I worked for four years at a Buddhist publishing house, and “tonglen” was a topic I came across many times. It’s a Buddhist contemplative practice in which the practitioner breathes in the pain and suffering of others and breathes out relief for them.
In the second volume of The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, meditation master Chögyam Trungpa describes the practice and its importance:
Exchanging oneself for others is one of the leading mahayana disciplines, and a very important one indeed. It is central to the mahayana outlook on reality. Without it, you cannot understand Buddhism at all. . . .
In the practice of exchange, you take on the pain and misery of others, and you give away your own pleasure and luxury. In Tibetan this practice is known as tonglen: tong means “let go” and len means “take on,” so tonglen means “sending and taking.” . . .
With tonglen, when our breath goes out, we let go of any goodness, positivity, or achievement that we have accomplished and give it to others; and as we breathe in, we breathe in the pain, suffering, and misery of others. (304-5)
In essence, this is what Jesus did on the cross. He “took on” the sin (suffering) of the world, bearing it in his body, and in what is known in Christian theology as the “Great Exchange,” he “let go” of his privilege, his merit, imputing it to us. In-breath: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Out-breath: “It is finished.”
Martin Luther famously expounded on this incredible act of compassion:
This is that mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s, and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied himself of his righteousness that he might clothe us with it and fill us with it; and he has taken our evils upon himself that he might deliver us from them.
The metaphysics of tonglen and atonement—what’s actually transpiring—are articulated differently, granted, because of the different religious worldviews from which they spring. Buddhists, for example, talk about the transmutation of dark energy into light energy, the transfer of karmic units, and the importance of the breath in bringing all this about. Christians, on the other hand, to describe the atonement use words like sin, expiation, and justification and emphasize the conscious activity of a three-person God.
But the principle is very similar. In an act of supreme altruism, Jesus “bore our griefs” and “carried our sorrows” to the cross (Isaiah 53:4), relieving us of their burden, and then he burst forth from the grave in resurrection light, breathing his Spirit out into us (John 20:22). You might say our negative karma was displaced by Jesus’s positive karma. The favor of God now dwells in us, because Jesus did tonglen!