Source: Dharmapala Thangka Centre
1st Stage: Stabilizing in the Mind [Cittasthapana]
The first stage is attained through study and listening to the Dharma as well as understanding the nature of cyclic existence. It is essential that the seeker come to realize the importance of the First Noble Truth taught by the Buddha. This is the Truth of Suffering, and the reality of this Truth as a fact of life, has first to be intellectually comprehended and then further appreciated as a result of successful contemplation. Through an emotional intuition gleaned from this pondering one must thoroughly and deeply connect with this Truth.
So then, with this turning-about experience, we begin to see and feel the need to steadfastly focus and engage our mind in meditation. To do this we start by concentrating on the rise and fall of the breath at the abdomen.
In the illustration the monk, the meditator, chases after the elephant, the wildly untamed mind. In the first stage our mind is completely under the sway and allure of the five sense objects and mental-emotional events. The rope and the hook carried by the monk are hardly any help at this point. When the object is not steady, disturbances are plentiful. The "elephant" is not even looking toward the rope and hook and the monkey runs wildly, leading the elephant. At this first stage, the flame of the fire of effort must be very strong.
2nd Stage Continuous Stabilizing [Samsthapana]
The monk fixes his mind on the breath. Hope of success commences here. [The monk holds up his hands.] The rope and hook are needed to bind and tie the elephant. One must use remembrance and watchfulness to bring the object of meditation close. The hook makes it possible to drive the elephant in the right direction.
The white spot on the heads of the elephant and monkey indicate that the mind begins to become a bit calmer, with progress in staying and resting the mind on the breath, fogginess and weakness lessen slightly. However the five senses still distract: touch [cloth], taste [fruit], smell [perfumed conch], sound [cymbals], and sight [mirror].
This second stage is attained through the power of and motivation from pondering the Dharma. This contemplation forges concentration on the anvil of a certain faith and lengthened periods of concentration.
3rd Stage: Habitual Stabilization [Avasthapana]
The rope represents the power of recollection [smrti]. This power comes from the "memory" nature of mind. Remembrance is like the rope, which is now on the elephant's neck and you see in the picture that in response the elephant gazes toward the monk, the meditator.
Now the rabbit makes its appearance. The meditator can distinguish the subtler forms of distraction and weakness. The rabbit represents the presence in the mind of passivity. Here, especially, the meditator seems to enjoy the state of "spacing out." She or he thinks that they have attained an ideal calm. Everything feels good. In fact, this is really a distraction, a subtle daze. The knowledgeable meditator knows that there are two levels of "passivity": a basic form of 'spacing-out,' which seems very pleasant but is obviously a distraction, and a far subtler form, which seems a very peaceful state of mind, but which is really a disguised form of depression. This must be watched for by careful introspection.
Like a rabbit using camouflages well, this stage can be is mistaken for progress, and since this subtle weakness does not disturb concentration, it relaxes the meditator, and seems pleasurable. Yet it is a disturbance nevertheless. For later it will make our mind weak; and suppress desire to be energized with sufficient effort. Like a slow leak in a punctured balloon, this subtle weakness makes the mind weaker and weaker, very slowly.
4th Stage: Near Stabilization [Upasthapana]
At this stage, the dark and white colors are almost half and half, showing that distraction and fogginess have diminished by half. With the power of watchfulness and alertness the meditator firmly understands what is being done and what is occurring. The rope on the elephant's neck is loose, because the mind is quite obedient.
The elephant, monkey, and rabbit look back; showing that having recognized these mental distractions, the mind turns back to the object of contemplation. At this point concentration on the breath is possible for about fifteen minutes.
5th Stage: Habituation [Damana]
The rope of remembrance is not so necessary now, but since subtle distractions grow stronger, the power of diligence / perseverance must be applied. The long effort against the invasive distraction of the five senses and any inner events may too quickly relax the effort of the meditator, and the subtler forms of distraction would wax stronger and thereby the intensity of clarity diminishes.
Pictured as another monkey eating from a tree on the periphery, and not on the path, means that while one is developing Calm-Abiding, no other thoughts, even those of Dharma or meditations on Samsara etc., can be allowed to interfere with concentration!
One experiences steady concentration for a half an hour, and the breath-object is very "close" to the mind; the mind is peaceful with no distractions.
6th Stage: Pacifying [Shamana]
The allure of the five senses are now gone. Gone also are the other distractions of the inner emotional and mental events. An energetic concentration arises, shown as no hook and rope needed, though ever at the ready. The monk is not even looking at the elephant.
Concentration without any disturbance is possible for at least one hour. The monk hooks the elephant with his goad; the mind is stopped from wandering by clear understanding.
7th Stage: Thorough Pacification [Vyupasthamana]
After long persevering practice, the meditator reaches complete pacification of the mind. The monk is behind the elephant and allows the mind to 'rest' naturally. It concentrates on its own. The hare disappears and, because no energy is needed; concentration comes immediately. But still, the monk observes! There still remains subtle weakness and distraction, but [because they totally lack dark color] there is no disturbance at all. Concentration is possible for about four hours.
We see that the monkey leaves the elephant and now squats behind the monk in complete obeisance. However there are still slight traces of black; this shows that even the subtlest sinking and scattering may continue to arise. Should they begin to arise they can be eliminated with slight effort.
8th Stage: Becoming One-pointed [Ekotikarana]
Spontaneous concentration is now present until the meditator wishes to stop it. As the concentration progresses, so does the clarity of the object concentrated upon Ones sense-media are not needed and do not intrude.
The monk doesn't even need to look at the elephant; the elephant just comes and obeys. Concentration for one or two days without a break is possible. In the drawing the monkey disappears and the elephant becomes completely white. The mind can now remain continually in absorption on the object of concentration.
9th Stage: Entrance Into Samadhi [Upacara-samadhi]
The monk meditates, and the elephant just sleeps. The meditator is totally non-dependent upon the senses and in perfect equanimity. The path has ended and the elephant is at rest. At this stage there is no limit to the length of fixed concentration. According to the meditator's feelings, his mind and the object become one. The ninth stage of samadhi or mental absorption is attained through the power of total habituation, a familiarization and integration in Calm-Abiding.
Beyond the 9th Stage
After the 9th Stage of Calm-Abiding is attained, many new and extraordinary experiences come, which have never been experienced before. When these experiences come, this is the sign that Calm-Abiding has been attained. From the heart of the meditating monk emanates a rainbow. The monk is shown flying alone; this is bodily bliss.
Riding the elephant is the attainment of Calm-Abiding, across the rainbow is mental bliss.
Wielding the flaming sword of perfect insight, the monk returns triumphantly along the rainbow; for samara's root is destroyed in union of samatha and vipasyana, now with emptiness [sunyata] as the object of contemplation.
Control of the flame of supreme remembrance and clear comprehension represents the ability to examine the sublime meaning of sunyata: the knowledge of the ultimate reality of all phenomena.
From the monk's heart emanate two dark rainbows, which the monk is just about to cut asunder with his flaming sword of wisdom. These two rainbows represent karmic hindrances and mental illusion [klesa-varana], and the obscurations of the instincts of mental distortion [Uneyavarana].
Not only when in meditation, but in all actions, the one possessed of accomplished Calm-Abiding is at this stage fully concentrated. The body feels light as the wood-wool flower [like the mimosa blossom]. Having achieved this goal, the meditator gains all other supernatural powers [such as reading minds, disappearing, and transferring his consciousness into other beings].
Like someone who has "sharpened the axe to cut all things," he is capable of doing any other meditative practice.
After sharpening an axe, so a person must use it.
Therefore from taming the mind in Calm-Abiding, one must use it for attainment of Illumination! We must ourselves become Buddha! The miracle powers are not important things. The important thing is developing the mind! One has to free one's mind from the "trap of delusion."
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“Sariputra, if there are people who have already made the vow, who now make the vow, or who are about to make the vow, ‘I desire to be born in Amitabha’s country,’ these people, whether born in the past, now being born, or to be born in the future, all will irreversibly attain to anuttarasamyaksambodhi. Therefore, Sariputra, all good men and good women, if they are among those who have faith, should make the vow, ‘I will be born in that country.’”
~ Amitabha Sutra
When I obtain the Buddhahood, any being of the boundless and inconceivable Buddha-worlds of the ten quarters whose body if be touched by the rays of my splendour should not make his body and mind gentle and peaceful, in such a state that he is far more sublime than the gods and men, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
~ Amitabha Buddha's Thirty-Third Vow