Tonglen – Gently Beheading the Ego

Taking and giving. In meditation one visualises breathing in the sufferings of the world, and breathing out relief, or happiness. It is a training in altruism. This meditation will reduce selfish attachment, increase a sense of renunciation, create good karma by giving, and to develop and expand loving-kindness and bodhicitta. All six perfections are involved – giving, ethics, patience, joyous effort, concentration, and wisdom.


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Free Image from Pixabay


“Whether this meditation really helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective, and the benefit is immense.”

H.H. The Dalai Lama


When learning this practice it may be a good idea to start out small, with lesser sufferings. You could even start with yourself, working on your own unhappiness, and then expanding out to increase familial harmony or community harmony. In order to develop bodhicitta, or even simply to love and have compassion for others, you have to have it for yourselves.

Breathing in suffering does not entail taking on the sufferings for yourself, you visualise this suffering, however you visualise it, being purified in you.

It is a strong practice, with powerful effects. It involves directly facing suffering, being in touch with you own pain, and the pain in the world. You could call on a spiritual ally if you don’t feel you can do it yourself.


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I find it is as if I am breathing in a dark energy, a confusion, a greed, hatreds, taking a little from the world with each breath. Each breath then is turned to bright light (sunshine! Or more traditionally moonlight) inside me, and I have done this with the sense of it being an automatic process (ie intentions are set, purification will occur without me feeling as if I have to work very hard at it) but also with the feeling of actively working on the energy, by wishing, focusing on wanting to do the practice and for it to be effective.

We are taking on an endless practice, we are engaging with peoples addictions, anger, craving, pride, and fear. We are facing the huge delusions in the world, and by tthis I simply mean a lack of wisdom, a lack of understanding of the interconnectedness of life.

We are working directly with the energy that will pollute rivers, that will do anything for money, that will kill, rob, rape or maim. This is heavy stuff, but don’t be afraid, you are training.

You are not, I repreat, absorbing this energy, simply a purifying vessel. So be open, and if you find it difficult go back to metta bhavana for a while. This practice can be slipped into karuna bhavana in a way, or metta, should pain or suffering arise.


1. Start by connecting with somebody you know is suffering. You wish to breathe in their fear and pain, and send tem relief and happiness. Simply let yourself believe this is happening. This is it – breathing in their pain so they can be more open and relaxed, and sending them whatever you feel they may need.

I like to send people insights, or spiritual progress often in these kinds of meditations, since I do not know what they need a lot of the time. I like to think of Tara, or God, working with me so that they really get what they need. This can help us as we are bound to face our own fears and sufferings.

2. When this happens, just return to yourself and do the practice for yourself. Maybe you know what your pain is, maybe its just indefinable, but transform it to golden white light. It helps if you know where it is in your body and can give it a form or a colour, and then breathe it from the body and return it as sunshine. Often it is tightness, contraction, stomach, jaw, heart.

3. Ultimately, you build up to breathing in universal suffering, universal poisons (mental poisons – greed, hatred, delusion/ignorance) and any other energies you wish to engage. So you are bringing light into the world, transforming suffering in the world.

Eventually go beyond, expand the capacity so that you can breathe in suffering anywhere it appears in this universe. Other universes, other times, other dimensions.


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Free Image from Pixabay


Our normal response it so run from pain, and seek pleasure, but tonglen reverses this. We can liberate ourselves from a ‘very ancient prison of selfishness’ and pain (Pema Chodron.) We can open to new ways of loving and caring for ourself and others.

The ultimate insight in these meditations is to dissolve any sense of self-reference in the traditional sense. We are all beings, there is no self or other. Thus Tonglen connects to shunyata and the emptiness teachings, unlimited spaciousness and potential. The open dimension of our being.

It is your heart that transforms the suffering.

In an instant, both that cloud of miserty and your self-centredness mutually extinguish each other leaving not a trace of either behind.

Alan Wallace.

Sometimes it can feel like there is too much to take in, the suffering or the poison is too big, too powerful. So use an ally, I find sometimes that becoming the sun, and from the sun breathing in the poison from the earth is a wonderful tool. The sun burns and purifies anything.


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Free Image from Pixabay


Another problem I encounter is that the breath seems too short to gather all the thoughts you have about the suffering. I sometimes take a few breaths to really ensure I am in touch with what I am meant to be, and then breathe it in, gradually, bit by bit, breath by breath.


Visualise that this mass of black smoke dissolves, into the very core of your self grasping at your heart. There. It destroys completely all traces of self-cherishing, thereby purifying all negative karma. Imagine now that your self-cherishing has been destroyed, that the heart of your enlightened mind is fully revealed.

Sogyal Rinpoche


It is a beautiful practise, and a simple one. You can drop into it at any time, if you become aware of the seeds of any of the worlds poisons, such as irritation or anger, slight aversion, craving, or simply forgetting the wisdoms, then you can breathe it in, breathing out the salve. You can start with the emotion or thoughts in you, then open out and universalise, work a while on the worlds suffering. In a shop, a bus, a social gathering, you can play with it, breath in your friend’s suffering or anger, breathe out relief.

Tonglen is also a practice that can be slipped into during other meditations whenever a hindrance takes a hold. I find that being able to slip into another practice for a short time during meditation incredibly helpful.

The expansiveness you have generated in one practise can help you in this one, or metta, or a breath of wind dissolves all the elements and carries ideas of selfhood away with it. Recalling Vajrasattvas diamond bright purifying fire, or Taras infinite compassion, or the face of the buddha. Use the channels you have created, use the neural pathways you have created over time to help you deal with barriers and hindrances, or as shortcuts to increased absorption.


Free Image from Pixabay
Free Image from Pixabay


In meditation I find I can be carried away with some fantasy or idea, and there is always a self. A self referencing or cherishing, some ego appearance or distraction. Distractions can be a part of the tonglen practice. Self referencing, cherishing, ego, pride, self-pity, all of it can be fuel for the purifying and the universalising.


Love is inseparable from insight, love is a lack of self-preoccupation. When there is a lack of self-preoccupation life is a lot simpler.



So be grateful for it all, all the problems, all the difficulties, all of the suffering. It is a part of your lesson and a part of your teacher. All is your teacher and yet nothing is your teacher.

There is nothing that cannot be in the practice. There is nothing that can remain in infinite mind. When mind is not infinite, use that in the practice. Breath in non-infinite, breathe out infinite.

With thanks and metta to Saddhanandi, Yashobodhi, Sangharakshita, Shantideva, and Pema Chodron

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