The Graduated Path to Liberation
There are comprehensive explanations of the Stages of Calm Abiding online: this is an extract from ‘The Graduated Path to Liberation’ by Geshe Rabten.
The image is a pictorial representation of a person who is following the path of meditative stages, ending in the accomplishment of calm abiding and the beginning of the practice of insight meditation. Once the mind is calm and controlled, then it can do great work, investigating itself.
“At the bottom of the page, we see the practitioner who holds a rope in one hand, and a hook in the other, chasing after an elephant led by a monkey. The elephant represents the meditative mind; a wild and untrained elephant can be dangerous and wreak enormous destruction but once an elephant is trained, it will obey commands and do hard work. The same holds true for the mind. Any suffering that we have now is due to the mind being like a wild, untamed elephant. The elephant also has very big footprints; these symbolise the mental defilements. If we work hard to improve our mind, it will be able to do great work for us in return. From the suffering of the hells to the happiness of the Buddhas, all states are caused by the behaviour of the mind.
“At the start of the path, the elephant is black, representing torpor, or sinking of the mind. The monkey, who is leading the elephant, represents scattering of the mind. The monkey cannot keep quiet for a moment – it is always chattering or fiddling with something, and finds everything attractive. In the same way that the monkey is in front, leading the elephant, our attention is scattered after the sense objects of taste, touch, sound, smell and vision. These are symbolised by food, cloth, musical instruments, perfume and a mirror.
“Behind the elephant is person who represents the meditator trying to train the mind. The rope in the meditator’s hand is mindfulness, and the hook is awareness. Using these two tools, the meditator will try to tame and control the mind. Fire is shown at different points along the path; this fire represents the energy necessary for concentration. Notice that the fire gradually decreases at each of the ten stages of shamata meditation, as less energy is needed to concentrate. It will flare up again at the eleventh stage, when it starts practising insight meditation …
“ … The tenth stage, where we see the meditator sitting on top of the elephant (which has now turned white, or become clear) signifies the real attainment of calm abiding. At the last – the eleventh – stage, the meditator is sitting on the elephant’s back, holding a sword. At this point, the practitioner begins a new kind of meditation, called ‘higher vision’ or insight meditation …
“ … At this stage, the practitioner is holding a sword, symbolising the realisation of emptiness to cut the two black lines symbolising the two obscurations; the defilement obscuration and the knowledge obscuration. The knowledge of emptiness is essential to remove ignorance. Once we come close to a thorough understanding of emptiness, we are on the way to the perfection of wisdom – the complete comprehension of emptiness.”