Tonglen Instruction*
Ane Pema Chodron


The ground of the tonglen practice is to develop your heart.  The essence of the practice is to develop and ripen a sense of sympathy for yourself and for others.  The practice of tonglen begins with your aspiration to help others, and the way to help others is to develop sympathy and friendship for yourself and then to extend that out.  If you have sympathy for your own confusion and the bravery and willingness to relate with your own confusion directly then you can extend that out to relate directly and gently with the confusion of other people.

There is one thing about tonglen practice that you might find particularly penetrating and useful in your practice and development.  Those things that you consider to be your greatest obstacles – your rage, for instance, or your extreme poverty, or your jealousy which eats you up – are actually your link with understanding the confusion of other people.  In shamatha practice, you work with these things by training yourself not to dwell on them but to see them with tremendous precision and realism.  In the tonglen practice, you continue with that same kind of honesty but with an emphasis largely on the heart.  It’s a heart matter, not a head matter, when you do tonglen.  So you should remember your aspiration to help others.  

However, when you start working with tonglen practice, you shouldn’t feel that you are there already.  You desire to develop your heart and your ability to genuinely care for other people, but you don’t sit down to do tonglen and have that already be the case.  Quite the opposite.  There is the path quality of this practice.

My own experience with tonglen has been that, if you do the practice very literally and according to the instructions, the practice itself develops your heart.  You start out being able to care for those you love.  You work with that; and, in the process, you begin to develop sympathy for your own confusion as well as for the confursion of the people that you don’t like.  And that extends out more and more and more.  So it is a practice that actually develops bodhicitta, the genuine heart of sadness.

A necessary prerequisite is the aspiration to do so and the willingness to work with the technique to the best of your ability.  Then the process will take care of itself.  Another necessary prerequisite, which fortunately we all have, is basic goodness.  So you need to get in touch with that and dissolve any obstacles to that.  This is the way to develop your heart which is the ground of tonglen.

Tonglen Technique

Stage One:

Tonglen practice has three stages.  The first stage is traditionally referred to as “flashing openness.”  This flash of openness is done very quickly.  One experience that everyone has had of this is when you’re practicing in the shrine room with the fan going, and then suddenly someone turns the fan off.  There is some sort of natural flash of silence and space.  It is a very simple thing.

Stage Two:

The next stage is working with textures: breathing in black, heavy and hot; breathing out white, light and cool.  The idea is that you are always breathing in the same thing which is fixation.  Fixation is the tendency to hold on with a vengence to yourself:  to “ME,” capital M, capital E.

You may have noticed that – when you get very angry or very poverty stricken or very jealous – you experience that fixation as black, hot, solid and heavy.  That is actually the texture of neurosis, the texture of fixation.  You may have also noticed times when you are all caught up in yourself, and then some sort of contrast or gap occurs.  It’s very spacious.  It’s the experience of mind that is not fixated on phenomena: it’s the experience of openness.  The quality or texture of that openness is generally experienced as very light, white, fresh, clear and cool.  Those are the qualities of openness.

So the second stage is simply working with those textures.  You breathe in black, heavy and hot through all the pores of your body, and you radiate out white, light and cool.  There is a sense of it coming in through all the pores of your body and radiating out in three hundred and sixty degrees.  So you work with the texture until you feel that it’s synchronized, until it is clear that black is coming in and white is going out on the medium of the breath: in and out, in and out.    

Stage Three:

In the third stage you work with suffering.  This part of the practice should be very, very real.  It should be totally untheoretical.  It should be heartfelt; it should be tangible and honest and true to you and vivid.

The third stage is actually in two parts.  You might want to think of these as 3a and 3b.  In 3a, you are working with specific suffering, specific pain. And it is a very personal sense of pain or suffering, yours or someone else’s.  In 3b, you are extending that sense of suffering out to include all beings.  So you need to work with both of those situations.  If you just had the idea of extending out to all beings, the practice would be very theoretical.  It would never actually touch your heart.  On the other hand, if you just had the sense of working with your own or someone else’s fixation, it would lack vision.  It would be too narrow.  Working with both of those situations together makes the practice very real and heartfelt.  At the same time, it provides vision and a way for you to work with everyone in the world as well.  At this point, I would like to describe how that works.

You should start with 3a, working with specific fixation, starting with something very close to home.  It could be your own anger, for example, that you might be feeling at that moment; or it could be the fixation of someone else whom you love very much, someone with whom you can connect very easily without any complications.

Suppose that you are involved in a horrific relationship.  Every time you think of a particular person you get furious.  That is very useful for tonglen!  Or perhaps you feel completely left out.  Your life is making you feel more wretched every day, and you feel completely poverty stricken.  It was all you could do to get out of bed and come to hear this talk.  You’re so depressed that you want to stay in bed for the rest of your life.  You have actually considered hiding under your bed.  That is very useful for tonglen practice.  It should be real, just like that.

Let’s use another example.  You may be formally doing tonglen or just sitting somewhere having coffee.  And. . . “Here he comes”. . . “Here he comes.”  You want to hit him, grasp him or wish that he weren’t there at all, just forget about him altogether and not pay any attention to him.  Let’s use anger as a specific example.  The object is, “Here he comes,” and here comes the poison, fury.  Then you breathe that in.  The idea is to develop sympathy for your own confusion.  And the technique is that you do not blame him; you also do not blame yourself.  Instead, there is just liberated fury.  It is hot, black and heavy.  And you experience it as fully as you can.

You breathe the anger in, you remove the object, you stop thinking about him.  In fact, he is just a useful catalyst.  You could be grateful to everyone.  You could drive all blames into yourself, breathing them in.  This doesn’t mean to say that you blame yourself, but you own it completely.  It takes a lot of bravery, and it’s extremely insulting to ego.  In fact, it completely destroys the whole mechanism of ego.  So you breathe in.

Then you breathe out sympathy, relaxation and spaciousness.  Instead of just a small, dark situation, you allow a lot of space for that feeling to exist in.  Don’t slow down the process by trying to think what the proper antidote would be.  Just allow space. When you breathe out, it is like ventilating the whole thing, airing it out.  Breathing out is like opening up your arms and just letting go, altogether.  Fresh air.  Then you breathe the rage in again: rage . . . the black, heavy hotness of it.  And then you breathe out, ventilating the whole thing allowing a lot of space.

What you are actually doing is cultivating kindness towards yourself.  It is very simple in that way. You don’t think about it, you don’t philosophize, you simply breathe in very real emotion.  You own it completely and then ventilate it allowing a lot of space when you breathe out.  This, in itself, is an amazing practice even if it didn’t go any further because, at this level, you are still working on yourself.  But the real beauty of the practice is that you then extend that out which is stage 3b.

Without any pretending, you can acknowledge, you can actually know, that about two billion other sentient beings are feeling that exact same rage in that second of time.  They are experiencing it exactly the way you are experiencing it.  They may have a different object, but the object isn’t the point.  The point is the rage itself.  So you breathe it in from all of them, so they no longer have to have it.  It doesn’t exactly make your own rage any greater; it is just rage, just fixation on rage, which causes so much suffering.

Sometimes, at that moment, you get a glimpse of why there is murder and rape, why there is war, why people burn down buildings, why there is so much misery in the world.  It all comes from feeling that rage and throwing it out instead of taking it in and airing it.  It all turns into hatred and misery which pollutes the world and, obviously, perpetuates suffering in a drastic way.  So, because you feel rage, therefore you have the kindling, the connection, for understanding the rage of all sentient beings.  So first you work with your own emotion, and then you extend that and breathe it all in.

At that point, sort of simultaneously, it is no longer your own particular burden; it is just the rage of sentient beings which includes you.  You breathe that in, and you breathe out a sense of ventilation, so that all sentient beings could experience that.  This goes for anything that bothers you.  The more it bothers you, the more awake you’re going to be when you do tonglen.

These things that really haunt us and drive us nuts, actually, have enormous energy in them.  That is why we fear them.  It could even be your own timidity.  If you are very, very timid and afraid to speak, afraid to walk up and say “hello” to someone, afraid to look someone in the eye, there is enormous maintenance and energy in that.  It is the way you keep yourself together.  So you have the chance to own that completely, not blaming anybody, and to ventilate it with the outbreath.  Then you might better understand why some person over there looks so grim.  It isn’t because they hate you, but they also feel the same kind of timidity and don’t want to look anyone in the face.  So your own pain is like kindling or a stepping stone.

By practicing in this way, you definitely develop your sympathy for other people and you begin to understand them a lot better.  As you do this practice and your heart develops more and more, even if someone comes up and insults you, you could genuinely and without a second thought understand the whole situation.  You could feel that sort of pain – like the hair on the eyeball, instead of the hair on the hand – because you understand so well where everybody’s coming from.  You also realize that you can help by simply breathing in the pain of others and breathing out that ventilation.  So the second way of doing tonglen is to work with other people.  That is actually the point of the practice altogether: working with others and developing your sense of caring for others.

Almost everybody can begin to do tonglen by thinking of someone they love very dearly.  For instance, you could think of someone who was kind to you when you were a child, or you could think of your own child.  It is sometimes easier to do this for your children than for your husband or wife or mother or father.  Sometimes, even though you love someone, it can get complicated.  But there are some people in your life whom you love very straightforwardly without complication.  They tend to be old people or people who are very ill or little children or people who have been extremely kind to you.

Last year, the Dorje Dradul told me that when he was young he always began his tonglen in the same way.  He would think about a puppy he had seen when he was eight years old.  This puppy was stoned to death by people who were laughing and jeering as they killed it.  It was whimpering and dying.  And when he did his practice, it was so straightforward.  All he had to do was to think of that dog, and his heart would start to be activated instantly.  There was nothing complicated about it. He would have done anything to breathe in the suffering of that animal and to breathe out relief.  So the idea is to start with something like that, something that activates your heart.  That is why, traditionally, it is said to start with your mother.

Gradually, having started the practice this way, you could extend it out to people who are somewhat “neutral.”  These may be people whom you also love; but, when you think of their faces, rage or some other kind of confusion occurs.  At that point, you are actually doing tonglen for them and for yourself and for the space in between you if you know what I mean.  And then, gradually, the practice moves out to include people whom you actually hate, people you consider to be your enemies or to have actually harmed you.  This expansion actually evolves by doing the practice.  You cannot fake these things.  Therefore, you start with the things that are close to your heart.

And so you think of a puppy, for instance, being stoned and dying in pain, and you breathe that in.  Then it is no longer just a puppy.  It is your connection with the realization that there are puppies and people suffering unjustly like that all over the world.  So you immediately extend the practice out and breathe in the suffering of all the people who are suffering like that animal.


That is why it is useful to think of tonglen practice in three stages: step one is spaciousness, step two is working with the texture establishing the synchronization of the in and outbreath, step three part a is particular suffering and part b extends out to everyone.

The main thing is to really get in touch with fixation and the power of emotional activity in yourself.  This makes other people’s similar situations completely accessible and real to you.  Then, when it becomes very real and vivid, always remember to extend it out.  Let your own experience be a stepping stone for working with the whole world.
* Adapted for Shambhala Training from a talk given to students at the 1983 Vajradhatu Seminary by Ane Pema Chodron. Copyright 1983, Vajradhatu Publications.  All rights reserved.  See also Chodron, 1997, pp. 93-97 (the practice begins p. 95).