top of page
  • Karl Thunemann

Needed: A Staging Ground in the West

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

As you can see from my own testament that Tonglen is easily misunderstood and under-appreciated. Here are a handful of ideas to get us started. I’m sure Tonglen adepts will have many more ideas.

A New Approach to ‘Begin Again’

Many years ago, I enrolled in a meditation class taught by a young rabbi. (He was 40, but even then that seemed young.) He tried to teach us a meditation that entailed counting breaths to 10. And only to 10. If you found yourself thinking of anything else, you were supposed to go back to one. If you made it to 18, it was no cause for self-congratulation. You had lost the point of the meditation, going into automatic. Yes, back to one.

I disliked this meditation and complained about it to the rabbi. He promised I could benefit if I would just do it for six months. I did it off and on over the years, never six months at a stretch. Occasionally I would reach 10 two or even three times in a session.

Later I heard other meditators refer sardonically to this for as “Begin Again.” I adopted this term, which no doubt deterred me from taking it more seriously. I do not remember what the rabbi called it. Now, contemplating Tonglen, I see a new role for this meditation. Instead of counting by one, count by large numbers. Like this:

One million

One billion

One trillion

One quadrillion

One quintillion

One sextillion

One septillion

One octillion

One nonillion

One decillion

One undecillion

If you get to “undecillion”—the equivalent of 11, you have gone too far.

My rationale? This would get us used to thinking in very large numbers. Still, compared to the unimaginable number of sentient beings, all these numbers are pitifully small. But it would be a start at thinking differently. The 21st century needs its version of Wilhelm Reich and his orgone box. Perhaps a way to measure Tonglenic particles and—this is so critical—their source. I’m a bit weak at generating these particles. I doubt many of mine would make it as far as Tukwila, the mecca of big box stores and shopping centers south of Seattle. Oh, how I would love to hear that my emanations were being picked up by Tonglen-o-meters south of the Columbia River.

Well, at least it’s an idea. Think about it.

Can this marriage be saved?

I was working on my relationship with Tonglen the other day when my wife entered the room and saw this screen displayed on my computer:

what is Tonglen meditation?

She shivered audibly, and said something like, That’s so creepy! After she had left the room, I started to wonder. For how many years have I harbored a covert passion for Tonglen? But after a time it occurs to me that her reaction was not to the idea of Tonglen, but the figure used to represent it.

Maybe I Can Call in Some Big Spiritual Guns

Who would those Big Guns be? I would start with the Dalai Lama, surely the most revered holy man on the globe today. Yes, even bigger than Pope Francis, who has to bear with laggards who refuse to follow his lead. Maybe Thich Nhat Hahn, but his following is not so large. And, since his stroke six years ago, he is leading a more secluded life.

Look what his Holiness has to say:

Does that seal the deal? Well, maybe. Some will complain that the Dalai Lama is a Tibetan, so of course he has to defend the home team. And some will add that not only is he Tibetan—he is a priest. His class stands to benefit if more people in the West start practicing Tonglen. Well, I have no objection to adding to the prestige of his class.

This is just a start. Maybe, once I start working with my Lojong cards, I will have more brilliant ideas.


bottom of page