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The taking-and-giving meditation

The taking-and-giving meditation

Part of a series of short talks given on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland of Advice for a King during the Manjushri Winter Retreat.

  • The precedent for doing the tonglen meditation
  • Taking on the suffering of others with a happy mind
  • Value of doing tonglen meditation when we are experiencing pain
  • Giving with a happy mind free of the self-centered thought

We started last time with some verses that His Holiness had given us to contemplate every day. They’re from Precious Garland. Let me just read those again:

Like the earth, water, wind, and fire, medicinal herbs and trees in the wilderness, may I always be an object of enjoyment for all beings just as they wish.

May I be beloved of beings and may they be more beloved to me than myself.

We talked about that last time and how transformative that is when we really put it into practice. Then the last two lines of the verse say:

May their bad deeds ripen upon me and may all my virtue, without exception, ripen upon them.

Many of you have studied the thought training teachings (and also in the lamrim) so you’re familiar with tonglen, the taking-and-giving meditation. When this meditation was really described and taught very fully in Tibet under the genre of the thought training (or mind transformation) teachings one of the geshes asked his teacher “Well, what is the source of this teaching?” Because they always want to cite a source. So this is one of the sources that they cited because it says very clearly, “May their bad deeds ripen upon me and may all my virtue, without exception, ripen upon them.”

That’s very clearly the precedent for doing the tonglen meditation, isn’t it? Because the theory of the tonglen meditation is to develop our compassion by thinking that we are taking on the suffering of others (which is the result of all of their non virtue) and using it to destroy our own self-centeredness, our own self-grasping ignorance. And then to give others our virtue and our happiness—the merit that we’ve created ripen on them in terms of their happiness, and thus may they have all the temporal things they need and may they have all the conditions for practicing the path, and may they then practice it well and attain full awakening.

I won’t go into all the details of doing the tonglen meditation because it’s in previous BBCs, and also if you get the book Transforming Adversity into Joy and Courage by Geshe Jampa Tegchok there’s a beautiful and very elaborate description in Chapter 11 of the meditation. The most elaborate description of the meditation that I’ve seen anywhere. So that’s Transforming Adversity into Joy and Courage It’s on Amazon.

It’s a beautiful kind of thought to have: “May I really take on the misery of others with a happy mind.” So it’s not like, “Oh god…. They got themselves in all these pickles and I’ve got to be the victim and rescue them again by taking on all their negative karma.” [Sigh] “These sentient beings….” It’s not like that. It’s really, with compassion, seeing, “Okay, why do sentient beings create negative karma? Because their minds are overwhelmed by afflictions.” Not because they get up in the morning and say, “Oh, I want to create some negative karma today! I’m going to have such a good time doing it!” No. That’s not why. It’s because their minds are completely overwhelmed by ignorance, anger, and attachment. So often sentient beings don’t even know their minds are overwhelmed. Or if they do they don’t care because they think ignorance, anger, and attachment are actually good. “If I’m not attached to things I won’t have any happiness. And if I’m not angry people will walk all over me and I’ll never get what I want.” So if you look around in our society people generally adhere to ignorance (not knowing what to practice and what to discard, not being able to distinguish virtue and non-virtue). I’m not saying everybody, but to a large extent. Even the people that can distinguish between virtue and non-virtue, it’s not so easy to control the mind and restrain the mind from going with anger, attachment, pride, jealousy, self-centeredness. We just follow them.

So just as we do, other sentient beings are like that, so to look at them with a mind of compassion. And just as we want to be free from the suffering results of our own non-virtue, to want them to be free of the suffering results of their non-virtue. And then to take those suffering results upon ourselves.

We should do this meditation even when we’re not experiencing some overt pain. But when we are experiencing some overt pain it works very, very well as a meditation to do.

But when we think of sentient beings suffering we shouldn’t just think of physical pain and mental turbulence. We should think of also the dukkha of change—that situations that bring sentient beings happiness later bring them suffering. And then the dukkha of pervasive conditioning—just the fact of having a body and mind under the control of afflictions and karma. So to take all of that upon ourselves with a happy mind. Especially when you’ve taken the bodhisattva vows and you’ve promised to liberate all sentient beings, what are you going to do now? Say, “Well, umm, I said that in front of the Dalai Lama because I thought it was kind of cool, but I don’t really want to work for the benefit of sentient beings. I’ll let the Dalai Lama do it.” No. When you make a promise towards all living beings in the entire universe, your word needs to be worth something. You can’t just say, “Well, that was a fit of emotion…. I really want to go back to ignorance, anger, and attachment and just think of my own happiness….” You can’t do that. So imagine taking their sufferings upon ourselves like this. All of the three kinds of dukkha upon ourselves.

Then, practicing generosity, wanting to give our own virtue to them. So it’s again not like, “Oh I created so much virtue and now I have to give it away to these sentient beings that don’t even bother to create their own virtue, and I’ve got to give them mine!” [Laughter]

I remember when I first lived in Singapore in 1987, the man who … was the benefactor for the first book I ever published—the free distribution book I Wonder Why—he also had some Dharma questions and he wanted to learn some meditations. So I was teaching him. He was fine with generating bodhicitta at the beginning, and at the end I said, “Now we’ll dedicate all the merit as a practice of generosity to give it to all sentient beings and share it with them.” And he looked at me with these woeful eyes saying, “But I have so little merit I don’t want to give it away.” He was really serious. And on one hand I had to admire him because he really believed in karma. He really believed in it. And he thought creating merit was good and he valued that and wanted to do that. And that was quite…. Compared to many people who talk about merit and then don’t really believe in it, you know? He had a solid belief in it. But he had the wrong conception in that he thought once you give it away it’s like…. Okay, if I give away these glasses then I don’t have them, you know? Whereas sharing our virtue and our merit when we dedicate them for the welfare of all beings it actually expands the virtue. It expands the merit because it’s a practice of generosity. And so especially since we’re dedicating the merit for our own and others’ awakening, our own and others’ state of buddhahood, that’s the final goal. So implicitly we’re dedicating for all the good circumstances that happen before that. Because by having a series of good rebirths with good circumstances to practice the Dharma, then that’s how we’ll finally attain full awakening. So we’re actually dedicating for everything good in samsara and on the path and our final goal of buddhahood. So when I explained that to him then he relented and he wanted to dedicate his merit. So this is quite a beautiful practice to do.

We dedicate not only our merit but also our body and our possessions. Because sometimes people think, “Well, I’ll dedicate my merit. I don’t really know what it is so it’s easy to give to others.” [Laughter] Yes? “I mean I can’t see merit, I don’t know what it is, so yes I can give that away. But give away my body? No. Give away my possessions? No. Because if I give them away then I won’t have them.”

Again, that’s not the way to think. We should remember that by being generous we create merit and we feel good about ourselves. They’ve done so many studies that people feel so much better about themselves when they share what they have. And you don’t need to spend a million dollars on a scientific study (excuse me National Institute of Health) but just look in your own mind and you see that. I mean, it’s good that they spent the money on that rather than other things, but all we have to do is look in our mind and we see that when we are generous we feel so much better about ourselves than when the mind comes and interferes with, “But if I give I won’t have.” And then we wind up hoarding so many things out of fear that if I give it I won’t have it. And we hoard all sorts of amazing things. [Laughter]

I’m always afraid if I give away these little containers then when I need them I won’t have them. So I really force myself to give them away. And that was after I stayed in somebody’s house. I volunteered to clean out her basement one day because she hoarded big containers and big boxes thinking that she would need them, and then there were big things in there for years and years, you know? And so I helped her clean them out and then I thought, “You know, I should really get rid of some of my….” Because I just save the small ones, you know? Like for putting paperclips in and this kind of stuff.

So we hoard the most amazing things. One time at Dharma Friendship Foundation we were talking about generosity and I gave people the assignment to go through just one closet, or just one set of drawers, and take out the things that they don’t use and give them away. And then report back the next week. This assignment was so difficult for people. [To audience] Were any of you there when we did it? You were there. And you. Remember? It was like some people couldn’t even get to the closet or the chest of drawers. Some people got there, they started looking at things, they discovered things that they had forgotten they had. But once they saw they had them they got attached to them and couldn’t give them away. Even though they hadn’t used them for years and didn’t even know they had them. They couldn’t part. You know, this tee shirt which is a souvenir from my trip to Mexico…. You know? Then some people they got the things in a box, they couldn’t get the box in the car. Other people got the box in the car, they couldn’t get it out of the car into a charity. It was amazing. Always there was something that interfered. And this is clearly the mind of stinginess and miserliness, the self-centered mind, that is actually the mind that karmically creates the cause for us to be poor. So here’s this amazing opportunity to be generous and to create the karmic cause for wealth, and out of fear we can’t give away the things that we don’t even remember we have. [Laughter] Let alone the things that we remember we have and we don’t use. Let alone the things that we know we have and we use but other people could need them more. It’s amazing.

Anyway, to remember that when we do overcome our self-centeredness how good it feels. I’m not saying go home and empty out everything. But just to take a look and see what do we need and what do other people need more?

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.