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  • Karl Thunemann

Calling All Sentient Beings

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

This is a story about striving for a goal that seems far beyond me. When I set out toward it about four weeks ago, I imagined it to be well within grasp. I was planning to embark on a form of meditation new to me, but soon I was lost, wandering among divergent meditative paths that no longer seemed clearly marked.

Funny, I have not considered that I could just back out. This meditation has a hold over me. Please indulge me while I try to figure out how I got into this mess.

A few years ago my meditation program was scraping bottom. I didn’t meditate every day. And when I did, my heart wasn’t in it. I had been in the practice of devising my own meditations. One I drew from four affirmations I found at the end of Brene Brown’s TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability.” I cannot remember all four, just the one that caused me the most difficulty. I am enough. The group of four was useful. But every time I came back to that stumbling block—I am enough—a nagging little voice asked, Really?

Not that I have any quarrel with Brene Brown. She is honest—sometimes painfully so—and straightforward. Was I “enough”? Well, yes, but only if I could be happy scraping bottom on my own.

about four weeks ago—it might have been right hearing a news report about would-be immigrants who drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean when their makeshift craft sank—I decided it was time to get started with serious, sitting Tonglen.

I can no longer remember what drew my attention back then to a little book by Pema Chödrön—Start Where You Are. The title promised simplicity for those who have lost their way and yearn to start over at the beginning. It was just the ticket: Baby steps to get started. Pema starts out with a handful of Lojong slogans. The ones she chose seemed within grasp. Perhaps I should have asked: What are Lojong slogans?

Well, now I am asking that question, somewhat belatedly. And it turns out there are 59 slogans, worked out over the 10th through 13th centuries CE. Some seem readily grasped. But others? Just take the first: “First, train in the preliminaries; The Four Reminders, alternatively called The Four Thoughts.” * I don’t think Pema talks about this slogan in Start Where You Are. Instead she goes on to introduce Tonglen, which seems a wholly different form of meditation. Some in the West call it taking and sending. It seems separate to me, but now I understand that LoJong and Tonglen are closely linked.

Tonglen is very ambitious: The meditator takes in the pain and suffering of all sentient beings in the cosmos. And she does it in a single inhalation. When exhaling, she sends back all the loving-kindness she can muster, an all-encompassing compassion that would change all existence. But of course Pema is a realist. She has us start out with ourselves and those nearest us. Then we gradually expand the nature of our reach.

I was enchanted and told my friend Adrienne—she is my meditation adviser—that I wanted to take up Tonglen. I thought she would be enthusiastic, but instead she offered words of caution. Practicing this meditation should really be undertaken with a teacher, she said, because there are many potential pitfalls. You can get caught up in your own ego or swept away by your growing awareness of how much pain and suffering afflict the totality of creation. You can get stuck in the muck.

I took her words to heart, as I almost always do, and over the next few years I wandered into loving-kindness meditation and began embracing the ideas that drive this blog. It is not at all surprising: Tonglen is seen as an embodiment of loving-kindness and compassion—not an illogical goal for me, but I was way out ahead of myself.

Then a few months ago I stumbled across a more recent book by Pema. It seemed even more slender than her other books, and it was simply titled Tonglen. She takes the reader through step by step, naming all the pitfalls that can befall the practitioner and offering suggestions for evading or overcoming them. Plus, she offered a simple way to start: Tonglen on the fly. Instead of sitting to practice you address suffering as you find it. For instance, I have a couple of younger relatives who have hit hard patches of suffering. So, even if I’m cooking or just sitting around, I take a breath and send them compassion and loving thoughts. Does it work? That is too subjective to answer definitively. My relatives don’t seem to mind, and it keeps us in closer touch. And Pema is permissive. If you meet a day when you cannot do Tonglen, accept it gracefully. Tell yourself, Ah, maybe tomorrow I will be more compassionate.

So, about four weeks ago—it might have been right hearing a news report about would-be immigrants who drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean when their makeshift craft sank—I decided it was time to get started with serious, sitting Tonglen. And I have known nothing but trouble since, as recounted here.

Naturally, I took this matter up with Adrienne. She was supportive, as always. She suggested I go back to that troublesome affirmation I borrowed from Brene Brown. She said it carried overtones of a Zen koan, especially given my reservations about my capacity to be “enough.” I have already taken steps in that direction.

And I think I will take LoJong slogans more seriously. I have just ordered a set of 59 Lojong cards, along with a display stand. By carrying out my plan to display and work with one card per week, may I find my path toward Tonglen filled with signposts illuminating the way..


*You just had to read this footnote, didn’t you? Here are those preliminaries:

1. Maintain an awareness of the preciousness of human life. 2. Be aware of the reality that life ends; death comes for everyone; Impermanence. 3. Recall that whatever you do, whether virtuous or not, has a result; Karma. 4. Contemplate that as long as you are too focused on self-importance and too caught up in thinking about how you are good or bad, you will experience suffering. Obsessing about getting what you want and avoiding what you don’t want does not result in happiness; Ego.

I have encountered these preliminaries. I’ve written an epistle about impermanence and sometimes I lie awake at night envisioning epistles about karma. They are still on the way! And oh yes, ego too! It must be the focus of my work with mala beads (I have to keep my index fingers clear of the beads, as they cloud the meditation with ego.)


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