Tonglen for a Tortured Soul

The swinging doors bang open and the gurney is shoved into the Emergency Room. An elderly man is on the gurney gasping for air, his life ebbing away. I sit within six feet behind an opened glass doorway, watching as the paramedics work their magic on his frail body. Chest compressions, IVs, a tube snaked down his airway to provide oxygen to his rapidly declining oxygen saturation levels. The movement around this human is frantic in stark contrast to his body, unmoving, responding only to the reaction of the hands on his chest, the tube down his throat. Chemicals are injected into his body. No obvious physical response. He moans as they push down on his chest.

In the midst of these heroic measures to revive this dying patient, I wonder at his life, his family, his current situation. Are family members waiting for word of his condition just outside the room? Will he survive another day?

In those last moments of this man’s life, I turn to Tonglen, giving all compassion and love that I have and taking on any suffering this man has experienced. These first tentative steps in this practice in this “real life” are awkward. I reach into my mind for the structure of the practice and slowly, as if learning how to think for the first time, begin the offering. As the patient wheezes on the gurney, I imagine taking on his suffering as my own. I visualize the suffering as a kind of dark smoke lifting from his body and into my own. As it enters, I dispel the ichor into the bright, clear, luminous nature of my mind, imagining the cloud dissipating into nothing. In exchange, I breath out love and compassion as I hear the paramedics use technical jargon to refer to the passing of this man’s life from his body. I stay with the practice until they take his body away, wheeling the portable bed to another room in the hospital. After about thirty minutes, I rest.

Breathe in all of the pain and suffering; breathe out all of the love and compassion.”

Tonglen, taking on suffering and giving compassion, is one of the main practices in my meditation routine. I’ve followed this practice after hearing a teaching from Alek Zenkar Rinpoche. Rinpoche gave a concise talk on the nature of Lojong and Tonglen, and the need for such a practice in our lives. At it’s core, it is about ending the false sense of dualism in our lives; the idea that we are somehow separate from everyone around us. Tonglen helps us recognize that, at our core, we are all the same. We will all face the tragic end of our lives on a gurney, in a hospital bed, or in some other setting we rarely get to choose.

As I reflect on my own experience with Tonglen, I’m drawn into the strange and sad tale of our current state of existence in the United States. The stark and sharp divisions between political parties and, more importantly, families and individuals, it harrowing. In my own situation, distant family members have decried the “fraud” in the election and the spread of “fake news.” Their anger, unwieldy and disconnected from reality, is obvious.

It has taken me a while, and, now I begin the process of Tonglen related to my family. To genuinely and passionately take on that fear and anger only to release back love and compassion. I imagine going to a Trump rally and simply being in the place, doing this same practice for those around me. To ask nothing in return and to give without acceptance or recognition.


About twenty-seven minutes into the movie Travellers and Magicians, the monk says to Dondup to be careful of trying to travel to or search for a dreamland. The monk warns that when you wake up from your dreamland, the result might not be so pleasant. This moment in the movie strikes me as the kind of life I have lived; (and to a certain extent, still do) hoping for a better outcome than the one I’ve experienced so far. Within my grasp, I imagine, is a possibility of some alternative future.

Ahhh but as the movie shows us, hope can be elusive and is kind of like living in a dream in which everything that is in front of us (in front of me) gets pushed aside for some future possibility. Sounds like a clear definition of a dreamworld.

Duck Lake, Fall 2014

Too, searching for some kind of unknowable future state of being is, in fact, one reason for suffering. The kind of suffering that evokes mental and emotional pain and anxiety. Living in a constant state of what could be is a means of denying what is. At least, that is my experience.

So, the big question is, how to manage some imagined future possibility within the framework of no expectations. For example, playing a basketball game with no outcome in mind. Win or lose, the outcome does not matter; it’s playing the game and playing it well that is determinative of your accomplishment. Of course, the problem with this analogy is that our lives are not games to be played. As I can attest to here in COVIDland, these experiences are not playful. We are just trying to make it through without hurting ourselves and each other.

As I think on the idea of no expectations and imagining a possible future, I’m drawn back to the The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the section on “The Nature of Appearances.” In that section, Padmasambhava said, “Now, with regard to the diversity of relative appearances; They are perishable; not one of them is genuinely existent.” (53) In effect, all ideas, thoughts, emotions come from our minds and, as a result, are at their core are empty or insubstantial. The words, “not one of them is genuinely existent” sticks with me as I imagine a world outside of COVID and restrictions, of the chance to experience the world without hesitation.

And then…and then, I think about what my expectations for a non-COVID experience are like, and I suddenly realize the privilege and power implied in the “outcome” of not being under the threat of a virus and disease. What I understand, is that my privilege has given me the opportunity to choose a path unlike so many fellow humans in the world. I’ll have the chance to experience a multitude of moments after COVID, something that billions in the world will not face. My moments of inconvenience with this disease are daily occurrences in places all over the planet. For just one example, food insecurity for children and families represents the kind of restriction on behavior and choices I’m feeling now. Yet for those humans facing terrible questions about not having or finding food, their experience never goes away.

…on the way up to the Tiger’s Nest Temple, Paro, Bhutan 2013

So, I’m pulled back into the realization that this moment is passing for me but not for many in the world. I’m faced with the recognition that, when it comes down to it, having compassion for all of us going through COVID and extending that to all of us who are experiencing any kind of horrible circumstance is the path through this momentary inconvenience for those of us lucky enough to be born in a favorable circumstance.

I wish you well, fellow humans, on this path and strange existence. My wish for you is that you find your own, kind way through the pandemic.

The Words of My Perfect Teacher?

Soygal Rinpoche, the disgraced former spiritual director and leader of Rigpa International, was and is my teacher. His death in August 2019 came as a kind of sharp contrast to the effusive teacher I knew from retreats and videos of his teachings. For years I studied under Rigpa and Rinpoche going through the Ngondro teachings and finally moving into the heart of Dzogchen. The teaching I received were transformative and I came to find a sense of awareness in the way Rinpoche brought the dharma to me.

After more than a year and a half after his death, I am still learning from Rinpoche through the teachings I have on DVDs and on my computer. The messages and the information is remarkable in the way it reaches the core of my being. He did, in a very real sense, speak directly to me.

Last week, I had a series of dreams featuring Rinpoche and his teachings. In the dream, we sat in a room together, across from each other, he communicating information, ideas, and a direction for my practice. These dreams, three in all, were vivid the morning after the dreams and remain so to me on this Thursday in November. The messages he imparted I’m writing here as a way to try and work through the various ideas that came from the dreams.

Now, before you get all “it’s just a dream”, I know that whatever my mind produces in my sleep is supposed to be just another aspect of my ego mind. People in your dreams are, for the most part, just reflections or expressions of ourselves. I understand that. So, the teachings I received in the dreams are just me talking to me through Rinpoche’s visage. While my rational mind can and does understand those various elements of dreams, the interaction I had in the dream feels somehow meaningful.

Sogyal Rinpoche from the Lion’s Roar article

The first dream started in the middle of a teaching. Rinpoche was sitting slight askew to my position so that I was looking at the right side of his face, as if he was slightly facing away, only looking at me through his right eye. He was dressed in his gold-colored robe with a yellow button down shirt. His demeanor was casual but intense. Like he had to get out what he needed to say as quickly as possible. That sense of earnestness was palpable, and I tried hard to listen to each and every word in the dream.

As I think back on the words he was saying, they came out so fast that I couldn’t grasp everything. A sense of “I’m missing the important parts” of his words was a thought I had in the dream and I wondered if I would remember this all when I woke up. That sense of knowing that I was in a dream is something I have experienced before and this feeling was heightened in these moments.

As he spoke, I grasped that he was talking about the teachings in the Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche. The conversation we had was about the stages of the Ngondro and how to actualize those teachings into concrete actions in my life. I had written down, a few years ago, a practice guide, for myself, to help me focus on what I needed to do. In the dream, Rinpoche told me what I needed to change about my practice and where I needed to go, now.

Patrul Rinpoche

The rest of the conversations were like two acquaintances talking about the world and the situations we find ourselves in. The conversations were less like teachings and more about Rinpoche’s interpretation of the world we experience. Through all of this, I asked about his betrayal of some of his student’s trust. When I initially asked he demurred. When I pushed harder, he looked at me, directly now, and told me about his failure as a teacher and spiritual guide.

The dreams and the experiences of the dreams were interesting and, in some ways, bizarre. This experience of Rinpoche was not the only time I have had dreams about him and his teachings, but this was the first that spoke directly to me and my practice.

Surely my experience was another way for me to center and ground my practice. Too, it was a reminder that I have been lax in staying focused and attentive. Finally, whether Rinpoche came to me or not, the fact is that his teachings were meaningful to me. The challenge, really, is how much of the teaching I keep, considering his behavior in this life. That part of my learning, I’m still trying to understand.