Six Perfections: Mahakaruna, Bodhicitta, and Tonglen

A Teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal

The purpose of great compassion, mahakaruna, is to generate bodhicitta, the gateway to Mahayana. The purpose of compassion and bodhicitta is to embark on a spiritual journey or spiritual path to reach enlightenment or Buddhahood. From this one could say that compassion and bodhicitta are the basis of the Mahayana path.

The way for individuals to reach this is through the practice of the Six Perfections. Each practice has two aspects. One aspect is abstaining from all kinds of harmful actions that arise from the body, speech, or mind. So, to say it again, one aspect is to abstain from any harmful action that directly or indirectly causes harm or injury to others. The second aspect is not only abstaining from negative actions but engaging in beneficial actions or deed.

At the same time, each of the Six Perfections contains two elements. One element is dharmakaya; the other is rupakaya. Dharmakaya is wisdom related to the mental faculty of insight. Rupakaya is related to method, to the merit accumulated by the practice of the Six Perfections. Merit is accumulated from every action of engaging in any one of the Six Perfections, such as the act of giving.

The thought of giving might not know anything, but that non-knowing mind is guided by wisdom, and that wisdom aspect is the cause for dharmakaya.

Question: How can the non-knowing mind be associated with wisdom?

Answer: A person who is not blind can associate with a person who is blind. The non-knowing mind is, in some sense, blind. Wisdom is not blind; it is like the person who can guide the blind person wherever he wants to go.

The Six Perfections

The Six Perfections are

  1. giving or charity or generosity,

  2. ethics,

  3. patience or tolerance,

  4. joyful effort,

  5. concentration, meditation or samadhi, and

  6. wisdom or insight into the nature of reality.

1. Perfection of Giving

There are three types of giving:

  1. material,

  2. protection from fear, and

  3. dharma teaching.

The practice of tonglen enhances this. "Tong" means giving; "len" means taking. One cannot engage in the tonglen practice without the proper experience of compassion and heart-warming love. In tonglen, you take with the force of compassion, and you give with the force of heart-warming love, using exhalations and inhalations as the vehicle. You cannot do this practice fruitfully without a personal experience of compassion, a proper experience of compassion. That means not only cultivating thoughts and emotions into compassion, but retaining this experience of compassion for longer and longer periods of time without the influence of self-concern. You should be able to do this for at least 30 minutes without the interference of bias, which is the inclination or tendency to become closer to someone or distant from someone.

Once you can sustain a personal experience of compassion, then, definitely, you can engage in tonglen practice. Tonglen practice is one of the best punyas, or techniques, for sonam, or the accumulation of merit or positive spiritual energy that serves as a catalyst to speed up spiritual growth.

Tonglen helps us to increase or stabilize our own personal experience of compassion and heart-warming love. There might not be a direct physical or material effect on the other person, but tonglen can help reduce or numb other beings’ pain for awhile, but only for awhile, not forever. What it really does is increase and stabilize our own experience of compassion and heart-warming love. It is good, if we are qualified to do tonglen. It is good to do some form of contemplation, generating a wish or determination to be in the service of others.

When you do tonglen, it is good to recite two stanzas. It is good to memorize these stanzas thoroughly and to know the meaning behind them, then to recite them slowly while contemplating their meaning, letting your mind sink into their meaning. Then, your tonglen practice becomes more effective, more powerful. This comes from Lama Chopa, which means Guru Puja or Guru Devotion. You may remember that when we first began talking about bodhicitta, we talked about two techniques to generate bodhicitta, the Seven-Fold Cause and Effect and exchanging or equalizing the self with others.

First verse

Since cherishing oneself is the doorway to all pain and downfalls,

And cherishing mother sentient beings is the foundation for all that is good,

I seek your blessings to make my core practice

The yoga of exchange of self for others.

Second verse

And thus, oh venerable, compassionate guru, I seek your blessings,

So that I may take others’ suffering, pain, loss, fear, and karmic debts upon myself,

And that I may give my happiness, prosperity, virtue, and merit to others,

And thereby invest all beings in bliss and happiness.

In brief, you are making several wishes to benefit others. There are eight wishes. You may recite these, also.

  1. May I be able to give breath for those unable to breathe. May I have that kind of courage.

  2. May I be able to give the strength to swallow food and drink to those unable to swallow.

  3. May I be able to give comfort and company to those who are lonely.

  4. May I be able to give the light of wisdom to those who live in the inner darkness of ignorance and confusion.

  5. May I be able to fulfill the needs and the desires of those whose needs are many.

  6. May I be able to please those who are difficult to please by ordinary means.

  7. May I be able to lift the minds of those who are depressed.

  8. May I be able to use my body, speech, and mind for the happiness of others without exception.

If we allow our mind to settle down, to sink into the mind of those things, that is a very powerful meditation. This definitely helps us to fully engage or embark on the practice of tonglen.

Question: How can we breathe for others? Artificial respiration?

Answer: A bodhisattva likes to do impossible things.

Remember the dedication prayer from Shatideva:

As long as space endures, as long as sentient beings remain,

Till then, I, too, remain to dispel the miseries of the world.

This is what you need, that kind of courage, that kind of determination. Without the proper experience of compassion, we cannot take the suffering of others onto ourselves. This is not possible. Without the proper experience of heart-warming love, there is no way to give our virtue and merit to others.

It’s good if you want to engage in this practice, to sit and do it as much as you can, even if you have not yet had the proper experiences of compassion and heart-warming love. It helps to build the tonglen practice in the future, but the actual practice is really difficult.

The details of tonglen practice

The TAKING aspect on tonglen: First, recite the verses. Contemplate what you are saying; let your mind sink into the words and their meaning. Then, imagine all living beings in front of you, all six types. If you cannot visualize every type, then imagine as many as you can. If you need or want to focus on some special being who really needs help, bring that being into focus as the central figure, then surround that being with as many beings as possible with similar needs. If it’s possible, imagine all six types of living beings are in the same situation, and all are equally afflicted by the three, six, and eight types of suffering or dhuka.

In particular, remember the three types of suffering:

  1. the suffering of suffering, which is physical and emotional suffering,

  2. the suffering of change, which is not a big deal, except we never experience change without creating a new pain, and that’s a big problem, and

  3. the suffering of pervasive conditioning.

Although this very moment is almost perfect, even when you’re in the best of situations, the door is open to the possibility of bad things happening in that moment. This is subtle because ordinarily, we don’t understand pleasure as pain.

Then, remember the six types of suffering:

  1. uncertainty. Nothing in our life is guaranteed us; we simply live with hope, hope for the best. There’s a Tibetan saying, "Hope for the best; prepare for the worst."

  2. suffering of dissatisfaction. The more we get, the more we want. When we get what we want, we don’t get it in the way we want. Or we get what we want, but we don’t get it when we wanted it. The color is good, but the size is no good. If try to get the color good and the size good, life is too short.

  3. and so on....

So you imagine all living beings are equally afflicted with the three, six, and eight types of suffering. All the beings are in front of you, all in the same situation, so there is no reason to be biased toward or against one or the other. Then, once you can visualize this, take a moment in which you deeply generate or build a strong wish for them to be free of their suffering and the causes of suffering. Once this wish is strong and stable, make a promise or determination, "I will myself make this happen to them." You should not be satisfied with a mere wish; you should take responsibility on yourself. "I wish," and "I will;" there is a difference. "I will" has action. But to have will, you must first wish, so there is a sequential order.

After this is done, move more inward, to yourself. Visualize yourself, one against billions. If possible, don’t imagine yourself in ordinary form. Rather, imagine yourself as someone who is really capable of ending suffering and the causes of suffering in an actual, direct way. If you imagined yourself exactly as you are, you know you are not capable, so the best thing is to imagine yourself without a single doubt that you are capable of taking action. That kind of visualization is important. Or, if you are not able to do that, then imagine yourself in ordinary form, but, to avoid your flaws and defects, imagine there exists at the center of your heart your self-cherishing attitude and self-grasping mind. See in the self-cherishing attitude and the self-grasping mind the very seeds of pain and downfall that we dread. As you take on other living beings’ suffering, imagine their suffering destroys the seeds in you in the way that fire consumes.

As you do this practice, you take on the pain, suffering, fear, and karmic debt of other living beings. This hits the self-cherishing attitude and self-grasping mind and destroys them forever. This may create some sort of discomfort. That discomfort is helpful in diminishing the self-cherishing attitude when you come out of the meditative state. And the weaker the self-cherishing attitude becomes, the stronger your desire to help becomes.

Primarily, tonglen helps us establish our own experience of compassion and heart-warming love because tonglen has a material effect on the self-cherishing attitude. After the two different visualizations are done, you can reinforce the strength of your feeling of compassion again.

Then, you take the pain, suffering, fear, and karmic debt into yourself in the form of black liquid or smoke. That black liquid or smoke comes out of the other living beings’ right nostril and enters your left nostril. That way there’s a direct passage, you see. This black liquid or smoke dissolves in your left nostril as you inhale. Then imagine this black liquid or black smoke hits your self-cherishing attitude and burns it away, consumes it.

As you do this step by step, don’t allow other thoughts to interfere. Crazy thoughts, get out of there; that’s important. At first, many thoughts may interrupt.

Question: Is the black smoke coming from the one being you’re focusing on or from all of them?

Answer: It depends. If you are imagining helping especially one living being, then the smoke comes from that one. If you imagine helping all, then it comes from all. When you imagine this black liquid or smoke dissolving or burning down the self-cherishing attitude, imagine that it leaves no possibility of reappearance. This helps all living beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.

Question: What happens to the black liquid or smoke?

Answer: It just dissolves in you without leaving a trace or residue. That’s easy; want me to do it?

Question: Yes.

Answer: Then show me your suffering!

Question: How do you choose which visualization to do, imagining yourself capable of relieving suffering or imagining the living beings’ suffering eliminating your self-cherishing attitude?

Answer: Try and see which one is more relevant, which is more suited to your capabilities. See what is happening with you. Try it; do it. Make a test, and see if it makes a difference in your mind.

Question: When you’re taking in, you’re inhaling. Are you doing something special with exhaling, too?

Answer: When you are doing the taking portion of tonglen, you emphasize the inhaling only. Otherwise, you would be very busy.

Question: When is the best time to do this?

Answer: Whenever you have a good experience of compassion or heart-warming love. Here, the experience is a meditative experience; you are cultivating compassion in the meditative state. For example, when you study how to cook from a recipe book, you may make one particular dish. You get all the ingredients. You put this amount at this temperature to give it this texture and taste. You try it, according to the recipe; you cut, chop based on that. One day you get the same taste the book tells you that you will get, and you say, "Oh." The moment you get that "Oh," your cooking skill with that dish improves. You have confidence.

Right now, our mind says that compassion means this or that. Then you try tonglen, like going to the kitchen. Go to the meditation room, and get a real taste of what meditation means. You get a direct taste, not on your tongue, but in your heart. Something really moves your heart, generates joyous goosebumps. It may also create joyous tears. That we call the proper experience of compassion. It comes and goes at first, but you will develop a definite conviction, "Ah, this is really achievable. It’s not just a crazy monk talking. There must be someone who really achieved that. Buddha is possible, "yes."

Compassion is a type of emotion. Attachment is an emotion, too. It’s important for us to understand the difference between compassion and attachment. Unlike anger or jealousy, attachment may seem similar to compassion. Anger and jealousy seem completely different. Many of us confuse compassion with attachment. Both are inner feelings of closeness or connectedness or intimacy to another person. But attachment is an emotional feeling of intimacy or connection that includes the process of hoping the other person will make you happy. Because with attachment you hope the other person will make you happy, when that person goes away, happiness goes away. Secondly, with attachment, this feeling of connection or intimacy is involved with making yourself happy when you make others happy. When we experience compassion while meditating, we have a deep feeling of connection to other human beings, but no feelings of discrimination. We have equal feelings for all. You want to make others happy as much as you can when the opportunity arises.

Question: In Western psychology, we say, "To love you have to be loved."

Answer: In Buddhism, no; it’s the opposite. Someone who loves you will come when you love him. We’re saying it’s at least 50-50.

Question: We believe you have to be a strong person to give.

Answer: You have to have inner strength, courage. If you don’t have inner strength or courage, you will become susceptible. You may run away.

Question: In Buddhism, strength comes from within, but in Western psychology, strength comes from your relationships with other people.

Answer: You try, and see what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s good for everybody to become scientists.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, July 29, 2002.

Review of the taking aspect of tonglen

First, a review of the taking portion of tonglen: In the tonglen practice, in the two initial stages of visualization, you visualize all living beings or you visualize as many as you can. You try to imagine them before you. All are in the same or equal situation. When the first visualization becomes complete, strong and stable, you move to the second part, which is more inward. You imagine yourself, not in ordinary form, but rather able completely or fully to help others, whatever their needs or desires. The best thing is to try to visualize yourself with these extraordinary capabilities, completely able of making others happy, of solving their problems, whatever their problems are, whatever their needs are.

If you are not qualified or capable of imagining yourself completely capable, the second choice is to imagine yourself in an ordinary form, but able to see the danger and destructiveness and disadvantages of a self-cherishing attitude, of an egotistical attitude, of self-importance. You are able to see the disadvantages, the danger and the destructiveness of that self-cherishing attitude, how it causes unnecessary suffering, unnecessary pain. It is because of our self-cherishing attitude that we seek our own happiness, even at the price of others. You aim to dissolve that self-cherishing attitude as a means to not only make others happy, but also to make yourself happy, perfect. You imagine this self-cherishing attitude is concentrated in the heart, and you use it as a target. It is the target of the force of the negativities you are taking from others. You should feel satisfaction or joy that every living being can be freed from suffering and the causes of suffering. This is the taking aspect of tonglen.

The giving aspect of tonglen

Now we must do the giving aspect: You have taken others’ suffering, loss, fear, pain, karmic debt, and confusion upon yourself and directly destroyed your self-cherishing attitude. You leave no room in your mind or heart for the re-occurrence of the self-cherishing attitude. Imagine because you have taken all living beings’ suffering and pain, they have become perfectly receptive. They can receive your happiness, prosperity, virtue, and merit. So you engage in the practice of giving through experiencing heart-warming love.

Once you really understand the very essence of the tonglen practice, giving and taking, you will be able to understand the tonglen practice is sharing your happiness with others and taking others’ unhappiness upon yourself. Because of this, the tonglen practice perfectly fits the Perfection practice of giving.

Now, in the giving part of the practice, we are engaged in the giving of our prosperity, happiness, virtue, and merit to others. When engaged in this, we should not have any sense of "Well, if I am going to give these things away to others, what is left in me for myself?" In general, when someone asks us to give this or that, even though we may really wish to give, something may come, "Well, if I give this away, what is left for me?" Something pulls back. "Well, I was really looking for this book. If I give it to him or her, what about me?" Definitely, in the beginning, as we try to engage in this practice, this will come. Then the practice will not work for us or others.

Self-concern should not arise while engaging in the giving practice. The meditative exercise of giving is not difficult to understand. In the first part of the practice, you have already taken the pain and suffering upon yourself. You have taken all the living beings’ pain and suffering, and they have become receptive to what you will try to give. You keep the force of the earlier visualizations while you are engaged in the giving practice. The complete, manifested, perceptual feeling must be there. In the earlier part of the visualization practice, you have developed the strong feeling of connectedness to others. After some time, that manifested feeling might go away, but the force of that feeling should remain. After we use a fire, we put out the fire and then clean up the ashes. But the heat is still there; that’s what we mean by "force." The manifested force must remain until you finish the full practice.

While you are engaging in the giving practice, you are maintaining an awareness that all the beings in front of you are receptive to what you are going to give. Then engage in the meditative exercise of giving. You are going to give your happiness, prosperity, virtue, and merit. As you give, visualize in the ultimate sense your gift of your happiness, prosperity, virtue and merit, but see this in the material form of pure white light. Imagine that this white light has the potential to generate happiness or bliss in whoever touches it or senses it. This light has no physical boundaries, no boundaries of time. So the white light can reach as far as we can imagine, right?

That white light comes from your right nostril and enters the other living beings’ left nostril. So again, there is a direct path. Imagine that the moment the white light enters the other beings’ left nostril, it causes the other beings to experience joy, happiness, and bliss. Deeply imagine that all living beings become very, very blissful. The white light satisfies their emotional needs, their physical needs; all the needs of living beings are fulfilled.

So it’s good to contemplate and recite before entering meditation the wish, "May I be able to fulfill the needs and desires of those whose needs are many. May I be able to please those who are difficult to please by ordinary means." That’s everybody, right?

Shantideva says if we don’t know how to balance our mind, our mental state or attitude, then we will be driven crazy by external circumstances, as will those with whom we associate. When we associate with human beings like ourselves, no matter how much we try to do, people will always have something to say about us. "Yes, you are right, but!". Someone says, "You should be really happy, but this person did this or that for you." And we say, "Yeah, well, but!" It’s very difficult to please.

So you make the wish, "May I be able to please those who are difficult to please by ordinary means." The moment that white light enters the left nostril, it causes bliss, making the living beings able to fulfill needs and desires, to satisfy their dissatisfactions, through one instant of the white light.

Hold onto the experience of the living beings becoming blissful by the force of the white light. Keep the feeling that they are blissful as strong as you can for as long as you can. Keep the feeling that this actually happened in a material or actual sense. Hold the feeling for a longer period of time with some sense of joy or satisfaction.

Don’t think, "Oh, this is only happening in my imagination." Rather, deeply think, "This is really happening to them." Of course, in an early stage of tonglen practice, this is happening in our imagination, but it is important to think these things actually happened. That will have a special effect on you and on other beings.

Question: I am a skeptic.

Answer: Skeptical is good; then you are a good student.

Question: I can imagine this would have a beneficial experience on me. I’m skeptical this could help another person.

Answer: I told you the tonglen practice, in the beginning, might not have a direct effect on other persons. But the practice really helps us to increase and stabilize our own experience of compassion and heart-warming love. Gradually, while there might not be a material effect on others, it might numb or minimize their physical pain for awhile.

Question: I’m still skeptical about that part. Say, I’m practicing tonglen, trying to give something to Frank. I see him; I interact with him. Maybe it will have an effect on me; maybe I will become more compassionate with him. But if I’m doing this for someone on the other side of the world that I never see, about that I am more skeptical.

Answer: There is no need for you to know the recipients. There is no need to have a direct or physical interaction, a direct communication with you and the recipients. Right in the beginning, we imagine all sentient beings or as many as we can. Every sentient being is in the same situation as the person sitting next to you. Every sentient being is afflicted with the three, six, and eight types of suffering. There is no difference, whether you know him or not, whether you have met him or not, whether there is personal knowledge of his background, whether there are similarities or differences in background. This has nothing to do with how compassion works with others.

Question: I really haven’t tried tonglen. But I have tried similar exercises, and I find it exhausting.

Answer: Emotionally exhausting? Because of?

Question: I don’t know, because of the effort required, the emotional feelings you get?

Answer: It is not based on effort. Whether the practice becomes fruitful or not is not based on whether we make an effort that is exhausting. It is based on how much we know about compassion, what degree of compassion we have experienced.

Question: I guess what I’m trying to say is that when we think of others’ suffering, the more I think about it, especially in meditation, it becomes exhausting.

Answer: No, no. That shows we haven’t fully understood what is meant by compassion. The kind of compassion you are talking about remains as long as we are confronting someone in pain; it easily goes away as soon as we confront someone in a better situation than we are. This is childish compassion, immature, unstable. Therefore, we cannot truly do tonglen practice without a proper experience of compassion. The stability of your proper experience of compassion will prevent emotional exhaustion.

With a proper experience of compassion, your clarity becomes intense, and underneath the clarity of mind, there is a sense of delight. You don’t feel overwhelmed. You don’t feel, "Oh, I can’t do another thing." Or "What am I going to do?" Or "What would I do if this happened to me? What if one day, from nowhere, this comes upon me?" All our thoughts and emotions are captured by self-concern. All those feelings pop up.

Question: Maybe it’s a cultural thing. It’s difficult to associate bliss and other people’s difficulties. I think of people I would like to assist, but somehow when I begin to feel positive about it, I begin to feel bad about it. They’re the ones feeling the pain, and this is causing me to feel good as I direct something to their pain, so I have a block about it.

Answer: Yes, it’s difficult. The tonglen practice is difficult. Some people say, "Oh I’ve practiced tonglen the last 10 to 15 years." I don’t know what the person is talking about; that’s not realistic.

Question: I’ve seen supposed Buddhist books that say, "This is tonglen," but it’s easy, not really like this.

Answer: Once you come next to a geshe, everything becomes complicated. That makes a geshe.

Question: You’re very good at that.

Answer: All right.

Toglen Practice Conclusion

This is the complete practice of tonglen. Once this is done, before we come out of the meditative state, before allowing your mind to return to its normal thought practices, you must engage in dedication. Usually, I say the way of coming out of the meditative state is not like coming out of the bathroom. You must do the dedication process before allowing yourself to resume normal activity. There are so many dedication prayers. But the prayer relative to this practice comes from Shantideva.

As long as space endures, as long as sentient beings remain,

Till then, I, too, remain to dispel the miseries of the world.

This dedication prayer is related to tonglen practice. Let your mind sink into the meaning of the verse. Then slowly allow your mind to return to normal thought processes. Resume your normal activities; make coffee; make breakfast. Perhaps coffee will taste better; who knows.

With this, we finish the first of the Six Perfections, the perfection of giving.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, August 10, 2002.