During times of conflict, like the war in Ukraine, I find myself having thoughts that aren’t particularly “Buddhist,” like wishing that a certain dictator would die. My teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche often says that our negative emotions provide us with an opportunity to transform them into compassion and wisdom. As he writes in his book, Emotional Rescue, “You don’t have to get discouraged when a strong feeling comes up. . . . Emotions are the source of your heartbreaks, but they’re also the source of your healing and compassion.¹”  

According to the Buddhist teachings, all beings –– even those we consider evil –– possess “Buddha Nature” or basic goodness. We are all born with it, and then life –– and our reaction to it –– gets in the way, obscuring that basic goodness. An analogy for basic goodness is the sun: It is always in the sky, even when covered by clouds.

I remind myself that even those who commit terrible acts of violence have Buddha Nature, and due to their deep-seated fears and doubts, it is greatly obscured. I know what happens when my anxiety and self-doubt cover my basic goodness: I become consumed by negative thoughts about myself and become my own worst enemy, so to speak. By practicing compassion for myself, my capacity to care for all beings, even those I consider my enemies, increases.  

The Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, which translates as “sending and receiving,” is a powerful compassion practice. We learn to work with our mind in the middle of our own pain by connecting with others’ suffering. We remember that others are experiencing the same or even worse pain and that leads to an open, kind heart.

Tonglen became a mainstay of my healing from the trauma of witnessing firsthand the horrors of 9/11. What truly healed me was practicing tonglen and developing compassion for the young hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Center. I saw them as confused young men who abandoned their basic goodness and loving-kindness in the name of religious zealotry. 

In his article, How to Take Crisis as an Opportunity, Ponlop Rinpoche suggests we experiment “with some curiosity, to see what happens with your suffering when you open your heart to others.” 

¹Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche (2016). Emotional Rescue: How to Work With Our Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin, p. 37.

Here is an instruction for tonglen practice²:

  1. Sit in a relaxed yet upright position and rest your mind in a state of spaciousness, not chasing after thoughts, letting them come and go.
  2. Next, connect with a painful or difficult personal situation, without judging it as good or bad. Allow yourself to feel the suffering in your body, with a sense of kindness and non-judgment.
  3. From within that space of non-judgment, imagine you are sitting in front of yourself. As you breathe in, imagine you are breathing in your suffering in the form of dark smoke.  As you breathe out, imagine you are breathing out love and healing for yourself in the form of white clouds.
  4. Then extend the circle gradually, breathing in others’ pain and sending out love and kindness, healing and relief, using the same visualization as above, first for loved ones, then for others as you imagine their suffering, and finally for those you consider your enemies.
  5. When you are finished, let the visualizations dissolve, and return to a state of spaciousness and relaxation. Finally, make the aspiration that your own and all beings’ suffering be transformed into compassion and loving-kindness for everyone.

    ²Adapted from Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s article, “How to Take Crisis as an Opportunity,” October 13, 2018.

Beth Patterson
Beth Patterson

Beth Patterson is a psychotherapist specializing in grief, loss and life transitions. In her work, Beth relies on Buddhist psychology, mindfulness based cognitive therapy and body-centered therapies. Her articles and ebook are available at www.bethspatterson.com. Beth is a longtime Buddhist practitioner and a student of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.

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