• TRADITION: Buddhism
  • NEED: Health, Relationships, Positive Attitude, Spiritual Development
  • LEVEL: Beginner, Intermediate

In this meditation we give unconditional love to those who are suffering. We take on their pain and suffering so our own hearts can open. It’s a powerful way to develop compassion.

What’s behind the name of this meditation practice?
Tonglen combines two Tibetan words that translate as “giving" and "taking,” which describes the main action of this meditation: giving unconditional love to beings who are suffering and taking on the weight of that suffering so your own heart can open.
What’s the concept?
“Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure and, in the process, we become liberated from a very ancient prison of selfishness,” explains Pema Chödrön, an American-born Tibetan Buddhist nun and one of tonglen’s greatest advocates. It’s a powerful way to develop compassion, soften the heart, and overcome fear of suffering. When we have the courage to face negative qualities in others, we no longer feel the need to hide from our own negative behaviors. We realize that there is no separation between ourselves and others, and this, in turn, makes us more loving and kind.
How did this meditation practice originate?
Tonglen meditation is part of a collection of mind-training practices in Tibetan Lojong, a form of Buddhism that spread from India to Tibet in the eleventh century with the teachings of the great Bengali Buddhist master Atisha. It remains an important part of Tibetan meditation practice, and bestselling authors like Pema Chödrön are responsible for its growing popularity with broader audiences worldwide.
What’s unique about this meditation?
You didn’t misread the instructions: breathe in negativity and darkness, breathe out goodness and light. It seems paradoxical at first: how can I take on the problems of others when I have so many of my own? That reaction is exactly why tonglen exists. We all have an ego—that iron-clad sense of self that cloaks the heart, shielding it from anything that might be threatening to who we think we are. Buddhism says the ego is the greatest obstacle to enlightenment, and tonglen meditation helps us to break it down. It’s a circuitous path to finding inner peace by way of helping others.
What are its chief benefits?
Joan Halifax, an American Zen priest, anthropologist, and hospice care pioneer, says tonglen is one of the richest and bravest practices we can do. “I’ve taught this practice for more than twenty-five years,” she says, “and I’ve been told again and again that this one practice has helped many people immeasurably in attending to their own fears around pain, suffering, dying, and loss; it gives people a real basis for the joining of compassion and equanimity. This is one of the great meditation jewels; it offers a way for us to cultivate our natural mercy.” Once the process of tonglen meditation is understood, there are no limits to how it can be used. We can heal our own past suffering, mend a relationship with a difficult parent, send compassionate thoughts to friends, family, complete strangers, or entire nations in need, and even diffuse challenging situations at work and in everyday life.
Is there evidence of its effectiveness?
As part of her Upaya Buddhist chaplaincy training, Daphna McKnight conducted a study of the Tibetan Buddhist tonglen meditation practice, the first of its kind. The study examined changes in compassion in a group of novice meditators. After a series of guided tonglen meditations, the group reported an overall increase in self-compassion. The Dalai Lama, who practices tonglen daily, puts it this way: “Whether this meditation helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective, and the benefit is immense.”
Are there any side effects or risks?
Some people worry that practicing this meditation will cause them to lose happiness or invite more suffering into their lives. This is impossible, the Tibetan lama Thrangu Rinpoche points out, because whatever happens to you is the result of your own personal karma—meditating on others has no effect.
Are there any controversies?
How can it be learned?
Tonglen is a very personal practice. Once we’re comfortable with the concept, it’s up to us to use it in a way that feels authentic. It is entirely self-directed. There are no mantras to learn, no formal sitting instructions to remember. Tonglen is all about allowing feelings to arise, staying with them, and processing the changes that occur in our worldview.
Are there any charges for learning?
How is this meditation practiced?
Pema Chödrön likes to encourage “on the spot” tonglen—instead of just rushing by, take a moment to feel the pain of someone you pass on the street and send a sincere wish for their healing. This informal practice can happen anywhere, at any time. The act of opening our heart is a continual process, and the situations we encounter in everyday life present countless opportunities for growth.

For a sitting practice, focus on your heart and notice any protective armor that my be around it. Your own grief and anxiety becomes a cloud of thick, heavy smoke you breathe in to dissolve the armor. Past events may come up to be healed during this stage. You’ll then breathe in the pain of a loved one in the same way, noticing the effect it has on opening your heart. Our step-by-step guided meditation is available on this page.
Can anyone practice this meditation?
Everyone can practice tonglen meditation—imagine how different our world would be if they did!
Who are the well-known practitioners?
The best-known teachers and authors in this field include:

The Dalai Lama
Pema Chödrön
Joan Halifax
Sonyal Rinpoche
Thrangu Rinpoche
Is any equipment or material required for practice?
Tonglen Meditation
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