December 2014 By Aparrna Sharma Aparrna Sharma participates in a radically compassionate practice called Tonglen meditation, and returns with a heart full of courage Have you ever glanced into the mirror while brushing your teeth and seen Himalayan pines in the backdrop? I have! Have you ever, walking down an unpaved, treacherous mountain path at night, deliberately switched off your torch because the moon was so glorious? I have! Have you ever, in the face of the fiercest storms, the collapse of your only house, the lover that jilted you, the precious job you lost; when everything in life said, ‘Run for cover’, have you ever, then, given up your armour? I have! I stepped down from the bus one September morning, and stepped on to a piece of heaven – Dharamkot. Little did I know that this dawn exuding peace, the mist singing love, the scent of pines combined with incense, the peaceful chant of Buddhist monks had the calibre to forge you into a fearless warrior. The ‘Tonglen’ practice was one such experience. It flipped my mind and turned all my ideas about meditation upside down. I had been rummaging through the ‘spiritual market’s for a few years before I came across this practice. Frankly, all our efforts towards spirituality and all our love towards our gurus has one hidden agenda: ‘Mend my life’. In fact through everything we do, whether in the realm of spiritual practice or in the world of taxes and EMIs, we are actually trying to just mend our lives or furnish and embellish it somewhat. I always secretly hoped that if I did this practice or that therapy, I would never again feel hurt or depressed or a loser. I would perhaps go around exuding gratitude, bliss and music. Tonglen was quite the opposite. It is ‘radical compassion’, said our teacher Jimi Neal. Quite literally, ‘tonglen’ means ‘sending and receiving’ – tong’ meaning ‘sending out’ or ‘letting go’ and ‘len’ meaning ‘receiving’ or ‘accepting’ You sit down in meditation and you invite the pain in, breathing in all the darkness and suffering from others, and giving out relief and happiness to them. It is quite a radical practice. While exhaling, you give away your happiness, your pleasure, love, purity, light, anything that feels good. All of that goes out with the outbreath. As you breathe in, you breathe in any resentments and problems, the dark, cold muck – anything that feels bad. Bad in, good out In some versions you visualize the other person in front of you and see all their suffering, negativity and darkness come together in the form of a dark cloud in front of them. At the same time, you visualize or feel this block in your heart, this rock-like little thing of self-preservation which cringes at every blow. But you breathe in their dark cloud anyway, feel it colliding against the rock, and see it blow up into splinters like fireworks on a Diwali night. In some other versions, explains Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tenzin Palmo, “we visualize a crystal ‘vajra’ in our heart which represents our innate dharmakaya mind. The dark light absorbs into this and is instantly transformed into radiance.” Whatever be your method, it basically entails taking in darkness and giving out light – bad in, good out, black in, white out. All the negativity comes into us and attacks our concept of ‘self-cherishing’. Think of the resistance the mind and ego will put up. The being will cringe, ‘Oh no, not suffering. I already have enough of my own.’ Tonglen is not for the timid. It is about cultivating fearlessness. Most of all, it is about realising that there is no separation between us and the others. There is a story about the most famous Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, that writer and spiritual teacher, Pema Chodron, recounts. “One evening Milarepa returned to his cave after gathering firewood, only to find it filled with demons. They were cooking his food, reading his books, sleeping in his bed. They had taken over his cave. Now Milarepa had learnt about non-duality of self and other. However, even though he had the sense that they were just a projection of his own mind – all the unwanted parts of himself – he didn’t know how to get rid of them. “So first he taught them the dharma. He sat on his seat and taught the concepts about how we are all one. He talked about compassion and emptiness. Nothing happened. The demons were still there. Then he lost his patience and got angry and ran at them. They just laughed at him. Finally, he gave up and just sat down on the floor, saying, ‘I’m not going away and it looks like you’re not either, so let’s just live here together.’ At that point, all of them left except one. Milarepa said, ‘Oh, this one is particularly vicious.’ (We all know that one). He didn’t know what to do, so he surrendered himself even further. He walked over and put himself right into the mouth of the demon and said, ‘Just eat me up if you want to.’ Then that demon left too.” Mahayana Buddhism talks about ‘bodhichitta’ which means ‘awakened heart’ or ‘courageous heart’. The purpose of Tonglen is to awaken your heart or cultivate your courageous heart. The Buddha mind I went to the teacher, Jimi Neal, on the first day of the retreat and confessed that I was willing to send loving-kindness to every person in the world, except one. This one had been particularly hurtful to me in a whole lot of ways. For all my ‘practices’, I could never again hold him in a space of kindness in my heart. Jimi shook his head, “This is not Bodhichitta!” “Well, I don’t have Bodhichitta,” I protested. “But the Buddha said, “Hogwash! Everyone has bodhichitta!” replied Jimi. “So maybe we start with just a little thimbleful of bodhichitta,” Pema Chodron adds, “Just a little sesame seed of courage, but if you do the practice, it’s like watering that seed which seems to grow and flourish.” As you shed your armour, you get in touch with that inexhaustible fountain of courage that is just waiting to emerge. All of us, at the very essence, possess that unblemished purity and love waiting to be expressed. That is our true nature. Consciousness, Existence, Bliss – Sat, Chit, Ananda – unlimited reservoirs of it that we can give out without ever needing to replenish. In the Absolute sense, it is Emptiness; and in the relative sense it is compassion. On the fourth day of consistent practice, my heart began to open. I first gathered all the pain that I had ever felt because of him, then I accumulated all the pain that numerous other people had felt similarly, and I let it hit the rock of pain in my heart. This was my own version of the practice to begin with. Once the pain rock burst, I exhaled the ensuing relief to him. Next, I visualised that person’s delusion which made him behave that way. I felt his confusion, anger and arrogance and breathed it in. In turn I let it hit my own delusion that had made me feel like a victim. I saw them collide and burst. All that was left was clarity, an understanding. I breathed out the clear vision. Stephen Damon, a Soto Zen priest in San Francisco, recounts her experience as a volunteer at the Zen Hospice Project in her Ancient forest Zen blog. “At the beginning of my last shift at the hospice, I was told that we had a new resident who had just been told that she had but a few weeks left. When I walked into her room I recognised many of the signs of impending death. She seemed to be having a hard time falling asleep. She held both of her hands on her eyes and seemed to be trying to close them. So I sat beside her, holding her hand, stroking her head, and saying little things in a soft voice. After a few minutes it was clear to me that she had much more serious problems than the inability to fall asleep. So I decided to try some Tonglen meditation with her. “I should say that while I have done this practice with hospice residents several times, I have never noticed any obvious results. But on that day, after several rounds, she put down her arms, closed her eyes, and fell asleep. “I put my hands on her folded hands until her breathing became deep. Seeing this I was filled with a deep longing question that really had no words. I was in front of a mystery and all I could do was be quiet and allow it to enter into myself as deeply as I could.” Practising Tonglen Karen M Wyatt M D, a physician and spiritual teacher, says, “As I learned when I began utilising Tonglen while training for a 60-mile walk for breast cancer patients, this practice gives you a way to offer help to those you love during times when it seems there is nothing you can do for them. Rather than sitting by helplessly, observing a loved one suffer, you can actively engage in a practice that can help bring them some relief, and give you some peace, as well.” In Western psychology, the ‘shadow’ is all the repressed emotions and impulses of a person. Until these aspects of the self are re-integrated into conscious awareness they will cause her to remain entrenched in confused patterns of behaviour. Jim O’Connor, a London-based professional and researcher, feels that “By voluntarily taking upon himself the suffering of others the individual is engaged in the process of re-owning his own unacknowledged suffering, or his own shadow. In breathing in the thick black smoke, the person is ‘breathing in’ his own shadow and allowing it into conscious awareness. Thus, people engaged in long-term Tonglen practice can significant
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