Love on Every Breath: Tonglen Meditation for Transforming Pain into Joy

Lama Palden Drolma
Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2019. 215 pp., paper, $16.95.

More than thirty years ago, I was listening to a speech by Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield on lovingkindness. He told a story about a Tibetan lama named Kalu Rinpoche, who was visiting an aquarium. He would go to each tank and tap gently to get the attention of the fish and say the mantra of compassion and lovingkindness: Om mani padme hum. The story moved me deeply, and since then, every time I go near a fish tank (I have one at home), I practice the chant. I have even done it for the orchids blooming on my windowsill.

Love on Every Breath by Lama Palden Drolma comes as a gift for me personally and will be one, I suspect, for everyone that reads it. In 1986, Palden Drolma became one of the first American women to be initiated as a lama; her primary teacher was Kalu Rinpoche. Palden means glorious and Drolma means Green Tara, a female Buddha. Drolma had been practicing Zen with Kwong Roshi and also studied and meditated in the Chishti Sufi tradition of Hazrat Inayat Khan. She studied Old Testament with a rabbi. Christian mystical traditions appealed to her. When she met Kalu Rinpoche for the first time, she knew that he was her teacher, and the belief was unshakable. She was ready.

 In tonglen meditation, we inhale the suffering of others and exhale our love and compassion for them. However powerful this is, most practitioners find it difficult to do. Palden Drolma presents us with a method from the Shangpa lineage, started by a Tibetan, Kyungpo Naljor, who received his transmissions from Buddhist teachers of eleventh- and twelfth-century India. These included two women, Niguma and Sukhasiddhi, who were fully awakened. Most of the meditations practiced by Palden Drolma during her three-year retreat in the Himalayas were from these two women. In 1982, she received her own transmissions from the Shangpa lineage from Kalu Rinpoche, then the lineage holder. She was to receive these transmissions again in 2001 from Bokar Rinpoche and in 2009 from Tai Situpa. Palden Drolma’s spiritual upbringing in this tradition is profound and awe-inspiring.

The Love on Every Breath meditation has eight steps. Palden Drolma presents them in two ways: one as a full sitting practice, which takes forty-five minutes, and other as an on-the-spot version, which can be practiced anywhere instantly as one sees the need for a compassionate presence. In the first step, one lets go of everything. It is freeing oneself from past and future and thoughts, anchoring in awareness so as to reside in the present moment. The second step involves asking for refuge: we invoke all awakened beings to help us. In the third step, we cultivate the awakened mind. We resolve to awaken ourselves to help liberate all beings. In the fourth step, we invite an awakened being, Chenrezig (the Tibetan name for Avalokiteshwara, the bodhisattva of compassion), to be present above the crown of our head. (This step can easily be modified to incorporate other spiritual traditions, each of which has awakened beings.) We pray and meditate to be one with Chenrezig so that we will be blessed with an awakened mind. How do we know if this has happened? Our heart center becomes a vajra of light (vajra means indestructible; it is a mystical weapon, symbolizing a thunderbolt, used in Tibetan Buddhism), and this light transforms our suffering.

The Tibetan word tonglen has two parts: tong means giving or sending, and len means receiving or taking. In the fifth step, “Taking and Sending for Yourself,” we visualize ourselves as our ordinary self, breathe in our suffering into our heart center, and let the vajra of light transform it into awakened love and healing energy. In the sixth step, “Taking and Sending for Others,” we include not only our loved ones but others as well, transforming their suffering into joy. The seventh step is dissolving ourselves into a state of open awareness, completely letting go. The eighth step is the traditional Tibetan practice of dedicating our meditation for the welfare of all beings.

Palden Drolma explains each step in detail, first giving the philosophical background and then discussing what issues one may face at each step. There is a separate chapter on how one can adopt this meditation for activism and for coping with difficult people. There are many practical tips. I especially liked the one that asks us to meditate with two cushions, one for us and one for our inner resistance—our constant companion.

 Bokar Rinpoche once said, “There is the nothing-to-do and the must-to-do”: nothing-to-do, because we are already awakened; must-to-do because we don’t realize this fact and need to discover it. Palden Drolma’s book will take you on both paths.

Dhananjay Joshi

Dhananjay Joshi, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for forty years. He is a regular reviewer for Quest and volunteers in the archives department of the TSA.


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