The Graduated Path to Liberation
(please note that the title has been corrected from The Gradual Path to Liberation).

This post began as a taster, but as many people have shown an interest, here is the full commentary by Geshe Rabten.

There are comprehensive explanations of the Stages of Calm Abiding online: this is an extract from ‘The Graduated Path to Liberation’ by Geshe Rabten.

“It is very difficult to quell mental disturbances because we have built up a routine of following them through many lives, while we haven’t developed the habit of concentration. We may find it very hard to take up the new habit of mind and leave behind the old ones, but concentration is the basic necessity for all higher meditation and for all kinds of mind activity.

“Mindfulness and awareness-consciousness are the antidotes for scattered attention and torpor (sleepiness) respectively. The diagram represents an aspiring meditator. This person is following the path of meditative stages which ends in the accomplishment of calm abiding and the beginning of the practice of insight meditation.


“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 a 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 shine meditation, as less energy is needed to concentrate. It will flare up again at the eleventh stage, when it starts practising insight meditation.

“In the beginning, just as the elephant following the monkey pays no attention to the person chasing behind, the practitioner has no control over his or her mind. In the second stage, the practitioner who has almost caught up with the elephant, is able to throw the rope around the elephant’s neck and it looks back; this is the third stage, where the mind can be restrained a little by mindfulness. Now, a rabbit is on the elephant’s back, symbolising the subtle torpor. Previously, this state might have seemed to be the state of concentration, but now it can be recognised for the harmful factor it is. In these early stages, we have to use mindfulness more than awareness.

“At the fourth stage, the elephant mind is more obedient, so less pulling with the rope of mindfulness is necessary. By the fifth stage, the elephant is being led by the rope and hook; the monkey is now following behind. At this point, we are not much disturbed by scattering or distracted attention; we mostly have to use awareness instead of mindfulness. In the drawing, the sixth stage of practice is depicted with the elephant and the monkey both following obediently behind the practitioner who does not look back at them. This means that the practitioner doesn’t have to focus continually on controlling the mind, and the absence of the rabbit shows that the subtle torpor that appeared at the third stage has now disappeared.

“Upon reaching the seventh stage, the elephant can be left to follow of its own accord; the monkey takes leave at this point and so the practitioner has no more need to use the rope and hook because scattered attention and torpor occur only mildly and occasionally.

“At the eighth stage, the elephant has turned completely white, and follows behind the practitioner; this shows that the mind is obedient and there is no sinking or scattering, although some energy is still needed to concentrate.

“At the ninth stage, the practitioner can actually sit in meditation while the elephant sleeps peacefully nearby; it is at this point that the mind can continue to concentrate without effort for a long period of time – days, weeks, or even months.

“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.

“If we practise the calm abiding type of meditation, we might use an image of the Buddha as the object of concentration. The first thing we do is look at it very thoroughly. Then we start meditating. We do not look at the object with our physical eyes, but focus on the mind’s eye. At first, our memory of it will not be at all clear, but, even so, we should not try to force it to become clear – this is impossible at the start. The important point is to keep our attention focused on it, clear or otherwise. The clarity will eventually come naturally. At the beginning, concentration is very difficult; the mind always flow this way and that. When we persist in the practice, however, we will find that we are able to keep our mind on the object for one or two minutes, and then three or four minutes, and so on. Each time the mind leaves the object, mindfulness has to bring it back.

“Awareness has to be used to see if disturbances are coming or not. If we carry a bowl full of hot water along a rough road, part of our mind has to watch the water and part has to watch the road. Mindfulness has to keep the concentration steady, and awareness has to watch out for disturbances that may come. As we saw in the drawing, we do not need to use mindfulness so often after the initial stages but then our mind, tired from fighting the scattering of attention, produces some torpor.

“After a while, there comes a stage when the meditator feels much happiness and relaxation which is often mistaken for the true state of calm abiding; in fact, however, it is the subtle torpor which makes the mind weak. If we continue our practice with energy, this subtle torpor will also disappear; when we have removed the disturbance, our mind becomes clearer and more awake, and thus the object of our meditation is seen more clearly. As our perception of the meditation object increases is clearness and freshness, the body will be sustained by our peace of mind, and we will not have hunger or thirst. Eventually, a meditator can continue like this for months at a time. The feeling experienced in the mind at this stage cannot be described.

“If we look at a piece of cloth with just our eyes, we can see it, but not in great detail. But a person who has concentrated on it well with the mind’s eye can see it very clearly in all details. When we die, our mind becomes weaker but if we practice meditation, then our mind, at that time, will actually become fresher and clearer. Normally, dying people experience delusions and fears which lead to a bad rebirth. If we have meditated well though, then during the death process, our mind will concentrate on the Buddha, Dharma and so on; this helps very much for the next birth.

“The scriptures say that in the ninth stage of the practice of calm abiding, even if a wall crashes down next to the place where the meditator is sitting, the person will not be disturbed. As the meditator continues to practice, the body and mind experience special pleasure; this feeling marks the accomplishment of the final goal of calm abiding. The meditator’s body will feel light and tireless; this is symbolised in the drawing by the person flying.

“The body has become very supple, and the mind can be turned to any meditation, like the thin copper wire in an electric flex which can be turned in any direction without breaking. The meditator feels as though the object and the mind have become the same.

“Although at the ninth stage of calm abiding we feel very happy and peaceful, this is not the real end of meditation. Firm concentration on the object is still not complete achievement. Now the meditator can combine concentration with an examination into the real nature of the object of meditation. After continuing simultaneous practice of both types of meditation, a special pleasure arises from the seeing into the object. ‘Seeing the object’ involves seeing whether an object is suffering, seeing if it is permanent or changeable, and looking for the highest truth to be found about the real nature of the object. In Tibetan, the name for this meditation with insight is “Lhag-Thong”; ‘lahg’ means more or higher and ‘thong’ means to understand or realise. By this kind of meditation, the mind attains more understanding of the object than with simple concentration; when this practice has been perfect, the mind can turn to anything. The perfection of Lhag-Thong gives great spiritual satisfaction, but if one is satisfied merely with this, it is like having an aeroplane built, ready to fly but left on the ground.

“This mind can be turned to deeper and higher things. It has to be used on the one hand to overcome karma and defilements, and on the other to attain the virtues of a Buddha. For this, the object can only be emptiness or shunyata; other meditations prepare the mind for this final object. If we have a very good torch which can show up anything, we have to use its light to find out what is important. The root cause of all our trouble is ignorance. We have to use our knowledge of emptiness to dispel ignorance. We must use our mind, purified by calm abiding and special insight, to cut the root of the tree of ignorance.

“In the drawing, 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.”

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