Is tonglen the penultimate s-function?

What is tonglen?

Tonglen is a way to relate to suffering in the world, our own or that of others.

Here are instructions for tonglen by Pema Chodron, am incredible Buddhist teacher

Here is the first part of the talk above

Rather than give you my take on this, here is what she has to say about it.

The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering—ours and that which is all around us—everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.

We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting and whom we wish to help. For instance, if you know of a child who is being hurt, you breathe in the wish to take away all the pain and fear of that child. Then, as you breathe out, you send the child happiness, joy, or whatever would relieve their pain. This is the core of the practice: breathing in other’s pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness. However, we often cannot do this practice because we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain or our personal stuckness happens to be at that moment.

At that point you can change the focus and begin to do tonglen for what you are feeling and for millions of others just like you who at that very moment are feeling the same stuckness and misery. Maybe you are able to name your pain. You recognize it clearly as terror or revulsion or anger or wanting to get revenge. So you breathe in for all the people who are caught with that same emotion and you send out relief or whatever opens up the space for yourself and all those countless others. Maybe you can’t name what you’re feeling. But you can feel it—a tightness in the stomach, a heavy darkness, or whatever. Just contact what you are feeling and breathe in, take it in—for all of us and send out relief to all of us.


So why think of tonglen as an s-function?

My basic assumption is there is utility/benefit when we can take ideas from one realm and apply them to other realms. Sort of like metaphors.  So if we can take an idea that originates with looking at individuals, and can apply it to working with groups or nations OR thoughts and emotions — we might have something

On an individual level – which is how we normally think of tonglen as working with the suffering of an individual– who might be you or who might be somebody you care about. If you think of being aware of somebody suffering, that awareness could be seen as an s-function, as how one s-fractal (you) relates to another s-fractal (the person or yourself)

On a societal level – is one group of people (an s-fractal) taking on the suffering or problems of a different group of people. The Hunger Site comes to mind, as does Doctors Without Borders, and The Opposite of Terrorism parties.

Normally when we experience suffering in ourselves or others we either ignore it, or explain it away, or get angry at the people who are suffering. All of those can be seen as s-functions.

So tonglen is an s-function because it is one way that one s-fractal relates to other s-fractals.

Why penultimate?

If we were going to rank s-functions in order of importance, we’d run into trouble because what is “most important” might vary depending on what we are interested in. But since the entire point of this blog is to move us towards a saner, kinder world, I’d say tonglen would be right up that at the top of things.

But since I know there is always something else, I’ll just say it is the penultimate.

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