Meditation on Emptiness and Tong-len (Taking and Giving)

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Florence, Italy 1990 (Archive #678)

Teachings by Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche, given in Florence, Italy, on July 20, 1990. Rinpoche begins with an explanation of emptiness, then teaches tong-len, or taking and giving—the meditation practice of generating bodhicitta by taking on the suffering of others and giving them happiness.

Edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron. Second edit by Sandra Smith.

Taking the Suffering of Others

Practicing Dharma doesn't mean simply meditation, sitting in a certain posture in a quiet place. There is also studying all the extensive teachings that explain in detail the whole path from beginning to the end. To achieve liberation, to achieve the peerless happiness of full enlightenment, that comes through listening, reflecting and meditating. However, the whole point is to obtain happiness.

Everyone wants happiness and does not want suffering. It is for this reason that some people spend their life doing retreat or studying the path, or going to school and then university to get a degree in order to find a job and have a comfortable, happy life without any problems. These things are done with the aim to have a happy life with wealth, power, reputation and so forth. Looking for happiness, you may sit in meditation in your house at certain times each day. However, when there is a problem in our life  we have to apply the real meditation, the real Dharma, the real spiritual practice. When we have a problem, that is the time we really have to use meditation. The purpose of doing all these things, sitting in meditation every day, is to help us when we meet difficulties in our life. It benefits us at that time.

Now, problems don't come from outside, but from your own mind. From your own side you have looked at the situation as a problem, so it appears to you as a problem. First you look at the situation as a problem, so it then appears to be a problem. How does this happen? You look at the situation as a problem by labeling it, "This is a problem." When you interpret the situation as a problem and then label it as such, your life situation appears to be a problem. Because you see it as difficult, it appears to be difficult. That is how the problem comes from your own mind. There is no external problem. You made up the problem.

When you have a problem, for example, some disease, think of all the other people with much greater problems than you, with more serious diseases. By thinking of others with greater problems, you don't feel so much depression and fear. You feel happier because you don't have such a heavy disease as those others. Even if you are poor and cannot afford a luxurious, comfortable life, think of those who have a much harder life, who are dying of starvation. You then feel very fortunate that you don't have such great problems. When you compare your situation with the problems of others like this, you feel happier. When you look only at your present problem, you think it is so great. Even though it is actually a small problem, you make it big. You think, "This is unbearable!" and make it huge. In this way it makes you depressed, more and more unhappy, with more worry and fear. You can see that with an unskillful way of thinking there is unhappiness; with a skillful way of thinking, there is immediate happiness. So, your own mind creates the happiness; your own mind stops the worry, depression and so forth. With your own mind you can do that.

If you have a disease that is curable, it may be more beneficial, depending upon the level of your mind, to use medicine to cure it. However, if the disease is incurable, something that you have to go through, while you are experiencing the pain or whatever, there are different ways to think. Let's say that you suddenly find out you have AIDS. When you think of only yourself, you see only your own problem and do not see the problems of others. You then become scared and even paranoid, kind of crazy. This is possible. Concern about yourself can make you so worried that you even create health problems, you create disease within yourself.

However, when you think of the hundreds of thousands of others who have these problems, it makes a difference to your mental state. You are not as upset, not as paranoid as when you think only of yourself and not of others. Just this makes you feel better. Somehow your mental state becomes lighter. Whether your disease is curable or incurable, while you are experiencing it, sincerely dedicate that you are bearing the sufferings, the hardships, for others. Think of Jesus Christ, for example, who took others' pain and suffering upon himself. There are many stories like this and not only in Buddhism. There are so many saints, so many holy beings, in Christianity as well as Buddhism.

For example, Shakyamuni Buddha sacrificed his life numberless times for other sentient beings. He gave his own body as charity to others numberless times; he gave his legs, hands and head. He gave his eyes to others when they came begging for eyes. Numberless times he offered charity. When he was a king, he gave away his wealth and even his whole family—his wife, sons and daughters—to other sentient beings. Numberless times he offer his own body as charity to other sentient beings, to the spirits, to animals, to humans. Holy beings sacrifice themselves like this for others and Shakyamuni Buddha did this numberless times during his lives as a bodhisattva.

Whether your disease is curable or incurable, to make having it worthwhile, experience it on behalf of all sentient beings. While you are experiencing it, make the dedication in your mind, "I am experiencing this on behalf of all sentient beings." Do the meditation of taking others' sufferings of AIDS, cancer or whatever problem you have. So many have the problem now and so many hundreds of thousands will be experiencing this problem in the future, so take all the present and future suffering and its causes—the negative actions motivated by the disturbing thoughts of ignorance, anger and attachment—upon yourself. Breathe in all the disease and its causes in the form of black smoke. It comes in through your nostrils and is absorbed into the self-cherishing thought, which interferes all the time with your immediate and ultimate happiness; which interferes all the time with your ability to free all sentient beings from all their sufferings and obscurations and to lead them to temporary and ultimate happiness. It is absorbed into the self-cherishing thought and completely destroys it.

Also take in all the undesirable environments experienced by humans, animals, pretas and hell beings in the form of black smoke and absorb them into the self-cherishing thought. After these are absorbed, the self-cherishing thought, the ego, becomes completely non-existent.

As the self-cherishing thought becomes non-existent, so too does the real I —the I existing from its own side, which the self-cherishing thought regards as so precious and so important. Just as the self-cherishing thought becomes empty, non-existent, so does the object it cherishes, the real I appearing from its own side. It also becomes empty.

Then meditate for a little while on the emptiness of the I, aware that the I is empty of existing from its own side. What is left there is nothing except what is merely imputed. This merely imputed I then offers charity to other sentient beings. The merely imputed I offers everything—all your own happiness and causes of happiness, merit, your own body and possessions—to the hell beings, preta beings, animals, humans, demi-gods, gods, to all sentient beings. Your own body becomes a wish-granting jewel and you offer charity to all of them. All their environments become pure realms. If someone is practicing Christianity, the place where they are becomes heaven. Everyone lives in a pure realm filled with only pure enjoyments; nothing causes delusions to arise.

All the iron ground [of the hell realm], the iron houses and cooking pots of the hells, which are oneness with fire, are completely transformed into blissful pure realms with beautiful celestial mansions. All the weapons are transformed into flowers. It is similar with the pretas. They receive many hundreds of different nectars and food. Since one of the major sufferings of animals is being attacked by others, guards such as Vajrapani and so forth manifest to protect them from being attacked and release them from fear.

The major human problem is scarcity of the means of living, so those who need money, receive wealth. Their houses are completely filled with money. Each person finds the whole sky filled with money. Hundreds of millions of lira completely fill the whole sky and belong to each person. Those who need a guru find a perfectly qualified guru who can reveal the whole path to them. Those who need medicine, receive medicine. Those who have AIDS, cancer or any other incurable disease receive medicine that immediately cures them. Those who need a doctor, find a doctor; those who need a friend, find a friend; those who need a husband, find a husband; those who need a wife, find a wife. They receive whatever they need for their happiness.

And the same thing happens with the gods, those who are living in the higher realms. They also receive whatever they are lacking, whatever they need for their happiness. They receive armor to protect their life and so forth. Those who are experiencing the signs of death receive long-life nectar. They receive whatever they want and all these enjoyments become the cause only to purify their mind, to purify all mental stains, and to generate the path in their mind, so that they all become fully enlightened beings. You can think they become Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion, or whichever deity you practice.

First of all, by taking other sentient beings' suffering upon yourself, since they are numberless, you accumulate infinite merit. Second, by dedicating all your merit, and all your past, present and future happiness, your body, possessions, everything, to all sentient beings, you accumulate inconceivable merit because those to whom you offer are numberless. This is the most extensive way to create the unmistaken cause of happiness, not only temporal but ultimate. This becomes the cause to achieve the peerless happiness of full enlightenment, the mental state which has ceased all mistakes and is perfected in all realizations.

Taking others' suffering upon yourself and dedicating your own happiness to others is the way to achieve success in life. This is the meditation practice for success. If you want to have success in business or become wealthy, this is the best way to create the cause. It is also the best healing meditation. The meditation practice of renouncing yourself and cherishing other sentient beings, exchanging the self for others, is the solution to everything. It also eliminates life obstacles and prolongs your life, because by taking other sentient beings' suffering you accumulate so much merit and purify so much negative karma, the cause of obstacles and problems. Problems have a cause and it is the obscurations, the negative actions motivated by disturbing thoughts. This cause of your problems is purified by sacrificing yourself for other sentient beings. So again this meditation becomes one great puja to purify the cause of all the problems.

Here I'm just explaining the meditation. As I was saying before, when you have a problem such as disease, particularly if it is incurable, while you are experiencing the problem, this is how to make it worthwhile. You can use it to become the cause of happiness, and not only temporary happiness. The way the problem, the disease, is used here is that it is experienced for others, it becomes the cause to achieve peerless happiness, with the cessation of all mistakes and the completion of all realizations. The meditation itself becomes the real medicine to purify the causes of AIDS, cancer or whatever particular problem you have. The meditation itself is the best medicine since it purifies even the cause of the problem. By purifying the cause, you do not then experience the resultant problems. This is the way it works.

And also the meditation itself helps others, heals others. If someone is harming a particular person, dedicate yourself to take their place so that you receive the harm rather than them. This is also what is called chöd, slaying the ego. This becomes a very powerful healing meditation for others—for other sick people or those who have problems. You sacrifice yourself to be harmed in place of the other person, so in that way it becomes a great healing.

This meditation benefits you in so many ways. This is the way to meditate if you want to be wealthy, if you want a lot of money to travel—I'm joking! Doing this meditation or dedication helps. By giving, you get; by not giving, you don't get. That is the evolution.

You do this meditation of taking others' sufferings and then the rest of the time, think, "I have taken others' sufferings and disease and now I am experiencing these on their behalf." The rest of the time try to remember this again and again, "I am experiencing this suffering for others." If you have relationship problems, think, "I am experiencing this problem for the numberless other sentient beings who have relationship problems or who will have them in the future." If you have a disease, think that you are experiencing it on behalf of all sentient beings. Try to think this again and again, again and again.

When you change your attitude and think that you are experiencing the problem on behalf of others, your mind is happy. Even if the disease is incurable, when you use it to practice, there's happiness in your mind. Even though there may be some physical pain, the mind is happy. With training, it happens like this.

I mentioned before that problems don't come from outside, but from your own mind. In the same way, happiness doesn't come from outside, but from your own mind. I'm giving you examples of how you can use your own mind to bring happiness—even if you have serious problems like these. Wherever you are, right there, you can establish happiness; you can transform the problems into happiness. Rather than becoming a problem the situation become a cause of happiness; rather than becoming something you don't need, it becomes something you need. You make it useful, meaningful.

Everything depends on your mind. Whether your present situation is a problem or not all depends on your own mind. Like the different television channels, everything depends on how you think.

Even though someone may love you very much, you may interpret the person's way of acting toward you, their way of looking at you or talking to you, as meaning that they don't love you. You interpret something in their external appearance as not loving you. When you label "This person doesn't love me" and then believe in your own label, it appears that the person doesn't love you. Again, this appearance and this problem came from your own mind.

Without such things as patience, compassion, the good heart, there's no peace in life and no happiness. The best qualities that make it worthwhile to be a human being are missing. No matter how wealthy you are, no matter how many friends you have, no matter how much education you have, there is no peace or happiness. What can bring peace to the world is compassion, patience. If you have compassion and patience, you can bring peace to everyone, to all living beings, starting with your own family. If you don't harm others and on top of that, benefit them, you can bring peace to all living beings. And this compassion and patience can take you to full enlightenment, the state of omniscient mind, the peerless happiness, with the cessation of all obscurations and the completion of all realizations. Compassion and patience lead you there, to complete spiritual development, to complete peace.

All this comes from compassion and patience. So, without the existence of someone who shows anger or dislike toward you, you have no opportunity to develop patience. You have this opportunity only with someone who dislikes you. When someone dislikes you, you have the opportunity to practice patience and in that way you are able to develop your mind in the path. You are able to stop harming all living beings, starting with your family, and you are able to benefit them all. You are able to complete the path, to achieve the peerless happiness with the cessation of all obscurations and the completion of all realizations, and then free all living beings from all sufferings and obscurations and lead them to the peerless happiness of full enlightenment.

This all happens in dependence upon the person who dislikes you. You receive all these benefits in dependence upon the kindness of this person. All these benefits come because this person is angry with you or doesn't love you. If this person loved you, you would have no opportunity to develop patience and all these other things. This person who doesn't love you is the only one who allows you to practice patience, the only one who gives you all these infinite benefits. Since patience and also compassion are of the utmost need, this person who is angry with me and doesn't like me is extremely kind.

Thinking of the particular kindness of the enemy like this, you feel their kindness from the depths of your heart. You like and appreciate the person. Instead of feeling angry with them, you feel love for them and want to help them. You want to make offerings to that person for his or her kindness.

With the previous person who loved you very much, you interpreted the way they looked at you or talked to you as meaning that they didn't love you and it then appeared that way to you, so it became a problem. It is very clear that the problem came from your own mind. Now here, with the second person, who really does hate you, you remember the particular kindness of the enemy. This is the only person who helps you, who gives you the most important education, who allows you to develop patience, the most important quality of a human being,  and to develop the path to the ultimate happiness of full enlightenment. Only this person does this. Remembering their kindness, you are happy and they become your best friend. So, this also comes from your mind. Even though the person hates you, you are happy with them, and this happiness came from your own mind.

The conclusion is, everything depends on your mind. You can stop problems and obtain happiness with your own mind. Realizing this, you should know that you have great freedom. It is in your own hands. This is the psychology of meditation. The real meditation, the real spiritual practice, is to transform suffering into happiness and that depends on transforming the mind, the attitude.

When there is a problem, instead of disliking it, remember to meditate on the benefits of problems so that you like the problem. That's how you transform the problem into happiness. That is the basic emphasis. Therefore we need to practice meditation and study Dharma, and apply it in our everyday life. So, Dharma practice, meditation, is to protect your mind, to protect your life.

The point of this extensive meditation on thought transformation, The Wheel of Sharp Weapons, is that all the problems, all the failures, all the lack of success, everything, including disease, come from self-cherishing thought and that all the good things—all the happiness, all the success, everything—come from others, from bodhicitta, cherishing others. Since all the happiness has come from others and everything undesirable comes from the self, we should renounce the self and cherish others. Here, to be able to change the attitude, we need to meditate on the shortcomings of the self-cherishing thought and the benefits of cherishing others. This text is an extensive meditation to realize the shortcomings of the self-cherishing thought and eliminate it. You use the problem itself as a weapon to destroy self-cherishing. This text was composed by the great yogi Dharmarakshita and given to Lama Atisha, who re-established Buddhism in Tibet.


Next I'm going to give the oral transmission of some mantras. The first one is the Shakyamuni Buddha mantra. Reciting Shakyamuni Buddha's name mantra once has the power to purify eighty thousand eons of negative karma, so it is very good to recite this. If we purify the obstacles, the mental obscurations, we can then develop our mind and all success comes from that.

Think that Guru Shakyamuni Buddha is giving you this mantra, that he is communicating with you, guiding you to enlightenment.

[Oral transmission of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha mantra]

This is the mantra of Shakyamuni Buddha, who is the founder of the present Buddhadharma. We are taking the oral transmission in order to receive blessings so that the mind can be developed and we can generate the path.

The next one is to develop compassion, which is most important. The essence of Buddhadharma is great compassion for all sentient beings. Even for the sake of your own success and happiness, and especially for the sake of the happiness of all sentient beings, you need to develop compassion. Reciting the Compassionate Buddha's mantra helps to develop compassion and is itself a great purification.

[Oral transmission of short and long Chenrezig mantras]

The next one is the particular mantra of Vajrasattva, one of the most powerful deities for purification.

Purification is needed in everything, purification is the answer to everything. To generate realizations of the path to enlightenment, for spiritual growth, you need purification of course; you need to purify the negative karmas and obscurations. However, even for happiness and success in this life, you need purification. For any problem that you have, even to heal disease, you need purification. Even for your future protection, so that you do not get sick again, you need to purify its causes. If no causes exist, you don't get sick. You won't get sick in the future and you will even recover from your present disease.1

With any problem in life, you have to purify its cause because all problems are causative phenomena; they depend on causes and conditions. By depending on causes and conditions, a problem happens. By depending on causes and conditions, suffering exists. Therefore, if we do something to stop the cause, which is inside our mind, within our mental continuum, the problem won't be experienced. If the cause is lessened, the problem will also be lessened, and if the cause is purified completely, you won't experience the problem at all. For any success—for example, in business or to gain power and a good reputation—any obstacles to it need to be purified. There is always a solution. Purification is the answer to everything.

[Lung of short and long Vajrasattva mantra]

By purifying at the end of each day, reciting the long Vajrasattva mantra at least twenty-one times or the short mantra at least twenty-eight times, any negative action done out of anger, ignorance or attachment doesn't increase. If the negative action is not purified it doubles the next day, triples by the third day and so on. It increases week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year until it becomes like a mountain. If you kill one tiny insect today and do not purify that action, the negative karma increases until after fifteen days it becomes the same as having killed one human being. It becomes very heavy. It is said in the teachings, “Even though the negative karma of the learned ones is heavy, it becomes small; even though the negative karma of the foolish ones is small, it becomes very heavy.” This is because the foolish ones don't know about or don't do purification practices such as Vajrasattva. Even though they may create very heavy karma, the learned ones know how to purify it, so it becomes very small. Vajrasattva purification is very important and it is essential to do it every day. And all these mantras are healing mantras, great healing mantras.


1 The information provided on the LYWA website is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from a doctor or health care professional. Always contact your health care professional if you have health concerns. Do not disregard medical advice or delay seeking it because of information on this website. [Return to text]