Tong Len (taking and giving) is a meditation practice where we imagine taking on others’ suffering and giving them our joys, our positive possessions and karma.
We take their unwanted suffering from them and we imagine giving them our happiness. This is the same case that we follow for our own well-being —we aim to get rid of harmful things and in their place, acquire things that will do us good. But with this practise, instead of doing good and avoiding harm for ourselves…we imagine doing that job for others. We practise charity by taking on their harm and giving them our good.
When they first meet this practice, some people worry and become fearful. They think that the practice will bring on unwanted suffering and cause them to lose their happiness. But there is clearly no need to worry because this practice does not create or bring on suffering. Your experience of suffering is entirely the result of your own karma.
Still others tackle tong len with exaggerated hope and great expectations. They meditate with the expectation that their tong len sessions will bring specific outcomes such as curing a friend’s cancer. When the outcome is not achieved, they become disillusioned and reject the practice. But this is not what tong len is about.
Why Do We Practise Tong len?
Tong len is practised in order to change our current attitude —thinking of ourselves as the most important person in existence— into a new attitude that cherishes other beings as more important than ourselves.
However, the practice does have extensive long term results as well. Gradually, as we come to cherish others more than ourselves, we also gain the ability to help others by training them in the Dharma. In that way, we do take away their suffering and give them happiness.
Tong len meditation has two essential elements, love and compassion. By taking on the suffering of others, we practise compassion; by giving our happiness to others, we practise love.
Thus the meditation increases love and compassion in our hearts.
If, when we see others deprived of happiness, we generate a strong wish for them to be happy — we are showing our love for them. When we see others suffering, and we generate the wish to remove their suffering, we are expressing our compassion.
Just wanting to develop more love and compassion towards other beings is already a wonderful motivation. On top of that motivation, tong len is a higher form of practice. In addition to wishing benefit, tong len is taking action to benefit. And, at its most advanced level, it is not easy to perform.
Tong len is an excellent beginner-level practice — but it is a lot more than that, too. For a yogi and anyone who is genuinely determined to practise this technique, their attitude is so much more transformative than we are able to manage or understand at our level.
Such a person is happy when they experience personal suffering, and very wary when they experience happiness or a pleasant situation.
Being willing to take on the suffering of others requires you to be undaunted, not overwhelmed by suffering. You need to be willing to endure hardships and difficulties, and then to use those difficulties as an essential part of your practice.
Why would you be wary and uneasy with happiness? Because when we experience something pleasant, attachment to those good conditions and pleasant sensations will almost certainly arise. And that’s why a true practitioner is wary about good conditions and pleasant sensations.
It is important to understand what tong len practice entails, and why it is such a powerful practice.
From a conventional or worldly perspective, it sounds very strange that someone would be willing and happy to experience hardships and suffering while being wary and unhappy when pleasant things occur. However when we understand why a practitioner adopts such an outlook, then we will begin to see that this is not at all weird or strange, but it is in fact a great point of practice.
If we carefully consider our normal situation, we will come to see what actually causes us the most trouble in our life — it is our obsession with wanting only to experience pleasantness and to avoid suffering. If we think about it honestly, we will see that this is really what drives most of our actions.
By maintaining our normal, worldly view, it means we are constantly obsessed with wanting to experience pleasant sensations and conditions, and that we are constantly trying to avoid any unpleasant conditions and situations.
When our expectations are not met, it is exactly this worldly view that causes us so much turmoil and difficulty. If we can face and understand this fact, we will see that hanging onto this worldly attitude is the pivotal thing that gives rise to delusions such as strong attachment and anger.
By becoming obsessed with pleasant sensations, strong attachment arises and we want the sensations to continue. The other side of that same coin is not wanting to experience any unpleasantness.
The moment the slightest unpleasantness arises, we immediately become upset and angry that it did.
So we can see how committing to that worldly view or outlook causes attachment and anger to repeatedly arise in our mind. And to cause us so much pain.
Conversely —by willingly accepting and enduring all hardships— we can adopt an undaunted attitude that allows us to to deal with unpleasantness and difficulties when they arise. So our mind will not be disturbed.
This patient perseverance protects our mind from anger. Conversely, if we allow our mind to be completely obsessed with external situations —believing good conditions bring us happiness— then the moment those conditions cease, so does our happiness. But by working on our internal conditions, we will reduce our attachment to external conditions and stop depending on them for our happiness.
Even if we cannot yet develop the strong tong len meaning in our heart, just familiarising our mind with the attitude is still worthwhile for us as beginners.
The technique of giving and taking develops a genuine sense of love and compassion in our mind. In that way it becomes a great tool to oppose strong delusions such as attachment and anger. With that understanding, we can see that the meditation helps us to acquire a true sense of well-being and happiness.
In particular, it will help us to increase a genuine, sound wisdom that will help us to clearly identify the helpful factors, and to discard the negative factors that influence our well-being.
Tong len helps us to reduce our self-centred attitudes that bring us only harm. It develops our sensitivity to the welfare of others and softens our me-only outlook so that we fit into the world with love and compassion.