To begin a session of practice devoted to exchange (tonglen), we should adopt the seven-point posture and spend a few minutes concentrating on the breath. Once the mind is stable, we meditate on compassion, wishing that all beings be freed from suffering and the causes of suffering. Then, as we breathe in and out naturally, we consider that, with the in-breath, we take on others’ suffering, visualized as a dark cloud. The compassion that then rises up in us transforms this cloud into light, which, with the out-breath, spreads to all beings—a great light that dissolves their mental obscurations and fills them with peace and happiness, just as if we had switched on a light that instantly clears away all the darkness in the world.
We can make use of all kinds of situations to practice exchange. When we are by the sea, we can think of all the countless beings living in the ocean and practice tonglen. Of course, the creatures under the sea might not look very similar to us, but our minds are basically no different. Their present form is the result of their previous actions. Like all the beings in the universe, they want to be happy and are afraid of suffering. Alas, the bigger fish feast on smaller ones, while the tiniest fish live off the flesh of the bigger ones, and both are preyed on by humans. They live in a state of utter uncertainty and fear. We should make a wish that we take on all their mental and physical suffering and give them in return a compassionate stream of light.
If we are passing through a city, we can think of all the people living in it and of all the beings, visible and invisible, who inhabit it and practice exchange.
When we apply ourselves to helping others like this, it simultaneously erases the negative actions imprinted on our basic consciousness. Assiduous training eventually even makes it possible to erase such imprints in other beings.
At the moment you breathe in, do not let the fear of not being able to take on all that suffering make you hesitate. The thought of enlightenment is sufficiently powerful to transform everything. It is this thought, therefore, that you must call up with all your force. Such love is present in every single being. Even the fiercest predators are sensitive to the fragility and suffering of their offspring, and they will go through any danger to protect and feed them.
Such deep kindness lies dormant in each one of us; it is simply a question of awakening it. It is the most powerful ally in transforming suffering into freedom.
You may find it surprising to think of human beings, animals, and other forms of life as similar to us mentally. But I am comparing them from the point of view not of their appearance but of their basic nature. The way in which each being appears depends on the physical form it takes and on the limits that form imposes. Every time a being takes on another body, it is like a traveler changing hotels—one day they might find themselves in a humble inn, the next in a luxury hotel. The external conditions might vary, but the traveler does not change. In the same way, beings may be reborn in one or other of the six realms of existence, but their innermost potential does not change.
The mirror of our present life reflects our previous actions and our future life will be the reflection of our present actions. This is why it is so important to teach everyone nonviolence. It is the only certain way, in the short or long term, to obtain peace for ourselves and others.
You might be wondering about the relevance of training in something like exchange. Isn’t it a waste of time to spend a few minutes, or even hours, of our everyday lives practicing this? Not at all. This training will enable us, in the first place, to make sense of our life, and later it will turn out to be a valuable asset at the moment of death. Of course, death is not a subject that people like talking about. But since we have been born, we will inevitably have to die one day. And on that day, only the spiritual training we have done during our life will help us find freedom.
At the moment of death, the consciousness leaves the body, with only the resultant karma of past actions as baggage. Just as our shadow follows our body, the results of our beneficial and harmful acts follow our consciousness. At the moment of our passing, if our minds are completely impregnated with kindness and compassion, the experience of death, and all the conditions of our future life, will be completely transformed. That is why this passage is so crucial and why it is important to make such thoughts habitual throughout our present life. As a result of training in tonglen, at the moment of death such thoughts will naturally come to mind.
The practice of exchange will thus be a great help during this perilous journey. Moreover, we can apply it when a relative, friend, or pet is at the point of dying. By assisting dying people at the critical moment, one can really rescue them. At the moment the consciousness leaves the body and starts to wander in the intermediate state, one has to be capable of taking on their suffering and, in exchange, filling them with the light of happiness.
Around the time of death, the mind goes through experiences comparable to those in a dream. When we are sleeping, the body is motionless, while the mind continues to function and goes through many different experiences. Just after death, the body is left lifeless, but the mind continues to experience all kinds of events. The first perceptions are related more to memories of the life one has just left. This is followed by a period in which one has premonitions of the life to come. All this is experienced on the subtle, mental level.
In the old days, almost everywhere it was traditional to care for those who were dying. Nowadays, there is a cruel lack of care. Most people do not want to think about death at all, and to help someone during the hours before and after death is often quite beyond them. Either they do not have the time, or they simply don’t know what to do. Many people think that a priest is the only person in a position to do what is necessary to care for those who are departing. But in fact, each of us can develop the ability to help the dying by having positive thoughts and praying, because all beings without exception share a common basis—the buddhanature.
On a daily basis, practicing exchange immediately makes it easier to communicate and quickly defuses conflicts. Unfortunately, we are all too inclined to complain when things get difficult, always blaming other people—our father, mother, boss, neighbor, government, or society in general. Wouldn’t it be more intelligent to turn this habit around and ask ourselves if we are not in the wrong? Aren’t we partly responsible for everything that happens to us? This way of thinking has at least one advantage: instead of thinking of ourselves as victims, we are free to work on ourselves and take steps to change the situation.
Excerpt from Awakening Wisdom: Heart Advice on the Fundamental Practices of Vajrayana Buddhism by Pema Wangyal, translated and edited by the Padmakara Translation Group © 2023 by Association Padmakara. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com