The Transformational Practice of Tonglen

Buddha under glass

Buddha under glass. Photo by Celia

When you are suffering, you become more understanding about yourself, but also about other people’s sufferings too. That’s the first step to understand somebody is to understand their sufferings. So then love follows. ~Yoko Ono

Empathy is the faculty to resonate with the feelings of others. When we meet someone who is joyful, we smile. When we witness someone in pain, we suffer in resonance with his or her suffering. ~Matthieu Ricard

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. ~ H.H. The Dalai Lama


Dear Friends,

There’s a lot to like in Buddhism, the potential of finding total enlightenment, the reliance upon oneself and the trust in our own ability to make changes and free ourselves. I also enjoy the richness from the three limbs of Buddhism, Theravadin (the teaching of the elders), Zen, and Tibetan Vajrayana. Within each branch of Buddhism, there are sub-schools, different traditions, each with a slightly different flavor depending upon the lineage. One Pure Land monk described these diverse traditions as flowers in a bouquet, each one with its own beauty and fragrance, each offering a unique and distinct gift. And while I am not immersed in the Tibetan school of practice, I’ve had the good fortune to be introduced to a practice that I’ve relied on throughout the years when things get really tough. It’s the practice of Tonglen or sending and taking. What is so useful about Tonglen, is that you can practice it on the spot, in an emergency, or what feels like an emergency.

This winter, my son was missing school due to stomach pain. At first, we believed it was a virus, but after weeks he wasn’t improving. On the advice of our general practitioner, I booked an appointment with a Pediatric Gastroenterologist. Where I live, these specialists are pretty rare, and the first appointment I could get was for three weeks away at 8:30 am, on a weekday in Hartford, CT. I consulted my “maps” app, which told me it was 34 miles from home. To be safe, I estimated an hour’s drive.

The day finally came for our appointment and as we got into the car, I opened my app and saw the estimated travel time was an hour and a half. How could that be?  I found out why as I sat and waited in the line of cars while the traffic light turned red for the third time; I was aware of the burn of adrenalin in my forearms and an infusion of frustration and anger. I felt absolutely helpless caught in this traffic. I couldn’t speak to a human at the doctor’s office; I kept getting an answering service; I couldn’t turn around. I was stuck. I believed I had failed my son and this time screw-up made me furious with myself. Why hadn’t I checked the night before? Why hadn’t I asked someone or known better?

I did my best to breathe and to remember my intention to be a presence of care of each moment, but my mind was churning. I wanted to be airlifted above this clogged morning commute and escape. The pain of my judgment and the physical sensations of helplessness and panic was making my trip a hell-realm. I told myself, “this feels terrible; I don’t know what to do,” and in that moment I remembered Tonglen.

red bud leaf

I breathed in with all the tension in my body and mind, feeling this crunch of expectation and disappointment and breathed out the wish for ease and spaciousness. I breathed in again and felt the helplessness, the fear that I was going to miss this appointment, the doubt that I wouldn’t be able to care for my son, the binding frustration of being held in this line of traffic and breathed out understanding for the situation, the tender recognition that I care, and forgiveness for what I didn’t know. Then I widened my practice to include all the people in this world of more than 7 billion who, just like me, felt frustrated and blamed themselves. I breathed in with all the parents who were afraid that they couldn’t relieve their child’s suffering, felt the shared anger and disappointment, the feeling of injustice and hopelessness. I breathed out a breath of deep peace for all these people caught, just as I was, in situations we could not control. Breathing in I took in our shared pain and with each out-breath, I sent us all the wish for capacity to bear discomfort, forgiveness, and dispassion.

When I did this, I could become the witness to this experience, as well as the one who was in it. I knew that even though this moment felt so out of control and uncomfortable, it was a moment of shared experience and I was capable of transforming these emotions, no matter how fierce or unwanted. After practicing for a few minutes, I breathed in and accepted the pain of those who were suffering from this same frustration and feeling lost. I willingly breathed in the feeling of anger, hopelessness, and despair so others would not have to feel these things. Taking on their suffering and transforming it, I breathed out, sending all those who were in a panic, late, feeling frazzled and in trouble, peace, deep contentment, and non-fear.

This is the practice of Tonglen in action that moves us from victimhood, experiencing suffering as uniquely our, and connects us to all those who are suffering just like us. Tonglen reminds us of the impersonal nature of suffering and develops our compassion and bodhicitta—our Buddha nature and awakened loving heart.

The practice is simple, recognizing our pain, or the pain of another person and breathing in experiencing that discomfort, noticing the feeling, color, taste, and particulars of that suffering and breathing out the antidote to that poison. In this vast world, there must be a few other people feeling what we are feeling right now—it could be boredom, ill-health, grief, fear, or rage. We can know these emotions and breath them in with those who, just like us, are suffering. When we breathe out, we can offer them and ourselves the cooling intention of relief.

As we continue to practice, we can develop some more capacity to move through our own suffering and we can offer this practice exclusively for others by breathing in their anxiety, discomfort, and confusion, willing ourselves to take on these painful states to save others from suffering. Breathing out we offer the benefit of our merit and give them the fruits of our practice, our peace, happiness, and stillness—freely given to save others from future suffering.

Back in my car, practicing Tonglen, I recognized that maybe I would have to re-schedule, but it wasn’t the crisis that I was manufacturing. Tonglen isn’t a magic bullet, but it can transform our understanding of our situation and bring compassion to our actions. When we breathe in and recognize all those we share this moment with, we are no longer alone, or helpless. We become agents of our own well being and active participants in the wellbeing of all those on this planet who are caught, just as we are.

That day, we were 40 minutes late and we still got to see the doctor. I had gratitude for the understanding of the staff and for this practice that helped me transform pain and open my heart to all of our suffering. This week, please give this a try—you don’t have to have a crisis to start. Tonglen is as accessible as an inhale and an exhale and can join us to all those around the world, reestablish our sovereignty, and reconnect us with our true intention to live with kindness for ourselves and others.

May we all trust our light,


For a deeper guided experience with Tonglen, click here for writing from Roshi Joan Halifax.

Peace is every breathe


The Monastery of Family Life

Frozen water

Stream in winter. Photo by Rick Errichetti

“Each person is different. Freedom does not come by imitating others.” ~ Ajahn Chah

“You may not be perfect, but you are all you’ve got to work with. The process of becoming who you will be begins first with the total acceptance of who you are.”      ~ Bhante Gunaratana

 “Live your life. Do the dishes. Do the laundry. Take your kids to kindergarten. Raise your children or grandchildren. Take care of the community in which you live. Make all that your path and follow your path with heart.” ~ Dipa Ma

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity” ~ Albert Einstein


Dear Friends,

We are imperfect and relationships don’t follow rules. Families and children can create unimagined tests of patience and endurance. Our lives can become consumed and seemingly hi-jacked by the urgent needs of another and we are left feeling like a shell of ourselves, all our desires thwarted. And this is the monastery of family life.

The hardest role I have in my life and the one that has taught me the most about love, renunciation, diligence, humility, and equanimity is parenthood. Meditation teacher and psychologist, Jack Kornfield writes “Parenting is a labor of love. It’s a path of service and surrender and, like the practice of a Buddha or a bodhisattva, it demands patience and understanding and tremendous sacrifice.” A great part of this sacrifice is learning to let go over and over. Before my kids were born, I thought I was calm and freed from much of my reactivity—then I had kids and my enlightenment date got pushed way back. How could these small people, turn me from a mellow sage into a neurotic parent I would not want to sit next to on a bus?

Our culture is driven by success. We want to look like we are able to cope with our lives, but sometimes our children can provide us with challenges that we cannot overcome. My first child had colic, which meant she cried about seven hours a day and woke up many times during the night. If my success and happiness as a new mother was measured by my ability to soothe my child—I was a terrible failure. If my daughter was born twenty years earlier, I would have read about letting her cry and not picking her up. But she was born in the time of attachment parenting and I read that the best, kindest thing to do was to pick up the baby whenever she cried. So that’s what I did, with the result of being exhausted and totally resentful and she didn’t stop crying. When she was older, I was advised to parent according to the Myers Briggs personality traits and be firm and decisive with her, set strong limits and distance myself. Whenever I followed the directions from a book written by experts, it hurt my heart. Instructions written by someone who never met me didn’t allow for my own authentic way of relating and I ended up feeling like a fraud.

snow heart

Our brain’s ability to analyze can pull us into the path of self-doubt where we distrust our own instinct and abandon our internal sense of truth for the cookie-cutter actions of experts. We are flooded with self-help books from experts in all fields. We have been told to eat like a Mediterranean, a Californian, and a cave-person. I’ve lost track or what we’re supposed to eat; I believe food is out and we are supposed to subsist on Kombucha. We can get seduced by the world of pretend perfection and invulnerability we see on social media. The beautiful houses and the how-to blogs can create the obsession of correctness and competency. There’s the expression, “fake it ‘till you make it,” meaning to just do the thing to create the habit and confidence to make it our own behavior. But what if we fake it and it stays fake?

What I came to embrace in parenting is the practice of authenticity and respect—of looking into my own heart and letting my children know how their actions affected me. I stopped being a superior being exercising my legitimate authority and set my intention to care for me and for them without sacrificing either of us on the altar of social approval. I learned to pause and sense my body and emotions before responding. I would ask my kids how they would handle the situation if they were the parent. I didn’t become an equal or a friend. I became someone who respected themselves and allowed themselves to make mistakes because I trust that we can figure it out. We are designed as a species to be in relationship and when we make missteps we can have the confidence in our ability to make repairs.

Monastics entering the life of renunciation learn to give up comforts and to endure hardship, not sleeping, living in arduous conditions and often being in contact with those who they would rather avoid. Renunciation is also part of parenting. There is the relinquishment of sleep, comforts, projects and plans, showering and preferences. Parenthood anchors the focus of attention on a small helpless being. When we learn to see that householder life can be a pathway to practice, we learn to stop trying to make it free from pain and let it teach us how to stay with grace in the midst of pain and things that aren’t the way we would choose. Zen poet Gary Synder wrote, “It is as hard to get children herded into the carpool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha Hall on a cold morning. One is not better than another. Each can be quite boring. They both have the virtuous quality of repetition.”

Weekdays, I wake before sunrise and begin my sandwich meditation—this includes waking my teenaged son up, waking him up again, making his lunch—seeing he has something in his stomach before ejecting him from the house so he can meet his bus. I feed two cats and two dogs, clean two litter boxes, wash some dishes, drink coffee and then sit in meditation. I have a choice. I can think about everything I do before sitting meditation as an obstacle, or I can see all my actions as a continuous stream of meditation. When I look at my life without compartmentalizing, my everyday acts transcend the mundane and become acts of devotion. All of our life can be an act of dedication and respect for ourselves, our time and talents, and for those close to us.

This week, I invite you to look at your routine and roles in a new light, as sacred acts. How much love is in our hands as we clean the toilet, or put gas into the car? Can we know the end of suffering as we pet a cat or wash our hair? Can we respect all of our time and leave nothing out? There are no throwaway experiences or times when we are off the clock of practice. The Buddha directed his monks to have clear comprehension and awareness when sitting, standing, walking, putting on robes, using the bathroom—in short, paying attention with the same amount of care, to all of our lives, even what isn’t formal practice. With attention and respect—doing the dishes, folding laundry, tending our lives—it is all a path to awakening.

May we all trust our light,


we are already what we want to become




A True Gift

Bison in Yellowstone

Bison in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Joaquin Carral

“Love is trembling happiness.”
~ Kahlil Gibran

“Love is a condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”
~ Robert Heinlein

“When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.”
~ H. H. The Dalai Lama


Dear Friends,

We live in a culture obsessed and mesmerized by romantic love, the idea that there is a perfect, or at least acceptable, someone that will love and support us as we go through life, age, and show the inescapable results of gravitational pull. They will be there for us when we lose our shiny luster and are held together with tape and stretch fabric. But mostly, they will make us happy—or at least give it a good try.

Culturally we celebrate romantic love this week with the observance of Valentine’s Day. Some folks think this holiday is nothing more than a money-making endeavor of card sellers, candy-hawkers, and flower-peddlers, capable of creating emotional damage for children who are excluded and adults who feel more alone on this day. For those who are coupled, it can be akin to extortion, expected by their partner to get a gift—a good one—and are judged and blamed if they don’t come through.

Not a big surprise that in Buddhism, unlike Hollywood, romantic love is not the highest pursuit. The Buddha was an exceptional realist who understood that this singular love, that seeks to discriminate and exclude, will bring pain. The Buddha taught that whatever is dear to us, will cause us to suffer and become distraught when we encounter those we love in distress. Holding someone dear will always bring pain when there is change and impermanence. It may seem surprising that the Buddha also taught about the benefits of holding ourselves dear.

In The Rajan Sutta: The King, both King Pasenadi Kosala and his wife, Queen Mallikā, have the realization that in all the world, they love themselves the best. This may seem at odds with Buddhist ideals that our life’s goal is to be of service and the idea of self-cherishing sinks the raft we are taking to the other shore, but there it is. The Buddha gave his endorsement of this insight, noting that self-cherishing leads directly to cherishing others, “Searching all directions with your awareness, you find no one dearer than yourself. In the same way, others are thickly dear to themselves. So you shouldn’t hurt others if you love yourself” (Ud 5.1, Thanissaro trans.) If we hold our own life to be a gift of great worth, we can see that it is the same for others. Finding our own worth and goodness allows us to see that in others, who just like me want happiness.

I had an experience with this teaching a few years ago on retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery. It was a melting hot August. There was a group of Korean nuns visiting from a university to study the propagation of Buddhism in the West. Dressing in their immaculate, crisp grey linen robes, they seemed cool and immune to the stultifying humidity. For one evening’s activity, I was paired with one of the nuns for an exercise on mindful speech and deep listening. Perhaps because her English was limited and we were both taking care to communicate authentically, we shared a rare depth of understanding and appreciation in a short amount of time. As we ended our communication for the night, returning to silence, we bowed to each other and she said, “I will pray for your happiness always.” This is one of the most generous and beautiful things anyone has offered me—and I know it is not personal.

It is her practice to pray for the happiness of everyone and yet being told that I was one of those deserving of her prayers for happiness has stayed with me. This simple phrase was so meaningful and humbling, knowing that another person cared enough to act to bring about my happiness. This meant more to me than the declaration that I was loved—which is a one-sided statement. The willingness to let another know their intrinsic worth is a supreme gift that incorporates dana, [generosity] and metta [non-discriminatory love]. It enobles both the giver and the receiver, creates beautiful kamma [action] and keeps giving. To me, this is the best Valentine’s gift, letting someone know they are worthy of happiness and working to bring it about.

May we all trust our light,


I know you are there



Life Contains Death

Thay inviting the bell

Thich Nhat Hanh, 2013. Photo by Celia

“Someday when we die, we will lose all our possessions, our power, our family, everything.  Our freedom, peace, and joy in the present moment is the most important thing we have.  But without an awakened understanding of impermanence, it is not possible to be happy.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death No Fear

“Impermanence is, in fact, just another name for perfection. Leaves fall; debris and garbage accumulate; out of the debris come flowers, greenery, things that we think are lovely. Destruction is necessary. A good forest fire is necessary. The way we interfere with forest fires may not be a good thing. Without destruction, there could be no new life; and the wonder of life, the constant change, could not be. We must live and die. And this process is perfection itself.”

~ Charlotte J. Beck, Everyday Zen

“Watering the seeds of happiness is a very important practice for the sick or dying.  All of us have seeds of happiness inside us, and in difficult moments when we are sick or when we are dying, there should be a friend sitting with us to help us touch the seeds of happiness within.  Otherwise, seeds of fear, of regret or of despair can easily overwhelm us.”

 ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death No Fear


Dear Friends,

I hope you are well and weathering the weather this winter. This season is long and can feel like it’s never ending—but as we know, all things begin and end. One of the reasons I find Buddhism so supportive is because it is so practical and honest about endings—specifically death, ours and everyone else’s. We all know that everything that takes life will one day die. This is a very unpopular part of living. In the U.S. we expect to get our 78.6 years as promised. We don’t see death as a natural, unavoidable part of life. In popular culture, death is seen as somehow not only unfair but avoidable if we play our cards right and eat, exercise and take our meds. This wasn’t always the case. Before funeral homes and embalmment, death was something that happened at home, with family. It was met with ritual and community sharing grief and loss as naturally as sharing the celebration of birth.

In the time of the Buddha, death was out in the open and 2,600 years later in India, death continues to be center stage. It is not uncommon to see funeral processions and bodies carried through the streets to the burning ghats. One of the contemplations the Buddha gave repeatedly is to meditate on death and the parts of the body. Monks still visit the equivalent of the charnel grounds in Asia and reflect on the process of dissolution and decomposition. In Tibet, children are taught that everyone they encounter will have suffering and death. This teaching helps to develop compassion for each person. Developing a familiarity with death allows us to touch the poignancy of living in impermanent bodies. We touch the shared pain and vulnerability that comes from the death of those we love and the collective fear of losing our own existence.

Just as we see in nature, the constant fluid shift of season and change, death is transformation. Death does not mean we stop and become nothing. Thich Nhat Hanh, in No Death No Fear, reminds us that we are subject to natural laws, specifically, the first law of thermodynamics. This principle of life states that energy can become matter and matter can become energy, both are transient, but they cannot be destroyed or annihilated. In the same way, we are always becoming.

crumple leaf

When we leave this lifetime, we leave the marks of our actions, our karma as our legacy. Buddhist practice recommends that the dying person have the chance to hear how their good actions contributed to life. This is an opportunity for caretakers to tell the dying about the ways they have made a difference. The reminder of one’s own goodness helps folks die without regrets and the fear they have wasted this lifetime.

One of the most famous Buddhist teachings on death is the story of Kisagotami an impoverished and disrespected woman who bore a son and earned the esteem of her in-laws. When the boy died from an accident, she went mad with grief. She carried her dead son with her asking everyone she could for medicine to cure him. When she encountered the Buddha, he promised to give her medicine to cure her son if she could bring him a mustard seed—something as common as a grain of salt—from a house that had never known death. As Kisagotami knocked on door after door receiving the answer that ‘yes, this house knew death,’ the realization of the impersonal and inescapable nature of death restored her to a clear mind. She was able to recognize the truth of death and release her son. She uttered the words, “It’s not just a truth for one village or town, Nor is it a truth for a single family. But for every world settled by gods [and men] This indeed is what is true — impermanence” (ThigA 10.1, Olendzki trans.).

Recognizing death puts our lives into perspective. When we realize that each person we encounter will die—just as we will, that knowledge can profoundly change how we interact with those around us. Those who have terminal diagnoses recognize this. And we all have a terminal diagnosis—we just don’t know our expiration date. Mindfulness of death promotes, samvega [spiritual urgency]. It also produces compassion to know that each person we meet, the lovely ones, AND the irritating, abrasive ones are subject to impermanence. Recognition of death is also a call to show our authentic caring for others. Rather than hesitate from fear, we can practice communicating our love and appreciation while we are here now. We learn not to hold back for someday since events and circumstances may never be more perfect than this minute.

One way to be with this recognition of death is to practice the awareness that everyone you meet today will one day die. This simple reminder can make a big difference in our day. The disappointments and desires to achieve or be seen a certain way may take a back-seat to being present with people right now. The awareness of transience in all things can be a way to access this teaching in a gentle way. Noticing how all things, animate and inanimate constantly break down and rebuild, take life and decline, can help us see the inherent naturalness of this change. As we learn to stay and be a presence of compassion at each moment, we create the solidity and presence to look at death without fear. We can learn to trust that we are strong enough to bear all that life has to offer and in not turning away, we gain freedom and the joy of living an authentic, courageous life.

May we all trust our light,


no death no fear