Today is the last class of the "Meditation Exploration" series at Unity of the Triangle and we'll be focusing on one of my favorite practices, tonglin. As I've done this practice over the years I've found my experience of it shifting and changing. Today I will likely focus on it as one way we can put ourselves in service.
My old Zen Master Seung Sahn used to call this "correct function." By that he meant a completely self-less relationship with what's facing us in the present moment, free of preconceptions and ideas. We tend to see ourselves in certain roles and those roles create expectations of how we (and others) are supposed to behave. If I see myself as a giver, I will want to give unceasingly, whether it's appropriate or not. If I see myself as lacking or as separate from others, I will approach each situation with the question "What's in it for me?"
Tonglin is one of the ultimate "giving" practices. It asks us to give up our separate self, our individual identity, and adopt the pain and suffering of others. It asks us to release so completely our ego-mind's roles and restrictions that we become the endless energy we already are, or, in western terms, to reveal the Divine in us. We then put that energy to the compassionate use of healing another's suffering. In a sense, we "exchange" our limited self with the self of another person. Their pain and their concerns become the subject of our practice. In the process, "their" pain becomes "pain," "their suffering" becomes "suffering" -- not mine or theirs, not separate.
If someone is suffering, tonglin can be our correct function as a human being in that moment. It is as much a correct function as giving water to a thirsty person or helping a homeless person find shelter for the night. If done with conviction and surrender, tonglin can be a life-altering practice for both the person who does it and the person whose suffering it addresses. It breaks down barriers big-time.
Even as powerful and life-changing a practice as tonglin may not be appropriate for every situation. Here's a story my old teacher Zen Master Su Bong used to tell:
Some years ago, when Su Bong was Seung Sahn's assistant, the two of them were staying in an apartment in downtown Chicago. One morning Seung Sahn wanted to go for a jog around the block. If you've been in Chicago, you know that the downtown blocks are close to 1/4 mile on each side. The two men head out and after turning the first corner they see a man asking for money on the sidewalk. Seung Sahn stops in front of the man, says "Get a job" and jogs on. They go around the second and third corners and find another man asking for money on the sidewalk, to Su Bong's eyes indistinguishable from the first man. Seung Sahn stops in front of the man and tells Su Bong, "Give this man some money."
What did Seung Sahn see that was different between these two men? Some difference told him that his correct function with one was to give money and with the other was to kick him in the butt. Sometimes compassionate giving may not look the way we think it should. Dropping our expectations, our ideas, becomes essential. Maybe your correct function with one person is tonglin and with another is to nag her to go to the hospital and have her shortness of breath addressed. Or maybe she needs both.
It is that kind of eagle-eyed, open, self-less awareness that we most need moment to moment. Tonglin is a practice that can help open those eagle eyes. It can help us drop our separate sense of self enough so, moment to moment, we perceive our correct function. And, as Thich Nhat Hanh is fond of saying, when we truly understand, we cannot help but act.