About Tonglin

About Tonglin

We instinctively cling to joy, and try to avoid sorrow, or anything unpleasant. In the process, we make fearful babies of ourselves. During meditation, while counting down to zero from five as they breathe in and out, many practitioners of Zen Meditation try to breathe out the Sorrow and Pain, and breathe in the Love and the Joy. This is a very good thing, but it is not the only thing. It takes the heart of a true Warrior to breathe in Sadness, Disappointment, Pain, and even Death, and breathe out Love and Joy.


I was introduced to Korean Zen Buddhism sometime during the Nineties by a friend and EMS associate who shared our mutual general interest in Buddhism in general and Zen in particular. One book centered upon the teachings of Tonglin practice. It is called Dropping Ashes on the Buddha. Tibetan Buddhism and Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape were also major influences at that time.


In my own experience, first, I meditated about external Sorrow, the Sorrows of the World. Racism, Hatred, Ethnic Cleansing, Fear, Guilt, Shame, Greed, Envy, Jealousy, Intolerance, Malice, Ignorance, and Cruelty swarmed upon me like malevolent disembodied spirits in a haunted house. As I struggled with visions bred by both personal experience as well as news headlines, I felt like I was having my breath sucked out of me, as the really terrifying realization of how overwhelming the personal sorrow and disappointments in my life had become.


I had railed against the Principles and Theoretical Constructs that embodied External Sorrow, perhaps to distract myself from the nature and degree of my own personal suffering. I felt unable to acknowledge any Joy, and as I began to acknowledge the extent of my own self-doubts, it became increasingly difficult to believe or take any comfort in believing that anyone really loved me.


All I could do was try to focus on my love for my children. Fear overtook me again, as I realized that I was far from my own parents, who were not long for this earth. Too many years had slipped through our fingers, and a lifetime of regrets and disappointments that could never be set right were coming to an end, and I was powerless to even go visit them, as my own level of impoverishment had reached an all-time record. I thought: “I guess that’s just the way it is. Your children grow up and leave you to die alone.”


Depression and Despair overwhelmed me. I felt empty. I was gripped with fear of having no Love to call upon to breathe out. I did not feel any anger or hatred. I was paralyzed, like some Haitian Voodoo Zombie. I came to realize how completely my marriage was failed, and how immersed in denial I had been about it, but I could not even feel anger concerning my bitter disappointment over losing the Love of My Life. Already the Arrow had Passed Downtown.


I try to think of Reasons to Carry On

I can think of Nothing.

I try to Think of Ways to keep going

I come up with Nothing.

I try to Imagine Someplace Else

I can think of Nowhere.

I haven’t the strength

To even Care.


I had become an empty vessel, if only for a moment. What happened next can only be described by a childhood memory of the terrified fascination with which I had watched the recently released motion pictures that had been taken by the Army during the testing of the Atomic Bomb. I remembered an old clapboard two-story house. The initial shock wave destroyed the house piece by piece and blew it away as if it had never existed in the first place, even blowing away huge amounts of soil, burning everything, and fusing the sand into glass. Then, like a hurricane whose eye has passed over, the tremendous winds reversed direction with at least equal force. Those test sites were referred to by the codename Dreamland, the same name used for radio transmissions from Area 51.


I felt the same sort of fascination and terror as I realized that the Blast that was hitting me was the realization of my Life, as if it was returning to me. More visions and memories than I had ever dreamed possible, let alone remembered, that had been the Gestalt of my existence thus far, and glimmers of recognition of past, as well as yet unidentified experiences, more like Feelings of Empathy for strangely familiar, but previously unknown existences.


Next came the first shocks of realizations of all the Deepest Secret Fears that I had been suppressing for nearly fifty years. I was staring down the Great Realizations I had subconsciously avoided facing, and they were staring back. Imagine suddenly realizing that the feeling of Déjà Vu that I had believed to be a precursor of some great epiphany turned out to be a deep-seated impulse to recoil from facing those Fears.


It must be different for each of us, but for me it started with realizing that everything I did was impermanent, and probably inconsequential in the scheme of things, even within the next hundred years here on earth…I wondered how many worlds there were elsewhere. So many planets and suns, in so many galaxies in our known universe…even if God did not exist, it’s a miracle beyond the probabilities of pedestrian mathematics that we are here, and alive, and yet with infinite time (oxymoron) and nearly infinite opportunities, it is also inevitable that there would be life on other planets. In fact, for the estimated number of planets similar to ours in the known universe, it is quite improbable that there would not be life on other planets just by random chance. What is Life? What does it mean? What is our purpose? What is Time? From where did all that original Matter and Energy come? I questioned every activity in which I had participated in terms of why I did what I did. What was based on Assumption? On Image? Habit? Socialization? All activity of any kind was simply Passing the Time as we tried to delay the inevitable.


Then it came to me: Here I am, preoccupied with Death, and making Death as the World, preoccupied and hypnotized by the unexamined Life, writhes in Suffering, overcome with Desire, seeking only Pleasure…If the string is too taught, it will break…if  too loose…it will not sound. Find the Middle Path.


I was overwhelmed. I felt as equally indifferent to the impending Doom of all of our mortal existences as I did exhilarated in anticipation of what lies before the end of the road. My regrets only fueled my determination, having realized the incredible richness of experiences thus far. As much for the sake of my sins, as well as my salvation, I was renewed.

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