The practice is called, “tonglen.” The word is Tibetan and can be translated as giving and taking or sending and receiving. The practice appears to date to the 12th century in Tibet, but originated in India before that.
Over the last several months, I’ve been learning more about the Tibetan Buddhist practice of compassion meditation. Many people are commonly aware of the meditation practice known as mindfulness. Mindfulness is a Buddhist practice that focuses on being present in the moment, in the here and now. The most common form is to focus on one’s breathing and be aware of each breath inhaled and each exhalation. I learned this practice in my youth when I was taught to sit silently in church and to focus my attention on the cross or a lit candle and simply be present to God. In the Christian tradition, mindfulness is known as the prayer of presence.
Compassion meditation is a step beyond mindfulness meditation. Once one learns to be mindful, then one can use the focus of mindfulness and combined imagery about happiness, compassion, and freedom from suffering to self, others, or the world. There are various techniques that make up the practice of compassion meditation. The writings of Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron explores these practices with simplicity and clarity. This brings me back to tonglen.
The practice of tonglen is the practice of breathing in the suffering of another, or the suffering of the world, and breathing out compassion and loving-kindness. It’s a process of taking on the suffering of others and transforming it to a kind of healing energy.
As I’ve learned about this practice and used the technique, I’ve been struck by the parallels in the Buddhist practice to the traditional theology of the ministry of Jesus. At the heart of the Christian understanding of the ministry of Jesus is that he took on himself the pain and suffering of the world through a life of compassion that led to the cross. Then, that pain and suffering was transformed to new life in the resurrection.
In reading the gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus, what’s clear is that Jesus touched the lives of people who suffered. They suffered because of pain in life, poor health, poverty, and even quite common things like failed love and relationships. In all these human situations, Jesus demonstrated compassion. He reached out in compassion, offered healing, comfort, and kindness. The stories of the gospel convey a level of compassion that included being present with others in ordinary challenges, including the provision of tangible things like food for hungry crowds and wine for a wedding banquet. In each of these actions, Jesus took into himself the pain, the suffering, the disappointment, and the frustration. In return, he breathed out compassion, loving-kindness, mercy, and healing. From a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, Jesus lived tonglen.
As a Christian, I understand that my life is meant to be characterized by living in a Christ-like manner. Just as Jesus reached out with compassion and took on the pain of the world and transformed it into even more compassion, so I am called to do the same. The words of Jesus, according the author of John 15:13, instruct us that “no greater love does someone have than to lay down one’s life for a friend.” While few of us will ever be called to actually die in the place of another, or die to save the life of another, we each are presented opportunities most every day to lay down our lives with compassion in order to be present to the suffering and pain of others.
This week, most Christians around the world begin the observance of the forty-day period known as Lent. During Lent, Christians recall the sacred story of how Jesus took on the suffering of the world and transformed it to new life. The followers of Christ today are called to do the same.
This year, during Lent, I am thankful to have a new understanding of what it means to show compassion by transforming the suffering of others into loving kindness. My Tibetan Buddhist friends have helped me understand something of the practice of tonglen. It’s a beautiful yet challenging practice that opens my heart even more to the suffering of the world through compassion for others. The practice of compassion meditation and tonglen provides a way to live in a way that renews life for others. Isn’t that the essential message of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.