Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on August 3, 2014

It occurred to me early on, shortly after meeting my main Tibetan dharma teacher (for the last 31 years) Khenpo Rinpoche, that the natural practice for Americans (and westerners in general) was a mind-training technique called Tong-Len. Perhaps even more essential than basic sitting meditation, Tong-Len, if presented properly, is instantly understandable to Americans. In fact, Tong-Len was the first practice that Rinpoche pointed out to Margaret and me on one of the coldest days of the year, those Limbo days between Christmas and New Year. It was 1983.

We had first met Rinpoche on Halloween of that year and were so moved by that meeting that we just had to see him again. Margaret and I, plus all our kids (three at the time), drove 800 miles across country, from Michigan to the mountains above Woodstock New York, in a tiny dark-blue Toyota Tercel wagon. And we never even phoned ahead to say that we were coming. We just went. It was so cold that on the three-mile winding road up the mountain to the monastery where Rinpoche lived that the heating system in the car was not able to keep the frost from forming on the windshield. I continually had to scrape a tiny window, only inches square, with a piece of cardboard just to see out.

When we arrived high on the mountain, it was already night and, with a 4th Quarter Moon, it was dark and cloudy as I got out of the car and shepherded my wife and young family to the door. There was no outside light. My daughter May was only a year and a half old. We were all very tired as we knocked on the door of the old retreat house where Rinpoche was living and hoped someone was there. A freezing wind was blowing all around us.

There was no monastery yet. However, a first pouring of the cement foundation had already taken place and the fierce wind whipped the plastic sheets covering it against the fresh concrete making an eerie sound. At last the door open and a friendly woman named Norvie, who must have been wondering who we were arriving so late and unannounced, ushered us into a small waiting room.

Yes, she would see if Rinpoche would see us. In a little while Rinpoche appeared smiling at all of us. In that second any doubts I had about making the trip vanished. I will spare you most of the details, but at the end of our interview, Rinpoche pointed out (through a translator) a chapter in a book called "The Torch of Certainty" by the great lama Jamgon Kongtrul Lodru Thaye, sometimes just called "Jamgon Kongtrul the Great." It was about a technique I had never heard of called Tong-Len. Tong-Len is often translated as "Exchanging Yourself for Others," and sometimes as "Taking and Sending."

"Exchanging yourself for others." It rolls off the tongue pretty well and we might not even think to question what is meant by the word "others." Of course it refers to other people, or to put it more clearly people other than us. The implicit assumption is that of a duality between ourselves and all or some others. They are not us, and we not they, perhaps the archetypical dualism of me against the world, a world of others and otherness. And I am now getting to my point.

The classic Tong-len technique involves breathing in and taking upon ourselves all of the pain and suffering in the world, usually that of a particular person that is suffering, breathing it into ourselves and, in return, breathing out, sending back to them all of the well-being and goodness within ourselves, everything we can muster. And then we repeat this process, breathing in and out, until some kind of equilibrium takes place and whatever differences between the two are leveled out.

When I first grasped what this technique was about, it horrified me. It was the exact opposite of what I had been taught by various spiritualists who showed me how to cleanse myself after doing a reading (I was an astrological reader at that time). These psychics and spiritualists showed me how to wash my hands and let the bad juju that might have passed into me from contact with another person go right down the drain. And I did this.

And here was this Tibetan lama that I so respected was telling me everything opposite to what I understood. He was saying take it in, suck it up, all that bad stuff, and offer in return whatever goodness was within me. That was a 180-degree-turnaround and it boggled my mind. For all I knew back then, it was black magic or voodoo. What did I really know about these Tibetans?

When we left Rinpoche that night, after he blessed my family and me, we headed back down the mountain along with a copy of "The Torch of Certainty." We stayed in a tiny motel in Woodstock, NY, on this bitter, bitter winter night. The room had only a small infrared circular heater mounted in the wall. There we were, my small family, 800 miles from home, huddled together while outside the wind howled.

And it was there that Margaret and I first read about Tong-Len and wondered what would become of us. My trained response was to get out of there, protect my family, and head back home as soon as we could. Forget about all this Tibetan Buddhist stuff. It was literally just too foreign for me. On the other hand, here was this Rinpoche we had just met who was everything I had ever imagined a real teacher could be. And he was pointing this Tong-Len technique out to us. It was a tough night.

But with the dawn, and after the long ride home, Margaret and I decided to go with our gut feelings for this man. We would give this Tong-Len stuff a try. Count us in, and of course Tong-Len was an incredibly useful technique, despite my original doubts. And so that's my story and also at least a brief introduction to what Tong-Len is all about. In the conclusion of this blog I want to talk about another way to use Tong-len that should interest some of you.

As mentioned "Exchange yourself for others" is the translation of Tong-Len. My interest here has to do with this word "others" and we can drop that "s" and just use the word "other" too. Tong-len is all about duality, the difference between us and the rest of the world -- people, places, and things. It is about that thin skin that separates us from what we "think" is not us – others and all that is other.

So of course we can use this technique to take on the sufferings of others, to exchange ourselves for others, as the standard practice of Tong-Len suggests. But there is other "otherness" in our world that is just as dualistic, and even closer to home than another person. And it is just as valuable as a dharma technique. There is world of "other," all kinds of other just beyond our skin.

And once we learn to recognize when a sense of otherness arises in our consciousness, we can do this form of Tong-Len all day long, on and off the cushion. It is perhaps the greatest karma eraser I have ever discovered. Moreover, it easily allows us to accumulate vast amounts of practice while we carry on in our normal day. For those who find it hard to squeeze in enough time on the meditation cushion, this is a gift.

I have described this form of Tong-len in other blogs, calling it "Reaction Tong-Len," because we learn to become aware of our involuntary reactions and, instead of reacting, we learn to respond more naturally. This "otherness" we feel toward some people, and this otherness we experience in a myriad of reactions throughout the day is perhaps the main karma accumulator for most of us. We are recording karma, digging deep tracks, every time we wince or react to something we don't like. Our ingrained biases, prejudices, likes and dislikes, guarantee that we are accumulating karma, well, much of the time.

It is not that difficult for us to begin to become aware of when we react. We walk around the corner and there we are, face-to-face with someone we don't like. We can't help but react, involuntarily. Every time we even think of this person, we are layering an ever-deeper groove that is nothing but pure karma. And it is not just the wince or knee-jerk reaction that is a form of suffering. That deeply underscored groove we have created will in time have to come out and be even more painful. As the Tibetans say, that karma will ripen. And we are doing this hundreds and probably thousands of times a day or even an hour. All of this micro-karma adds up.

Here's the thing. By becoming aware of our reactions, however minute, we can see that it is we who are reacting. These are our reactions, and no one else's. We learn to own them and at the same time begin to disarm and deconstruct them. Just like we built a karma groove by recording and re-recording a reaction, by underscoring it repeatedly, so with awareness we can cancel that groove by repeated awareness of the reaction and by not reacting, but instead responding in another manner.

We may have to ride out the karma of our previous groove making as it ripens, but we don't have to add to it and record still more karma. This reaction Tong-Len is a form of purification, where we manage to stop recording karma on that issue and it drops off the karma radar-screen. Purification does not have to be a trial by fire, from which we arise phoenix-like from the ashes. Purification is all about purifying, becoming pure. And pure feels good. As we neutralize our reactions by responding appropriately to situations instead of just reacting, our intent and life path gets purer and purer, with an increase in clarity and awareness. And that feels good.

There is more details and discussion of Tong-Len in the Book "Tong-Len: The Alchemy of Reactions" here; just scroll down:


[Photo of a lily taken yesterday.]