A med­i­ta­tion prac­tice used often in the Buddhist world, ton­glen (“giv­ing and receiv­ing”) is often con­strued as being a means by which the suf­fer­ing of some­one may be relieved. It’s not unusual to hear of ton­glen requests directed toward another, and seems to be used often as an ana­logue to prayer.

This doesn’t strike me as being the chief pur­pose of the prac­tice.1 As described in depth by Pema Chödrön, ton­glen seems to be more effec­tive at fac­ing one’s own hangups. The prac­tice is decep­tively sim­ple, and goes some­thing like this. (It’s assumed one is already in med­i­ta­tion for this.)

  1. Visualize some­one you know who is in distress.
  2. As you inhale, imag­ine your­self tak­ing in that person’s pain.
  3. As you exhale, imag­ine relief from suf­fer­ing going out to that person.

This is sim­ple to do when we’re con­tem­plat­ing friends or other loved ones, of course; but Chödrön doesn’t let us off so eas­ily. We’re advised to prac­tice ton­glen for oth­ers as well, includ­ing those whom we dis­like, or whom we believe to have harmed us.

It’s a chal­lenge. And some­times, the effects can be star­tling. You can actu­ally feel your antipa­thy toward a per­ceived enemy slip; you can feel the change in tem­pera­ment within your­self as you accept that individual’s pain, frus­tra­tion, anger at the world.

A key is, if course, the com­mon nature of human­ity. Who among us hasn’t felt wronged from time to time? Who among us has not lashed out in fear or sor­row or rage? Who among us hasn’t been so lost in our own pain that we harm oth­ers, inten­tion­ally or oth­er­wise, slightly, gravely or permanently?

I’ve got the par­ent­ing bug fairly intensely at the moment, and this image from MSNBC shook me. Because of the age of the boy, and because of the wrench­ing human­ity of the embrace, it was too easy, too easy for me to feel her suffering.



We call them rag­heads, we tor­ture their cit­i­zens, we immu­nize our own forces against pros­e­cu­tion when we over­step and kill them. We bleat rhetoric and we assure our­selves that our cause is just. The boy was not killed by a US bul­let. He’s just another part of the chaos that Rumsfeld shrugged so casu­ally about after Mission Accomplished.

What, exactly, have we made our­selves and Iraq safe from? How do we extri­cate our­selves from this mess?

I don’t know the answers. But I don’t believe snipers were a com­mon fea­ture of life in Baghdad before we invaded, and that puts this boy’s blood on my hands as much as it does any­one else’s.


1. As an athe­ist and skep­tic, in fact, I reject the plau­si­bil­ity of that pur­pose entirely.


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