Tonglen Meditation

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kopan Monastery, Nepal (Archive #2065)

Lama Zopa Rinpoche advised how to practice tonglen meditation at the 50th Kopan Meditation Course, held at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, in 2017. This teaching is excerpted from Lecture Eight of the course. Lightly edited by Gordon McDougall.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore, 2016. Photo: Bill Kane.

I just want to talk about tonglen, in case you would like to do that meditation. It is the best. It makes life most beneficial for every single sentient being and allows you to achieve enlightenment quickly. It is the best practice, the strongest purification and the most extensive way to collect merit. I’ll first explain the meditation.

When you do the tonglen practice, you first take other sentient beings’ sufferings and the cause of sufferings. You do that by generating compassion for sentient beings.

What sentient beings like is happiness and what they don’t like is suffering. However, no matter how much they don’t want to suffer, due to ignorance, day and night, they keep totally busy creating suffering, as busy as ants, day and night keeping so busy creating the cause of suffering. Living life with ignorance, anger, attachment, like that, the karma they create is only nonvirtue.

They suffer now, in this life, and they suffer at death, without talking about future lives, about the suffering in the lower realms, as a hell being, a hungry ghost, an animal, without talking about the karma [of being trapped there] even for eons. Then, even when they are born again as a human being, due to another negative karma, there is still so much suffering.

As I explained before, due to the habit of negative karma of stealing in a past life, you do the action of stealing again. Then you get what you did in the past, how you treated others in a negative way in the past. In this life, when you are human being, you receive harm from others, which is experiencing the result similar to the cause, and so it goes on and on. So, people are busy all day. No matter how much they don’t like suffering, their life is always kept busy creating negative karma, the cause of suffering. As I told you before, you have to experience the suffering result of one negative karma for five hundred lifetimes.

And with one good karma, benefiting somebody like an insect or a human being just once, the result is happiness and success for five hundred lifetimes. It can be even more if the action is stronger.

Not knowing karma, people totally live their whole life with ignorance. Even if they know Dharma intellectually, they don’t practice it. Some people are experts intellectually, but they don’t practice. They are so busy their whole life; so busy they look like ants. Then, no matter how much they like happiness, they always destroy the cause of happiness due to ignorance.

Even if you give them teachings, talking very sincerely, people don’t have the karma to understand. They’re afraid, they run away. Even if you explain with compassion, they run away because they don’t have the karma. Like that, it’s so difficult. However much they like and want happiness, they always destroy the cause of happiness, virtue, and due to anger or heresy they even destroy merits they collected in the past.

First of all, it is very difficult for the actions you do in life to become Dharma. And even if you practice Dharma, it doesn’t become Dharma, like the example I gave you. It is so difficult to become pure Dharma. And in case some pure Dharma happens, then anger or heresy or ill will arise and destroy the merits. Even if there are some merits collected in the past, they are destroyed. And even if some merits are created, there is no dedication to achieve enlightenment.

With tonglen, by generating compassion, you take others’ suffering and the cause of suffering, delusion and karma. You take the sufferings of the six realms, as we went through. Not only that, out of compassion you even take the conditions, the totally unfavorable negative place, in your heart.

You can do this with the in-breath, but take it inside your heart. Not this heart, this bumping heart, but the heart where emotions like anger, patience and loving kindness come. It’s that one, here. You give it to the self-cherishing thought. As I mentioned to you already, the self-cherishing thought is the great demon, your enemy where all the obstacles to practicing Dharma come from.

All the suffering you have experienced in samsara from beginningless rebirths, you are experiencing now and will experience in the future—endlessly—all that comes from your self-cherishing thought. Take others’ suffering in your heart and give it to the self-cherishing thought, your enemy, and it is totally destroyed, totally eliminated. When that is eliminated, the real I is also destroyed. It is the object of ignorance, den dzin ma rig pa, the ignorance holding the I as real while it is not. It has never existed from the beginning, but it appears and you totally hold this wrong I, this false I. So, not only is the self-cherishing thought destroyed but also ignorance, the real I that is not there. Then, you see it is empty. You see empty, as it is empty.

You can stay there as long you want. Then generate loving kindness. There are numberless sentient beings. If you take the suffering and its cause from just one person or from one insect, just by doing that sincerely you create unbelievable merit and purification. Now, there are numberless sentient beings in the hell realms, and the realms of the hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, suras and asuras. So taking the suffering from everyone is such an unbelievable practice. You collect more than skies of merits.