more importance than the others we keep away: The other partner in a dispute, the assassin in our midst, the molester, the CEO, the authoritarian, the victimizer who is a sheep in wolf’s clothes.  How do we give affection to what we can’t tolerate? How do we exchange affection for the one who is causing the suffering? And why would we want to do that?

2. Exchange of Position

After we cultivate the acknowledgment of our innate equality, we open to see how our position in life creates another layer of closedness in our hearts. Open your heart to see the suffering of someone who believes they are less than, who holds themselves beneath others and how this may close them off to giving anything at all. Can you feel how this creates suffering? And then there is our everyday working lives where many of us work in an even playing field when between us rivalry and competition can arise as jealousy. Or also there’s the person in our midst who sees themselves as superior, better than us in some way, and seeing how this too is suffering. If you look closely, the practice of tonglen is about letting this comparing go, by seeing how it’s all coming from the suffering of self importance. Thinking I’m not enough is no different than needing to be better through jealousy or believing I am better through arrogance.  Tonglen asks us to give this positioning up and see our equality in our suffering no matter what position we are holding.

Then the dharma of tonglen adds another layer: To think that every being was once your mother, (your primary caregiver or any person) who holds you in a place of tenderness and affectionate love, even unconditional love. This love as compassion is expressed as a vastness without preference, boundless and choiceless. It asks is to consider another view in the dharma that we have lived numberless lifetimes and we have shared these with countless others. The dharma teachings suggest that our existence is so vast and limitless that from within all those countless lifetimes, each being was once your mother, child, brother, sister, partner, etc.  This is a big leap for some of us, because we haven’t quite landed on whether we believe in life after death. If or when we do, then this teaching lands more succinctly. If we can expand to this view, which is what bodhisattvas must do, then we can see how each one is really our dear mother. Each one is precious and deserving of our unconditional affection. We embrace of mother’s kindness and touch our gratitude for what she has given us and sacrificed. And as well we touch her suffering, loss and pain that is felt today or has been lived in her lifetime. So I practice not only sending my love to her, but I expand to include my enemies and my adversaries, as well as all mother sentient beings. I include everyone. I let go of holding onto my anger and refusal to forgive others, including the suffering we experienced from our mothers. And I let go of my guilt for not letting go, which is another form of self importance, that makes me more special and therefore unable to let go.

  1. Exchange of Happiness for Suffering

Here we ultimately recognize that everyone is confused and holds unclear thoughts and emotions within themselves. And through tonglen, I’ve decided to take them all away. To take them away isn’t literal. It’s an aspiration, a motivation, and a deep intention. May all their obstacles be removed, may all medicines arrive, may all goodness be bestowed, may all delusions be revealed, may all misfortunes averted, may all forms of nourishment be assured, and lovingkindness bequeathed without preference. We can’t, according to the theory of karma or cause and affect, take into our selves another’s suffering. We can however feel it, because this is our human empathy. When we imagine the black darkness and smoke of their delusions leaving them, it’s our source of compassion and love that receives it, not our personality. Our personality may worry that taking in another’s suffering will tarnish us or make us sick. Loving compassion, like the trees, doesn’t select who’s in or out, what is OK to be with and what isn’t. So we love and take on the suffering of others, as if they were our beloved mother. We give our deepest affection and wish-fulfillment, like we would for any being in our immediate life that we love. 

4. Exchange of Merit for Demerit

From this place of loving and taking, we begin to give away what we have, the last form of exchange. The bodhisattva gives up the worldly life for a spiritual one, that exchanges the virtues and beneficial goodness they have accumulated within themselves and gives it away to others. Our wealth, our wisdom, our possessions, our privilege, we give everything away. I think this is the hardest concept in Buddhism for a Westerner to understand. This idea of giving away our merits is foreign, perhaps because we are used to a materialistic view of things and reality. How do we do give everything away literally? Again, it isn’t necessarily in this physical sense of giving away all our money to others, although it might, it is the intention to let go of our own attachment to accumulating more and give what we have accumulated to others for their benefit. For some, it is wealth we give to others, for others it’s our meditation practice, our affection, our efforts, our possessions, our capacities, whatever we have, we give it to others, wishing they had this for themselves. So then they’d be happy and free of suffering. And even if that happiness is only temporary, for we realize the impermanent and transcendental nature of things, we want them to have freedom.

Tonglen: Caring for Oneself More than Others

And so, we work in this way with our breath. Giving and taking. Breathing slowly into our closedness around our heart and softening our heart by finding ways to free the bodhisattva’s heart that cares for others more than ourselves. Breathing in someone’s greed or fear or illness as their darkness or suffering and breathing out brilliance and light from a place of pure love and pure giving. We all have this place of pure love and light. No matter how dark we feel, there is a place of pure love and light. This may be another snag for us. How can Nazis have any light?  How can bigots have any kindness? If I am not working on the frontlines of the Covid-19 Pandemic, how do I have any use? Yet if we look beneath the surface and perceive our universal equality, we will find the tenderness we’ve each hidden and our capacity to care for all beings. Bodhisattva’s know this to be true. And with practice we open up this vast heart that is boundless within us, one being at a time.


As a lay Buddhist chaplain and psychotherapist, Andrew began his Buddhist training as a teenager, and in his mid 20’s became a meditation teacher with the Sunray Meditation Society, under the guidance of  his root teacher, Ven. Dhyani Ywahoo. The ground from which he shares the teachings has included years of sitting practice and study with Tibetan/Bhutanese teachers, including Khenpo Tsewang Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Khenpo Karma Rinpoche, as well as training in End-of-Life caregiving and later becoming ordained as a chaplain with Roshi Joan Halifax in the Zen tradition. An avid student of Buddhism, he is passionate about bridging Buddhist philosophy/psychology into our daily lives as Westerners and to find the skillful means for transforming our obstacles, where he draws upon his work as psychotherapist. For the past 15 years, he’s been developing training skills for those in the healthcare and end-of-life care field and in 2105 launched the Mindfulness + Compassion Certificate Training that is now offered at SickKids Hospital in Toronto.