Note: This post was first published on Quaker Universalist Conversations, the blog of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship.

During a one-month practice period (dathun) at the Buddhist Gampo Abbey in the spring of 1989, Pema Chödrön gave morning talks to encourage participants “to use the abundant material of daily life as their primary teacher and guide.”

Midway through the month, she spoke about the meditation practice of tonglen, “sending and taking,” which has to do with cultivating fearlessness.

The essence of tonglen practice is that on the in-breath you are willing to feel pain: you’re willing to acknowledge the suffering of the world.  From this day onward, you’re going to cultivate your bravery and willingness to feel that part of the human condition.

You breathe in so that you can really understand what the Buddha meant when he said that the first noble truth is that life is suffering.  What does that mean?

With every in-breath, you try to find out by acknowledging the truth of suffering, not as a mistake you made, not as a punishment, but as part of the human condition.  With every in-breath, you explore the discomfort of the human condition, which can be acknowledged and celebrated and not run away from.

Tonglen puts it right on the line. (132-33)

Awaking Loving-Kindness (1996)

The history of the human consciousness has been filled with the struggle to assign meaning to suffering.  No living being welcomes suffering, yet human beings impose immeasurable unnecessary violence upon themselves and others—psychic, emotional, religious, political and physical violence—in order to avoid suffering, or at least to define who does or does not deserve to suffer.

Yet what a simple notion Pema shares: acknowledging the truth of suffering, not as a mistake you made, not as a punishment, but as part of the human condition.

Not that life is nothing but suffering.  Just that fully lived life of necessity includes suffering.

We are now in an age of endless argument between those of us who lean toward a “God” who measures out pleasure and suffering and those who, horrified at the notion of such a “God,” insist there cannot be any “God” worthy of belief.

One could draw a simplistic diagram to represent this argument, because it is not really about “God” but about “human beings versus suffering.”

The irony is that all of us personify “God,” the theists and the secularists and those who waver in between.  This is because all we human beings know about is interaction with persons.  More to the point, we live with the knowledge, or at least the fear, of being at the mercy of persons with absolute authority over us.

How could we imagine a Wholeness which simply is, in which we know ourselves to be complete and compassionate, even in the midst of our finite, fallible, suffering, mortal existence?

In his 2011 book, Conversation with Christ: Quaker Meditations on the Gospel of John, Douglas Gwyn shares a commentary on John 6:25-34, a passage which follows the sacred story about Jesus feeding five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fish.

The people are puzzled….  Jesus brushes aside their mundane concerns….  He knows they didn’t really see the sign he had performed in feeding them yesterday.  Or more exactly, they didn’t see where the sign was pointing.

If it pointed anywhere for them, it was simply toward more bread today, and tomorrow. These are agrarian peasants, after all.  Many of them live a hand-to-mouth existence….  Jesus gave them bread, but they took it as loaves.  They grasped the commodity, the form, without perceiving the substance….  

Apparently, the crowd at least understands that Jesus is the one sent by God….  So they ask, what work will he perform, that they should believe in him?  They remind Jesus that Moses provided their ancestors manna in the wilderness.  That was a daily event.  So yesterday’s miracle is only yesterday’s miracle….  (45)

Jesus…aims to shift their frame of reference…from yesterday’s miracle to the eternally present work of God.  He hopes to refocus their eyes into the eternal, heavenly dimension of their temporal, mundane present.  But again they miss it.  They simply ask Jesus to provide yesterday’s bread every day.  (46)

These people were normal people like us.  It was extremely difficult for them to stretch their imaginations, their expectations, beyond the mortal needs of the day.

And their notion of “God” was our normal one: “God” as a powerful being who can relieve our day to day suffering—if we can only figure out what we need to do to persuade “him” to do it.

The only other alternative we can normally imagine is the existentialist one: there is no “God,” and hence no meaning, no sacredness, to existence.  We just exist.

Both Jesus the Christ (“the Anointed One”) and Gautama the Buddha (“the Awakened One”) breathed in the suffering of their fellows and breathed out a loving “middle path.”  Not one that removed suffering, but one that led to an adult embrace of all aspects of life.

Jesus, ministering to country folk who were basically good but struggling folk like us, used the “God” language and the scriptures they knew.  Even so, he sought always to breathe in their fear of the stern, capricious gods of their world and their time.  He sought always to breathe out the embrace of a compassionate “Father,” whose sole purpose is to lead “his children” into mature, emotionally self-sufficient adulthood as mortal beings.

The distinction is a simple yet challenging one.

It is not necessary to use “God” language in order to witness to such life, yet it is also possible to use a sort of “God” language which gives voice to such witness.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,

Image Sources

Bread loaf: "An afterward to bread-making," by By Alex Legeros, Staff Columnist, The Gustavian Weekly, November 5, 2010

Tonglen saying: "There is nothing unique about our suffering (Tonglen, a compassion ...," on Beyond Meds – Alternatives to Psychiatry: interdisciplinary & i...

Note: This Beyond Meds post includes links to tonglen teachings by several different people, including this YouTube talk by Pema Chödrön.

Views: 346

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 11th mo. 7, 2014 at 10:59am

 In reading your description of tonglen, I am reminded of the breathing technique followed during natural childbirth that shifted attention away from the pain and onto the breathing process, giving a small sense of control and thereby slightly moderating the pain. It would be one sorry situation if I had to be in child birth labor all the time and had only a breathing technique to help handle it. Fortunately, that's not the case: the child was delivered and the anguish is no longer experienced, for joy that a child is born into the world (John 16:21).

There is not an exact equivalent between the Buddhist philosophy and Christian faith. The Christian faith has an extra element, a transcendent, unexpected power of being that can't be known or understood before it is experienced, like a new being come into the world (John 3:3-12). We call it Christ, the power of God. It is given; it is received. It is not imagined, for to imagine is to create an image in one's mind, like an idea, like a philosophy, which is an intellectual activity. Faith is instead experiential. The Fox opening (There is one, even Christ Jesus...) should demonstrate the difference to you between generating an image in the intellect on the one hand and on the other hand, receiving faith.  

Comment by Mike Shell on 11th mo. 7, 2014 at 12:07pm
Thank you, Patricia.

I agree that Buddhism and Christianity are not exact equivalents. I would say that my exploration of Buddhist faith and practice over the years has informed my Christocentric Quaker faith and practice, because of the two have strong resonance with each other.

To clarify one matter: Buddhist faith and practice do not depend upon "generating an image in the intellect." Rather, Buddhist practice involves learning to observe how the mind "imagines" ideas, notions, feelings, beliefs, etc., and then setting those imagined things aside. This allows one to receive the "transcendent, unexpected power of being" which is already present in all of us.

Buddhists use non-theist language, yet for them that language points to their non-Christian equivalent of Fox's "Christ Within." Buddhist openings, too, are not imagined but received.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 11th mo. 7, 2014 at 12:29pm

I enjoyed your post.  From my perspective the difference between Buddhism and Christianity (and monotheism in general) has to do with how one comprehends the 'true nature' of a human being.  For Buddhism, the true nature of a human being is, ultimately, the same nature as the transcendent.  There are various names for this like 'Buddha Mind', 'True Self', 'True Nature', 'Realized Nature', etc.  The idea is that when one removes the hindrances (klesas) to our understanding of our true nature then we can reside in our actual condition and overcome suffering.

In Christianity our true nature is limited because we are created beings.  Only God is uncreated.  This generates a different relationship with the ultimate than what is found in the Buddhist tradition.  In the Buddhist tradition the purpose of practice is to realize that one is ultimately divine.  In the Christian tradition the purpose of practice is to realize our right relationship to the divine.  The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to become a Buddha; a fully 'realized' human being.  In Christianity we never become God; but we can establish a right relationship to God and in so doing overcome suffering.

Personally, I find the Christian view that human nature is inherently limited to be more consistent with what I have observed of human beings and what I have observed in my own heart and mind.  Human beings are very small.  God is vast.  What is small cannot encompass the vast; but it is possible for the small to turn to the vast and in so doing find a measure of peace and contentment.

Thanks again for thy post,


Comment by Mike Shell on 11th mo. 7, 2014 at 3:13pm
Thanks, Jim. You write:

"In the Buddhist tradition the purpose of practice is to realize that one is ultimately divine. In the Christian tradition the purpose of practice is to realize our right relationship to the divine. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to become a Buddha; a fully 'realized' human being. In Christianity we never become God; but we can establish a right relationship to God and in so doing overcome suffering."

Though I'm not well versed in Eastern Orthodox Christian thought, my understanding is that they come closer to something analogous with the Buddhist understanding. I'm thinking of the concept of Theosis("deification," "divinization"):

"The process of a worshiper becoming free of hamartía ("missing the mark"), being united with God, beginning in this life and later consummated in bodily resurrection. For Orthodox Christians, Théōsis (see 2 Pet. 1:4) is salvation. Théōsis assumes that humans from the beginning are made to share in the Life or Nature of the all-Holy Trinity. Therefore, an infant or an adult worshiper is saved from the state of unholiness (hamartía — which is not to be confused with hamártēma “sin”) for participation in the Life (zōé, not simply bíos) of the Trinity — which is everlasting." -

Still not the Buddhist path, yet closer, perhaps, than that of Western Christian traditions.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 11th mo. 7, 2014 at 8:21pm

Greetings Mike:

Both Buddhism and Christianity are vast traditions; it is difficult to generalize without coming upon significant exceptions.  Still, the process of theosis is not the same as apotheosis; at least it seems to me there is a difference.  And the difference is this: human beings are created, in Buddhist terms their existence is dependent upon causes and conditions (pratityasamutpada).  In contrast, God transcends all causes and conditions, and is unconditioned by His very nature. 

One of the differences between Buddhism and Christianity is that Buddhism regards causation itself as lacking in origin.  That is why there is no creation story in Buddhism.  There is nothing outside of the network of causal relationships.  Since there is nothing outside of the network of causal relationships it makes sense that purification in Buddhism (however the particular Buddhist tradition comprehends purification) would lead to an ultimate realization within the realm of conditions, even if that realization itself is of the unconditioned.  That is why in Mahayana Buddhism they can say that samsara is nirvana.

The view of Christianity is that ultimate reality is essentially other.  As Karl Barth put it, 'God is ultimate otherness'.  From a Buddhist perspective there is no such thing as otherness; but from a Christian perspective realizing God is realizing the profound otherness of His being and then establishing a relationship with that otherness.  That is why prayer is so central to Christianity; it is the way to establish this relationship with ultimate otherness, that otherness upon which all existing things depend.

These are very abstract thoughts, for sure.  I do think, however, that they have implications for daily Faith and Practice; but that is, perhaps, a subject for another conversation.

Best wishes,

Thy Friend Jim

Comment by Shane Moad on 11th mo. 8, 2014 at 8:19am
My faith as a Quaker is based on Christ's sacrifice on the cross for all those that believe in him and through that sacrifice He secured eternal life for us. Of course there are other things within the Quaker Christian world view that is laid our in scripture for us and our own relationship with the living Christ that speaks to my spirit. Surley though what separates our faith from all others wether it be Buddisim, Hinduism, or many others is that essential element that no other one has and that is what I mentioned before, Christs sacrifice on the cross and rising again to life. It sure got my attention for good reason! Having said that I still believe we can gain much from other world views, as I do myself, but we have the answer right where we are. I enjoyed reading of your experiences Mike.
Comment by Mike Shell on 11th mo. 9, 2014 at 3:19pm


This second comment is very helpful.  You articulate crucial differences between Buddhist and Christian faith and practice of which I was aware but blurred over in my earlier writing.  I definitely do not mean to ignore or trivialize those differences.  What I wrote in my blog post arises out of roughly 40 years of playing with the paradox that faced me when I dropped out of Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago back in 1973.

I went into seminary a more or less orthodox Lutheran.  I left primarily because I finally had to acknowledge my gayness and find a secular life which would allow it.  However, I was also puzzling over the reality that numerous dear non-Christian friends, some of them of other religious traditions, some non-theists or secularists, were as committed to the "Christ-like life" as I challenged myself to be.

In an exercise like this post, I play with the paradox.  My "native religious language" is Christian.  In moments of grief or despair or joy, my reflex is still to use Christian prayer language.  My heart understands God language.

Even so, after years of exploring Buddhism, as well as secular studies in the neurobiology of consciousness, I recognize that the non-theistic Buddhist “sacred story” works as well for those who choose it as the theistic story does for those of us who were born into it.

I became a convinced Friend because Quakerism looks to the inward sacred reality which precedes concepts, language, belief, doctrine, etc.

I want to sit with your words because they give me a fuller picture of distinctions I have been ignoring.

Thank you.


Comment by Mike Shell on 11th mo. 9, 2014 at 3:36pm

Friend Shane,

I'm grateful for your witness.

Blessings, Mike


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