Wall mural and thanka painting

The wall painting of the monasteries in Ladakh are still afresh and one can learn many interesting stories and beside in-depth philosophy symbolism. One among them is meditation instruction for enlightening. The Thirteen steps of meditation a brief explanation.

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.


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 colour – the mental factor of sinking – lethargy.

– The monkey is distraction.

– Black monkey colour – the mental factor of scattering.

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

– The rabbit represents subtle sinking – lethargy.


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—occur 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)Thwall-paitinge 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) (D 1:246, Sn 66 1005, Nc 379, Divy 378). 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 practising insight.


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