Transpersonal Tidbits: The Simile of the Tibetan Elephant Herder in 11 and 33 Stages |

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April 18 by The Running Son

The Simile of the Elephant Herder

in 33 Stages

Meditation Instruction:
Calm Abiding Represented as a Painting Meditation

Meditation Instructions for Calm Abiding (Shamatha) in the form of a painting with accompanying instructions. The idea of relating the mind to an unruly elephant along with the monkey and other elements in the visual example of Calm Abiding meditation originates in the writings of Asanga and then later in the meditation commentaries of Je Tsongkapa. It is thought that the artistic depiction of the practice is relatively late and possibly first arose in the 19th century as a wall mural. The image above is of a poster published in India in the early 1970s. (See a black and white line drawing of the same image).

Key Elements:

– The monk holding an elephant goad and a lasso is the individual.

– The flame represents effort.

– The elephant represents the mind.

– Black elephant color – the mental factor of sinking – lethargy.

– The monkey is distraction.

– Black monkey color – the mental factor of scattering.

– The Five Objects of Sensory Pleasure are the object of distraction.

– The rabbit represents subtle sinking – lethargy. (Jeff Watt)

A man, an elephant, and a monkey are repeatedly depicted on an ascending road with sharp curves. The man represents the meditator, the elephant symbolizes the mind, and the monkey stands for the mind’s agitation. At the outset, the monkey leads the elephant, and the man pursues them from a distance. Eventually, the man gains control over the elephant, and the monkey disappears. The ever-increasing stillness of mind (samatha) is also expressed through the use of black and white: the elephant and the monkey start out completely black, but their blackness recedes in each successive scene until both animals are completely white. The Path of Calm and the Oxherding Pictures probably have historical links. In terms of basic structure, the maps discussed above employ distinctly different patterns: a circle with multiple sectors, a flat line with directional movement, and an ascending line that zigzags.

Tibetan Commentary:

(1) The first is the force of Hearing. the First Stage of Meditation is attained through the Force of Hearing.

(2) Fixing the Mind on the object of concentration.

(3) The force of recollection (Mindfulness).

(4) The Froce of Consciousness (Clear Comprehension).

(5) From here until the Seventh Stage of Mental Absorption will be found a flame decreasing in sizes at each progressive stage until it becomes conspicuously absent. This difference in sizes, absence and presence of the flame denotes the mesure of efforts and strenght required of Recollection and consciousness.

(6) The elephant represents mind, and its black colour, the mental factor of Sinking.

(7) The monkey represents interruption (distraction) and its black colour, the mental factor of Scattering.

(8) The Force of Reflection. This achieves the Second Stage of Mental Absorption.

(9) Uninterrupted and continuous absorption on the object of concentration (lenghtening of the period of concentration).

(10) The Five Sensual Desires are the object of the mental factor of Scattering.

(11) From here, the black colour, beginning form the head changes into white. It denotes the progress in the clear grasp of the object of meditation, and prolonged fixing of the mind on the object of meditation.

(12) The Force of Recollection. The attainment of the Third and Fourth Stages of Mental Absorption is acheived through the Force of Recollection.

(13) To return and fix the strayed mind on the object of concentration.

(14) The hare represents the subtle aspects of the mental factor of Sinking. At this stage, one recognizes the distinct nature of the subtle and gross aspects of the mental factor of Sinking.

(15) Looking back means that having perceived the diversion of the mind, it is again brought back to the object of concentration.

(16) Maintaining a clear conception of even the minutest detail of the object of concentration.

(17) The Force of Consciousness (Clear Comprehension). Through this is attained the Fifth and Sixth Stages of Mental Absorption.

(18) The arising of the mental factor of Scattering preceding the actual State of absorption is greatly reduced.

(19) At the time of Samatha Meditation even though thouths of virtue arises, these had to be eliminated and the mind teneciously projected on the object of concentration. The reason is that such thought, in spite of its virtuousness will act as interruption. Such elimination is not necessary when one is not doing Samatha Meditation.

(20) The Force of Consiousness (Clear Comrehension) arrests the mind from drifting astray, and because of its sheer loftiness, the mind is drawn towards absorption.

(21) The mind is controlled.

(22) The mind is pacified.

(23) The force of Mental Energy. The Seventh and Eight Stages of Mental Absorption are accoplished through the Force of mental Energy.

(24) The mind becomes perfectly pacified. At this stage the arising of the subtlest Sinking and Scattering will be not possible. Even if there occurs some, it will be immediately removed with the slightest effort.

(25) Here the black colour of the elephant has completely faded out, and the monkey has also been left out. The meaning represented is: bereft of the interrupting factors of Scattering and Sinking the mind can be settled continously in absorption (on the object of concentration) with perfect ease and steadfastness, beginning with the application of a slight amount of the Forces of Minfulness and Clear Comprehention.

(26) One-pointedness of mind.

(27) The Force of Perfection. The Ninth Stage of Mental Absorption is attained through the Force of Perfection.

(28) Perfect equanimity.

(29) Ecstasy of body.

(30) Attainment of mental quiescense or Samantha.

(31) Mental ecstasy.

(32) The roots of Samsara or Becoming is destroyed with the joint power of Samatha and the Direct Insight (Vipassana) with Sunyata (Void) as the object of concentration.

(33) The flame represents the dynamic forces of Recollection (Mindfulness) and Consciousness (Clear Comprehension). Equipped with this power, one examines the nature and the sublime meaning of Sunyata (Void), the Knowledge of the ultimate reality of all objects, material and phenomenal.

Practitioner’s Progress

on the Spiritual Path

In Eleven Stages

A teaching similar to the simile of the Mahā Gopālaka Sutta (M 33) is found in the Vajrayāna depiction of the practitioner’s progress on the spiritual path. The Vajrayvna model however is a diachronic one, that is, it depicts progressive stages of development. It is depicted as a pathway traversed by a monk (the meditator), a black elephant and a black monkey in eleven stages. The elephant represents the mind and its blackness is the “sinking of the mind” or torpor (Tib jingwa, Skt nirmagnata, Pali middha). A wild elephant is dangerous; so is an untrained mind. The elephant’s footprint, which is very large, here represents mental defilements. The black monkey (“scattering of the mind” or restlessness: Tib gopa, Skt auddhatya, Pali uddhacca) leads the elephant: restlessness results when our mind runs after worldly things.

The explanation of the Tibetan meditation picture simile is as follows:

(1) A monk (the meditator), holding a rope (mindfulness) (Tib denpa; Skt smrti, Pali sati) in his left hand and a goad (full awareness) in his right, runs after an elephant led by a monkey. Here the meditator has no control over his mind.

(2) He almost catches up with the elephant.

(3) The monk throws a noose around the elephant’s neck and it looks back; the mind is beginning to be restrained by mindfulness. The rabbit on the elephant’s back represents torpor which has by then become subtle.

(4) As the elephant (the mind) becomes more obedient, the rope (mindfulness) needs less pulling.

(5) The elephant is being led by the rope and the hook, and the monkey follows behind. There is less restlessness now; mainly full awareness is used.

(6) Both the animals follow behind and the monk does not have to look back (he focusses his attention continuously on his mind); the rabbit (subtle restlessness) has disappeared.

(7) The elephant is left on its own doing without the need of rope or hook; the monkey takes leave. Torpor and restlessness—both mild—ocur only occasionally here.

(8) The elephant, now completely white, follows behind the man; the mind is obedient and there is no torpor or restlessness but some energy is still needed to concentrate.

(9) The monk sits in meditation while the elephant sleeps at his feet; the mind is able to concentrate without effort for long periods of time and there is great joy and peace. The flying monk represents zest and lightness of the body.

(10) The monk sits on the elephant; he now finds true calm (Tib zhine, Skt samatha, Pali samatha) and needs less energy to concentrate.

(11) In the last stage, the monk on the elephant’s back holds a sword (the realization of emptiness, sunyatā) and cuts off the two black lines representing the obstacle to full knowledge (jñey’āvarana) and the defiling obstacle (kles’āvarana). The term āvarana is a synonym for nívarana (mental hindrance). The monk is here cultivating insight (Tib lhagthong, Skt vipasyanā, Pali vipassanā) and on his way to the perfection of wisdom.

Fire appears at different stages of the path. This represents the energy necessary for meditation. It gradually diminishes at the calm stages as less energy is needed to concentrate. It flares up again at the last stage when the monk is practicing insight.



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RFB editor Jim Aldrich, Joshua Tree CA 2013

RunningSon aka Jim Aldrich, Joshua Tree CA 2013 | This site is dedicated with the deepest gratitude to Dr. Cláudio Naranjo, whose writings gave me life.

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