As with any spiritual or meditative practice, there are several misconceptions about Tonglen meditation that can create confusion or misunderstanding. Below are some common misconceptions that Uyen Phuong, a member of LotusBuddhas, has compiled from meditation forums. She will provide clear explanations to help bring more accurate understanding of this practice of loving-kindness.
1. You take on others’ suffering, which is harmful to you
As we delve into the compassionate practice of Tonglen meditation, it’s important to address a common misconception that many folks encounter – the idea that we take on others’ suffering, which might be harmful to us. From my own experience and understanding, I’d like to offer a heartfelt explanation as to why this concern, though understandable, doesn’t hold true in the context of Tonglen meditation.
First and foremost, let’s remember that Tonglen meditation is a symbolic and transformative journey into the heart. When we visualize taking in the suffering of others, it’s not meant to be taken literally. Instead, it’s an act of deepening our connection and empathy, allowing us to be fully present with the pain and sorrow that exists in the world.
The real magic happens when we breathe out love and compassion. As we imagine this bright, healing light emanating from our hearts, we are consciously transforming the suffering we’ve taken in. This is the essence of Tonglen – to recognize the pain and then actively work towards healing and soothing it with our loving intention.
In this way, we’re not accumulating the suffering of others but rather using our capacity for compassion and love to create positive change. Instead of being harmful, Tonglen meditation actually strengthens our emotional resilience and our ability to offer support and understanding to those in need.
So, trust that as you practice Tonglen meditation, you’re not putting yourself in harm’s way. Instead, you’re cultivating a beautiful, compassionate heart that can touch the lives of countless others. Remember that power of love and healing lies within you, and with each breath, you’re sharing that gift with the world.
2. Tonglen meditation is only for Buddhists
Some of my Catholic friends have asked about this. And of course, I explained to them that Tonglen meditation is for everyone on this earth.
It’s true that Tonglen meditation has its roots in the rich Tibetan Buddhist tradition. However, at its core, this practice is about cultivating compassion, empathy, and the realization of our interconnectedness – qualities that transcend any specific religious or spiritual affiliation. In fact, these qualities are intrinsic to our shared human experience and can be nurtured and developed by anyone who wishes to tap into the depths of their heart.
What’s beautiful about Tonglen meditation is that it can be adapted and embraced by folks from all walks of life. Regardless of one’s spiritual or religious background, the practice of breathing in suffering and breathing out love and compassion speaks to the universal longing for healing and connection. It’s an invitation to open our hearts and recognize the common thread that binds us all – our shared experience of joy and sorrow, love and loss.
3. Tonglen meditation is a passive practice that doesn’t create real change
To be honest, I used to think that Tonglen meditation was a passive practice that didn’t create real change. I thought it was like empty promises such as “if I win the lottery, I will give money to everyone,” “I wish all beings peace,” or “I have a compassionate heart, I want to help others out of suffering.” But when faced with real situations, everyone is selfish and caught up in money, possessions, status, and fame. No one wants to give anything to anyone for free.
I’d like to share my thoughts and experiences to help shed light on why this misconception doesn’t quite capture the true essence of Tonglen meditation.
At first glance, it might seem like Tonglen meditation is all about sitting quietly and focusing on our breath, visualizing the process of taking in suffering and offering compassion. But beneath the surface, there’s a whole lot more going on. You see, Tonglen meditation is an active process of transforming our hearts and minds, cultivating a deep sense of empathy and understanding that extends far beyond the meditation cushion.
When we practice Tonglen meditation, we’re not just passively observing the world’s pain; we’re actively engaging with it, embracing it with love and compassion. This inner transformation has a profound ripple effect on our lives, influencing how we relate to others and how we navigate the ups and downs of life.
As our hearts expand with compassion, we naturally become more open, understanding, and supportive in our interactions with others. This shift in our way of being can lead to real change in our relationships, our communities, and ultimately, the world. And that, my friend, is far from passive.
4. Tonglen meditation is too challenging or overwhelming for beginners
I’d love to share some insight on a misconception that might arise when folks consider diving into the world of Tonglen meditation – the idea that it’s too challenging or overwhelming for beginners.
It’s true that the practice of taking in suffering and offering compassion may seem a bit daunting at first glance. However, the beauty of Tonglen meditation lies in its adaptability and flexibility. You see, this practice can be tailored to suit your own unique needs and comfort levels, allowing you to grow into it at your own pace.
When first starting out, you might choose to focus on your own pain or the suffering of a loved one, rather than trying to take on the pain of the entire world. This allows you to build a solid foundation in the practice and develop a deeper understanding of the principles of compassion and empathy.
As you progress, you can gradually expand your practice, reaching out to larger groups of people or even all sentient beings. The key is to approach Tonglen meditation with self-compassion, patience, and a gentle curiosity, allowing yourself the space to learn, grow, and adapt.
Moreover, don’t hesitate to seek guidance from experienced practitioners or teachers, either in person or through books and online resources. Their wisdom and experience can help you navigate the practice and find ways to make it work for you.
5. Tonglen is a quick fix for all suffering
While Tonglen meditation is indeed a powerful tool for cultivating empathy, love, and compassion, BUT it’s not a magic wand that instantly erases all suffering. Rather, it’s a gradual and transformative process that helps us develop a deeper connection with ourselves and others, allowing us to navigate the challenges of life with greater wisdom, understanding, and resilience.
As we practice Tonglen, we learn to sit with suffering and embrace it with love and compassion. This doesn’t mean that the pain will suddenly vanish, but it does help us develop the emotional strength and inner resources to face life’s difficulties with greater ease and grace.
Moreover, Tonglen meditation isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to every problem we might face. It’s one piece of the puzzle, a beautiful and heartfelt practice that can support us on our journey towards healing and growth.
So, let’s not view Tonglen meditation as a quick fix for all suffering but rather as a powerful and transformative practice that can help us cultivate a compassionate heart and a deeper understanding of the human experience.
Uyen Phuong is glad to be able to help you understand more about Tonglen meditation and dispel these misconceptions. Buddhism teaches that we are all interconnected, so let’s love and help each other overcome suffering in this life.