Tonglen is an ancient practice that is all about cultivating compassion. Originally it was a Buddhist practice, and the seventh slogan of Lojong (Mind Training) in Tibetan Buddhism, which involves contemplation, meditation, and compassion. It is popular among teachers like the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, and Mingyur Rinpoche.
Ultimately, we use it to become more compassionate
Indeed, in the Longchen Nyingthig Ngöndro, Tonglen is used as an aspirational Bodhicitta training (training for someone who wants to become enlightened) because it helps us to cultivate conpassion.
Let’s take a closer look.
What Is Tonglen Meditation?
The word Tonglen (Tong Len) is Tibetan for “Giving and Receiving”. Tong means “giving or sending”, and len means “receiving or taking”. We take in pain and give out compassion.
You might notice how this seems similar to Loving Kindness Meditation (Metta Bhavana). The primary difference with Tonglen is that we specifically visualize giving out whatever it is that will ease suffering. This trains the mind to turn a negative (suffering) into a positive (the cure for that suffering).
When we follow the Tonglen meditation script, we meditate on giving compassion to different people. For instance, those who are ill, those who are in financial trouble, those who are dying, and those who are facing grief.
Note that you do not need to do this technique while formally meditating. I often do it while I’m going about my day. Perhaps I’ll see someone suffering while I’m out for a walk. I visualize taking in their suffering and breathing out the thing that will cure it.
When we practise Tonglen, we change our usual stance on suffering.
Naturally, the mind seeks to avoid suffering. However, this doesn’t remedy anything, it just makes us ignore pain. Tonglen takes a more enlightened approach. It develops our Bodhichitta (enlightened mind) by tackling suffering head-on and seeking to remedy it.
Guided Tonglen Meditation
Before starting, I advise you to read my guide to Buddhist meditation for beginners
For best results, book an online meditation lesson with me.
- Sit with good posture. Place your feet shoulder-width apart. Let your spine be long but relaxed. Relax your facial muscles. Gently lower your chin to elongate your neck. Close your eyes.
- Take a minimum of twenty-five mindful breaths to relax. Watch your breath moving around your body. When you experience thoughts or feelings, label them and let them come and go as you would in Vipassana.
- Visualize a person you would like to help. Yes, this can include yourself, or a loved one. Imagine seeing this person in your mind.
- Inhale. Be mindful of the energy of pain that you observe in this individual. You will notice a heavy, dark, dampening energy. Bring to mind the way in which they are suffering. Visualize being in their position. Breathe in their pain so you are taking the suffering out of the other person and into yourself.
- Exhale. Breathe happiness into the world. Visualize sending this person whatever it is that they need to ease their suffering. Breathe that healing energy out into the world, towards the individual. Buddhist teacher Patrul Rinpoche (1808–1887) states that we should connect the breath with intent. You want to visualize inhaling suffering and exhaling compassion.
- Continue for other people. You may include as many people as you like. And you can meditate on easing your own pain as well.
1: Yo Momma
According to Buddhist tradition, we should start Tonglen meditation by focusing on our mothers. However, you don’t necessarily need to start with your mom. You can start with anyone you love.
2: Use textures
When you breathe in visualizing the pain of another, work with texture. That is, breathe in the darkness and heaviness of suffering. Breathe out light, warm, positive energy and imagine it radiating out from you.
3: Be real
During your practice, visualize actual real-world suffering. Specifically, suffering that is close to you. Maybe someone you know is in a serious situation and you want to help them. Work with that. Don’t just use a generalised idea of pain and compassion.
Pema Chodron says, “find some place on the planet in your personal life or something you know about, and breathe in with the wish that those human beings or those mistreated animals or whoever it is, that they could be free of that suffering, and you breathe out with the longing to remove their suffering.” 
Tonglen is very much about taking and sending. In Training the Mind and Cultivating Kindness, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche advises us to “develop the psychological attitude of exchanging oneself for others”. In other words, put yourself in someone else’s position, and give them your love.
As you continue to practise Tonglen, make the taking and giving larger. Extend love to everyone. Visualize powerful love and compassion.
Definitely include people you consider to be “enemies”. This will train your mind to overcome personal biases. An enlightened mind is one with compassion for all. So, include your “enemies”.
6: If you dwell on your own suffering
During Tonglen meditation, beginners might notice that they start to dwell on their own pain. When this happens, Pema Chodron advises us to “do Tonglen for what we are feeling and for millions of other people just like us who at that very moment are feeling exactly the same stuckness and misery.”
7: Is Tonglen dangerous?
Tonglen is safe to practice. The one problem you might face is that you feel too much emotion when facing other people’s suffering. If this happens, meditate on less serious instances of pain.
Benefits of Tonglen Meditation
There is limited scientific research on the effects of Tonglen. One study  showed some improvements in stress and depression. However, the authors state that there was insufficient evidence.
As such, we must refer to spiritual wisdom and sacred texts if we are to understand the benefits of Tonglen meditation.
For starters, the method develops compassion. It is similar to Loving Kindness Meditation and Buddhist Karuna.
We focus on giving compassion to others. And indeed, there is considerable research that shows that Loving Kindness develops compassion. Therefore, it is likely that Tonglen cultivates compassion too. And this is what it was designed to do.
Some organisations, such as the Compassion Institute at Stanford University use Tonglen as part of their practice. They state that this helps individuals to be more compassionate at work and in daily life.
Tonglen teacher Erika Rosenberg calls it, “a powerful practice that helps us learn to be present with the suffering in ourselves and others and envision ways to transform that suffering into ease.”
Turning negatives to positive
One way in which Tonglen is different to most other methods is that it is a two-step process. We visualize taking-in suffering and sending out compassion. This trains the mind to turn a negative (suffering) into a positive (compassion).
This could be beneficial for dealing with negative thoughts and feelings. Often in life, we get stuck in the negative. Tonglen trains us to accept the negative and transform it into a positive. It could therefore be beneficial for alleviating negative thinking patterns.
Unlike in Loving Kindness Meditation, we do not visualize other people sending us love. Instead, it is entirely about us taking the pain of others and giving them compassion. As such, it is a training in altruism. That is, selfless concern for others.
In the book Love on Every Breath: Tonglen Meditation for Transforming Pain into Joy, Lama Palden Drolma says that it increases renunciation, purifies karma, and helps with Bodhicitta training.
Tonglen is an important part of Bodhicitta training. A Bodhicitta is an enlightened mind that strives for awakening, empathy, and compassion.
Tonglen helps cultivate the Six Perfections:
- Joyous effort
From my personal experience, I have noticed that Tonglen reduces arguing. Too often, arguing is based on two people communicating in selfish (or at least not “selfless”) ways. We have our own view, which is opposed to the other person’s view. And we fail to step back, put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, and be compassionate to them.
Tonglen meditation helps us to see from another person’s perspective. And in my experience, this reduces arguing. If you would like to learn this powerful technique, book an online meditation lesson with me today.
Giving Is Caring
Paul Harrison BSc is a qualified meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in teaching meditation and mindfulness both to individuals and to corporations and is the author of four books on meditation. He has been featured in Psychology Today, Breathe Magazine, Healthline, Psych Central and Lion’s Roar.
Paul studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
Paul’s biggest inspirations include Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Jack Kornfield.
“My goal is to provide the most authentic meditation sessions so you can harness the power of your own mind for personal transformation” – Paul Harrison