Christian Tonglen

The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
23 Feb 2014
Padre Christian

Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

For the better part of 30 years I wasn’t very good at turning the other cheek. As a kid, when Mark Lee tried out his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle moves on me against my will, I ducked a reptilian heal kick and threw him into a fence breaking his arm. Later in adolescence, on a Boy Scout trip, when John Frye caught me in the temple with a rock and then ran over to check on me, I jumped back up and popped him in the mouth. And the beat went on, I hit a kid with a crow bar in High School who tried to vandalize a nativity scene I was building, and in college I punched a guy in the neck who tried to shake me down for cigarettes.
I grew up believing you met evil for evil, and violence for violence. So when the Twin Towers fell, it was no surprise I volunteered to take an eye for eye (or as the rest of that saying from Exodus goes, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe, and eventually a life for a life). But during that time of blood and sand I came to doubt the wisdom of redemptive violence.
The more I read the Gospels, the more I pondered today’s readings, the more I studied the life of Christ and the saints, I realized there was another wisdom made evident in the life of Christ. I could meet evil with good, violence with nonviolence, hate with love, and help to transform a wounded world. I came to believe I could love my enemies, but in practice I fell woefully short of being perfect in love like my Father in heaven.
My frustration with loving my enemy came from the disconnect between my head and my heart. I know Jesus says to love the guy who stops at the top of the on ramp while trying to merge onto the interstate, but my heart and my horn believe something else. I expected my will to overcome my habit, without any help from practice. It was like thinking I wanted to be a long distance runner, reading Born to Run, and then without any actual training, expecting to finish a marathon the next week.
Loving our enemies is not something we merely assent to; it is something we have to practice. If we want to play the organ like Jim Garvey, we have to spend our a lot of time up in that loft. If we want to practice nonviolence like James Lawson we have to put in the time being assaulted by our friends, so when the time comes for us to be assaulted by our enemies, we can sit at that counter with confidence and courage. And if we want to love our enemies, we have to practice radical compassion.
Almost every week we read about Jesus practicing this kind of radical compassion. The Romans occupied Jesus’ homeland, they taxed his people into poverty, and yet when a Roman Centurion comes to Jesus and asks him to heal his servant, Jesus does not turn him away – he heals the servant of his enemy. Jesus practiced what he preached, he loved his enemies all through his life, and when the Romans drove nails into his hand, Jesus did not curse their names, instead he asked his father to forgive because they did not know what they were doing. Christ met the inhumanity of Empire with courageous human compassion. How can we love like that? How can we nurture our own compassion to allow us to duplicate such feats?
Some of the Christian mystics and Catholic Social workers have developed compassion exercises, but for me, I have found that Buddhists do that kind of training the best. I studied Tonglen while in divinity school. It's a contemplative compassion meditation I first learned from an Episcopal Priest in Nashville, and then practiced regularly with a Buddhist monk in Nepal. My original hope for today was to lead you all through that meditation, but given time and furniture constraints, I think I’ll just give you the basic outline. If you like what you hear, let me know, and perhaps I’ll work the actual meditation into the Sunday School Class Brett and I are doing in lent.
So after some important preparatory meditations Tonglen begins in earnest with you imagining someone you care deeply for, but who you know is in pain.

  • It could be a parent struggling with cancer. A friend dealing with alcoholism. Or a pet battling blindness.
  • And then you imagine the source of their suffering as black smoke, and you imagine drawing that black smoke out of their body as you inhale. You picture that smoke leaving their body and entering your body; in through your nose and down into your chest where your heart awaits.
  • And then you imagine that black smoke being transformed into light by an invincible sun which is your heart, and on the exhale, you to visualize rays of light traveling back out your body and returning to your friend in pain.
  • And then you repeat this process for few minutes of breathing. Black smoke in, a heart of transformation, radiant light back out. The idea is to really feel the weight of your loved one’s suffering, their cancer, their addiction, their tunnel vision, and then to feel it burn away in the heat of your heart, and finally to feel the warmth of sending back to them your health, your strength, and your love in the form of radiant light.
  • At the end of this first exercise you picture your loved one smiling and then let that friend fade from your mind’s eye. This is how we begin to build compassion. We start by loving those who love us.
  • In the next part of the exercise you are asked to picture someone you don’t know very well, but you see quite often. A barista at Starbucks, a neighbor who walks their dog by your house, or someone three pews removed from you on Sunday morning. And you to try to imagine the suffering in their life.
  • Imagine the barista’s exhaustion from working two jobs, imagine the neighbor’s shame in losing his job, imagine your fellow parishioner struggling with depression.
  • And just like before, you visualize these pains as a black smoke circulating in their body.
  • And like you did with your loved one, you imagine breathing in that smoke, transforming that darkness into light in your heart, and then returning to these people loving rays of radiant light.
  • Similarly to the first exercise, you take a few minutes to feel the weight of their suffering during your in breaths, their exhaustion, their shame, and their depression, and then on the out breaths you focus on the warmth of your vitality, your love, and your joy, which you are returning to them.
  • And this second exercise ends by picturing this acquaintance smiling, and then letting them fade away from your mind’s eye. Again the idea here is building up our capacity for compassion by extending our love in wider and wider circles.
  • Almost everyone manages the first exercise, and most people complete the second exercise without much problem, but the third exercise is usually when things become a little tougher. In the third exercise you are asked to picture in your mind’s eye someone you are not very fond of, but who you have a regular interaction with. Perhaps a co-worker who steals your pudding from the community fridge, or a neighbor who burns his trash right on your property line, or maybe a cousin who always ruined the family monopoly game by throwing hotels at you.
  • It is important to note though that the third exercise is not the time to picture your mortal enemy or a political pundit. Trying to bench press a Volkswagen on your first trip to the gym is only going to hurt and frustrate you. Such as it is with compassion training, no one needs to picture Hitler in the third exercise.
  • But, just as before though, you are asked to imagine the pain of this person in your mind’s eye. And because of your familiarity with them, you probably have some inkling as to their suffering. Your co-worker might be dealing with body image struggles. Your neighbor might be in so much debt he can’t afford trash service, and you know your cousin parents were always gone for work and the only way she could get any attention was by acting out.
  • And once again you to try and breath in the black smoke of their pain, their doubt, their fear, and their loneliness. Take it all in through your nose and draw into to your heart, where, like all that other black smoke, it is transformed by love into radiant light once more.
  • And once again you try to return to this person rays of comfort, rays of love, and rays of warm embrace. This is how we build compassion. We take in the suffering of a fallen creation and in return we offer the transformative love that dwells within our hearts. This is how we come to love our enemies, by training our hearts to meet evil with good.
  • And so the exercises continue delving ever deeper down our dislike spectrum. And at some point, usually at some very specific person, our hearts begin to waver. Those brilliant suns of transformative love begin to cool and hardened. And in that cooling we lose the ability to turn darkness into light. At some point you’ll have a tough time returning love and light to an abusive parent, a betraying spouse, or fascist dictator. So here’s what you do, when you start to feel that cooling.
  • You picture within your heart an inner sanctum, and you imagine Jesus Christ taking up residence in that interior space. The image I find most helpful is that of the sacred heart - that flaming organ encircled with thorns and topped with a cross.
  • When you no longer have the ability to transform the darkness into light on your own, you draw that darkness into the sacred heart of God, into that invincible furnace of the Holy Spirit, and you let Christ do the transformative work.1
  • In regard to the closing lines of today’s gospel, this is how we love perfectly like our Father in heaven. We go as far as we can along the path of love and compassion, and when we can’t go any farther we surrender to the Trinity.
  • Grace perfects our imperfect attempts at love. Through Christ we can witness, and even be a part of that kind of perfect, transformative love.
  • We saw it on the cross. But we have also read about it as the daughter of missionaries beheaded by the Imperial Japanese comforted and cared for Japanese POWs in America.2 And we also have seen it in our prison ministries as the father of a murder child helps to baptize his daughter’s killer in a penitentiary chapel.
  • None of these people, from the cross to the font, came to love their enemy on their own and through mere assent of the mind. These folks practiced compassion, and when the time came for them to love beyond their nature, grace perfected their practice.
  • Lent is approaching quickly, and if you’re looking for a little something different to do this year might I suggest a few minutes of Tonglen every day. We really can come to love those folks who stop on the on-ramp. We come to love our enemies by practicing compassion, and it begins so with the darkness, out with light, and let Christ take up residence in our hearts. Thanks be to God for that gift.

1 Traditional Tibetan Buddhist Tonglen does not include the Christ transformations – it's only something I found helpful in my practice.
2 See God’s Samurai – thanks Ann Nelson


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