Man holding and selflessly loving a baby

Tonglen (Cultivating Selfless Love and Compassion)

There is a traditional Buddhist Practice called Tonglen. You may know it by its English name – “Giving and Taking” or, “Sending and Receiving.” Its aim is the cultivation of selfless love and compassion. It can be done as a formal daily practice or at spontaneous moments during the day.

The details are simple to understand. We begin by imagining, in the mental field in front of us, the image of a loved one – traditionally one’s mother. We start with the aspiration, riding on the in-breath, that our loved one be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. We can further advance this to the sincere desire of taking upon our self the suffering of others, imagining dissolving it in our heart.

Similarly, with each out-breath we aspire that the other be happy and establish the causes of happiness. We can similarly advance this to the desire to give our happiness and the causes of our happiness to others, knowing that the source within cannot be depleted. This is the basic practice. Breathe out, breathe in, send love and happiness and receive suffering and the causes of suffering.

As mentioned, the practice traditionally begins with the image of one’s mother. Why mother? Because that is the foundational relationship of human intimacy, the essential first experience of selfless love and care, which serves as the primary basis of adult intimacy. Given that reality what person is more deserving of our gratitude, love, care, and selfless attention? So surely, by remembering the selfless love of mother, we can further cultivate love and compassion for others, maximizing the effect of this practice. To their surprise, as Eastern teachers introduced this practice to the West, they ran directly into an unexpected obstacle.

The moment the practice is explained hands go up – “not my mother.” “My mother was this and that,” which was invariably followed by a litany of complaints about mother’s indifferent, negligent, or abusive behavior that permanently “broke” the essential bond of mother/child intimacy – foreshadowing the adult intimacy issues so prevalent in the West.

Recognizing this unique dilemma of modern life, a shift took place in how the practice was taught. Alternatively, the Western student is asked to begin the practice by remembering the kindness and care given by a special loved one or give rise to a state of inner quiet and inner well-being, and use either approach as the basis of the practice. The Western issue with mother is thus bypassed.

Let me now explain how I learned this practice in Asia. I learned Tonglen at a 10-day seminar at the Pullahari Monastary in the foothills of Kathmandu. As students, we met as a group 2 hours twice daily. For the first 4 days the teacher would review over and over the ways in which mother was kind and selfless. Little attention was given to the psychological limitations of an immature mother. The emphasis was on the life-giving response to the completely dependent child, which enabled our good fortune to attain adulthood.

He would begin each session recalling the decision, conscious or unconscious, to carry a child, and how this changed a mother’s life. He would then speak of the carrying of a growing child, difficulties of pregnancy, the delivery process, the sleepless nights, challenges of child rearing, and the inherent self-sacrifice over many years of child development, and finally the letting go when the time came. I will spare the very detailed and heartfelt descriptions he gave of this process. But, they were extensive, irrefutable, and heart-touching.

Each day after teachings we would return to our small room to contemplate the kindness and gratitude of our mother. My mother was an immigrant to this country, working 2 jobs as long as I can recall, navigating a difficult marriage, and doing the best to raise her children in a nuclear family. Intimacy was a psychological and logistical impossibility for her. It was only at the end of my mother’s life that some aspect of belated intimacy developed. Yet, I followed the teacher’s instructions. Every day, twice a day, my meditation practice was focused around recalling the elements of self-sacrifice, that to one extent or another are essential aspects of motherhood.

For the first day or two this was an intellectual practice, but then, something shifted, something began to open in my heart. I began to recognize the sacrifices that my “psychologically imperfect” mother did in fact make for my life, enabling a young first generation American to transition through the highly dependent years of infancy to become a physician early on and then gravitate to the mountains of the Himalayas to find the deeper sources of knowledge and healing. What a gift!

Could I have accomplished that without her? Could you have accomplished your life without the self-sacrifices of your mother and others? In my case, the answer was for me a resounding “no.” That is not an assertion of her perfection, far from that, but a realization of my total dependency on her for everything pre- and post-natal. And the fact that I am here today verifies that in her own imperfect way she met that dependency with care, as best as was possible given her circumstance.

By the fourth day of these instructions, reflection, and meditation, I began to feel tears of gratitude well up in my heart and trickle down my face. I began to appreciate, as never before, the extraordinary kindness and self-sacrifice of my mother, followed by father, sister, and others. This appreciation looked past the surface imperfections to the instinctual and good heart of every mother, however obscured it may have seemed at the time.

Once this was accomplished, we were then instructed to drop down into our heart and cultivate these feelings, allowing the recollection of kindness and self-sacrifice to morph into an expansive gratitude. With this achieved, we were then told that we were ready to begin the authentic practice of Tonglen.

We were to take in suffering and give out kindness from the essence of this cultivated heart feeling. Nothing made-up here. The sequence begins with our most cherished ones, moves to unknown others, to those we perceive as difficult, and finally to all of humanity. We begin, of course with mother.

That is how I learned to practice Tonglen and re-immerse myself in the positivity of my mother’s imperfect efforts. I learned to see with gratitude the core of goodness whose care was life-sustaining, and the best possible given their capacities and circumstances. I no longer had to contrive or fabricate the depth of gratefulness and heart that is at the basis of this authentic practice.

I would like to make two comments regarding differences, East and West, that to some extent explain the issues discussed above. First, traditionally in the East children are raised by a large extended family. There is always someone around for a hug, reassurance, listening, and providing. Such an extended community provides a stable and loving childhood. In contrast, in modern times it is very difficult for a mother or a unit of mother and father to offer the same. Although the intention of selfless parenting may be the same, the inevitable consequences of the stressful environment of modern parenting allows little support for the exhausted, psychologically youthful and over-extended parent.

A second point I wish to raise is what I would call Western psychology’s demonization of motherhood. To me this is a devastating side-effect, rarely discussed, that profoundly impacts on the problems of adult intimacy. In the East the mother is deeply respected and honored for her role, irrespective of what must at times be less than perfection. This allows for the honoring and preservation of this initial and profound first intimacy.

In the West, it’s my observation that mother is held responsible for many adult difficulties and lacks the deep regard and honor given in the East. The cost of this demonization of motherhood, is in my view, deeply felt individually and culturally. These two factors may account for the difficulty in this practice taking authentic hold in the West.

Perhaps there is a lesson in this telling. None of us has reached the pinnacle of psychological health. We all suffer our past history. Perhaps it may yet be possible for each of us to look back, look beyond the psychological immaturity of our loved ones and open our wisdom and heart to the deeper love and selflessness that resides within the essential essence of each of us and is especially embodied in the motherly response to the total dependency of our life before, in, and out of the womb. This is not to justify psychological abuse, but rather to free us into a deeper capacity for forgiveness, gratitude, and intimacy on our path to a larger life and health. It is that attitude the primes the powerful practice of Tonglen.

Elliott Dacher, MD website:

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Written by Elliott Dacher MD

Explore Wellness in 2021