The Preliminary Practice of Tong-len

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche

This advice on the practice of tong-len was dictated by Lama Zopa Rinpoche to Kendall Magnussen in 2006. Additional advice given by Rinpoche to Ven. Holly and then to Ven. Sarah Thresher. Edited into this format by Ven. Sarah in April 2012. Chapter Two is a short tong-len practice compiled by Ven. Sarah on the basis of instructions from Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche.

See also Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s extensive tong-len practice in The Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun of the Mahayana Thought Training. For more advice about tong-len, see Rinpoche's Online Advice Book.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching at Royal Holloway College, England, 1975. Photo: Dennis Heslop.
Advice on Tong-len as a Preliminary Practice

Tong-len is the practice of “taking and giving.” It is a most brave practice to generate bodhicitta. “Tong-wa” is giving your merits and happiness to others; “len-pa” is taking others’ suffering and negative karma on yourself, right onto the self-cherishing thought and destroying it.

Taking on the suffering of others and giving your happiness to others is the quickest way to generate bodhicitta, the quickest way to abandon the oceans of samsaric suffering and the quickest way to achieve full enlightenment—having finished all the mistakes, the gross and subtle defilements, and generated all the realizations—and this is the quickest way to be able to free the numberless hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, suras, asuras and intermediate state beings from the oceans of suffering and bring them to full enlightenment. For example, even though Maitreya Buddha generated bodhicitta first, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha achieved enlightenment earlier because his compassion was stronger.

When you do this meditation, it is the most excellent thought transformation and the best psychology for the West to make the mind happy no matter what problem there is mental or physical. It is the best treatment for the mind and, through that, for the body. Also, if you are sick this is the best healing and it is also helps heal other sentient beings.

How to count the number of tong-len

If you are doing tong-len as a preliminary practice, you can use the tong-len verse from Lama Chöpa (v.95):1

And thus, perfect, pure compassionate gurus,
I seek your blessings that all karmic debts, obstacles,
and sufferings of mother migrators
May without exception ripen upon me right now,
And that by giving my happiness and virtue to others
All migrators may experience happiness.

Recite this verse, counting the number of recitations, and at the same time do the meditation. Each time you do this you collect limitless skies of merit, it is an extremely powerful purification method and you become closer to enlightenment. This practice helps to develop bodhicitta.

You can also base the recitations on a verse from Nagarjuna’s teachings:2

Whatever sufferings sentient beings have
May they ripen on me.
Whatever happiness I have
May it ripen on sentient beings.

With the first part, you do the practice of taking. With the second, you do the practice of giving. Count the number of times you recite the verse on your mala. I think from this practice, you will be blissed out and the sentient beings will be blissed out!

Or you can use this verse from Shakya Shri Bhadra:3

If you are suffering, take all the sentient beings’ suffering;
May the oceans of sentient beings’ suffering dry up.
If you are happy, dedicate the happiness for others to collect merits;
May skies of happiness be received by others.

Any of these three different prayers can be used with meditation. You can do sometimes this one and sometimes that one. Doing tong-len by reciting the requesting prayer along with the meditation of taking and giving is a most powerful practice.

How to do tong-len

Just briefly, when you do tong-len, first do the taking:

(1) Take away all the sufferings of each of the realms—the hells, hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, suras, asuras and intermediate state beings. There is so much described about all these sufferings in the lamrim; take them all into your heart.

(2) Also take the cause of the sufferings, karma and delusions and even the subtle negative imprint; take it all together.

(3) And take the undesirable environments as well. For example, in the hells, there is the burning hot iron ground, the iron burning houses with no doors or windows and the freezing ice mountains. Then, the preta realm is a very depressing place with no water and either too hot or too cold. Humans have the suffering of being in very dirty places full of thorn bushes, things like that. Take all the sufferings of these different environments.

Take all these sufferings in the form of smoke or pollution, like the black smoky pollution we see in the cities. There are numberless beings, take the suffering from everyone. Think you receive all this suffering and it went inside and destroyed the ego, the self-cherishing thought, which is your own worst enemy.

It is the ego, self-cherishing thought that has caused all your suffering from beginningless rebirth—the general sufferings of samsara and the particular sufferings of the devas, human beings and lower realms—the hells, hungry ghosts and animals. It is the cause not only of all the past sufferings but also of endless suffering in samsara.

The ego, self-cherishing thought, is the greatest demon that has interfered with you being able to achieve enlightenment. It hasn’t allowed you so far to achieve enlightenment, it hasn’t even allowed you to achieve liberation from samsara and it hasn’t allowed you to enlighten all sentient beings; not even one. In this way you can see how your own ego is not only an enemy to yourself, but also an enemy to all sentient beings.

After you have taken all these sufferings, think that not only the ego, self-cherishing thought is completely smashed and destroyed, but also ignorance, the root of samsara—holding the I as truly existent—is totally destroyed and becomes non-existent. And in the same way, the object of that ignorance—the truly existent I, the real I, I appearing from there—is completely gone. You see that it doesn’t exist, it is empty right there; it has never existed from the beginning. Stay there a little bit in meditation on emptiness only, tong-pa-nyi. To try to meditate on this is very good. Not just meditating on bodhicitta wishing to achieve enlightenment but also on emptiness.

Then after taking the suffering of all sentient beings, give them your happiness:

(1) Generate loving kindness and then give all your past, present and future merits and the results of all those merits, all the skies of temporary happiness in samsara, ultimate happiness and peerless enlightenment. To those who don’t have temporary happiness, you give temporary happiness. To those who have temporary happiness but don’t have ultimate happiness, you give ultimate happiness. Then to those who have ultimate happiness, who are free from samsara, but don’t have peerless happiness, full enlightenment, you give peerless happiness.

Give all of this completely to the numberless hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, suras, asuras and intermediate state beings. Think that they all received it and their minds achieved the dharmakaya and their bodies became rupakaya.

(2) Then give your own body in the form of wish-granting jewels. Make charity with your own body to numberless hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, suras, asuras and intermediate state beings. Think that they receive everything they wish for. They receive even enlightenment.

(3) Next, give all your enjoyments and possessions. For example, give all your hats, however many you have: hats for the summertime, hats for the wintertime, hats for the spring, hats to wear outside, hats to wear inside and so on. Give away all of these. Give everything you possess from your hats down to your socks. Also give away all the money you have in the bank, your house, car and people around you. Give all of this to numberless hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, suras, asuras and intermediate state beings.

The benefits of tong-len

When you take away the suffering of others you collect unbelievable merits and there is unbelievable purification. Numberless past lives’ negativities get purified each time you do tong-len. Unbelievable, unbelievable obscurations get purified. Also, you collect numberless merits by taking all the sufferings, all the causes of suffering, and also the undesirable environments.

Then, when you do the practice of giving, there is unbelievable merit. Each time you give all your temporary happiness, ultimate happiness and enlightenment to each sentient being so many times skies of merit are collected. By giving all your present happiness and all your future happiness—from the next minute’s happiness up until enlightenment, including liberation and all the realizations—to each and every single hell being, hungry ghost, animal, human, sura, and asura being—and then giving all your past, present and future merits—the three times’ merits—you collect so many limitless skies of merit.

Then each time you give your body in the form of wish-granting jewels, skies of merits are collected. Even just giving your body to numberless hell beings collects skies of merit because they are numberless.

Then, when you give all your possessions to sentient beings you collect skies of merits. However many possessions you have, you collect numberless merits with each possession because sentient beings are numberless. So when you give away all your hats down to your socks to each hell being, hungry ghost, animal, human being, sura, asura and intermediate state being skies of merits are collected. Then each time you give away all the people around you, you collect skies of merits.

Wow, wow, wow! This makes your life so meaningful and rich. Wow, wow, wow!

You can see that sentient beings are numberless, therefore by giving to each of them, you collect so many times numberless merits. You can’t imagine. I think if you really knew how much merit you collect, you would faint and fall down! It may be difficult to get up. I hope it’s not for a long time. I hope people won’t take you to a hospital or a psychologist. I hope your family or friends don’t bring you to the hospital because of it!

You can find more details about tong-len in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand. This practice is a most powerful way of collecting extensive merit and purifying defilements. 


FPMT Retreat Prayer Book, p.154. [Return to text]

Precious Garland, v. 484. [Return to text]

Mind Training: The Great Collection, pp. 213-14. [Return to text]