A Thangka of This Kind is a Handout for Learning

This a traditional Tibetan diagram illustrating nine stages of progress in Shamatha. The painting brings together several teachings related to Shamatha, namely the Nine Ways of Resting the Mind, the Six Powers for Shamatha, the Five Faults of Shamatha, the Four Mental Engagements and the Eight Antidotes.

Nuns sit in a teaching hall where the thangka is displayed and the teacher gives the lecture. The images help in tracking the lecture, and in memorizing the teachings.

In the painting, the monk progressively chases, binds, leads, and subdues the elephant-like mind (whose colour progresses from black to white)—the same way we subdue mind when we meditate.

  • At the end of the path, single-pointed concentration is attained and the ‘purified elephant’ of the mind is completely settled.
  • The flying monk represents bodily bliss and his riding of the elephant represents mental bliss.
  • Riding the elephant back triumphantly across the rainbow, wielding the flaming sword of perfect insight having attained the flame of clear understanding and mindfulness represents the uprooting of Samsara by the unity of Shamatha and Vipassana. (That would make a good movie, right?)

To do this, the ‘Six Powers’ are needed. They are

  1. Study
  2. Reflection
  3. Mindfulness
  4. Awareness
  5. Diligence
  6. Total familiarity

This tells the monk or nun how to accomplish Shamatha:  Through conceptual learning, so one knows what one is doing and aiming for, and then through formal mediation practice.

Here are the symbols used in the thangka as mnemonics:

  1. The elephant is the symbol of the mind because a wild elephant is very dangerous to all other animals. Likewise, an untamed mind harms others. However, a tamed elephant is said to obey its master better than any other animal. The tame mind can perform any action, no matter how difficult. This symbol works, because elephants were (and still are) used as work animals in India and other places where these teachings were given.
  2. The monk in the drawing is the meditator.
  3. The dark colour of the elephant signifies feebleness and fogginess, a common obstacle in beginning mediation.
  4. The monkey’s dark colour symbolizes scattered attention; its presence symbolizes distraction and scattering of focus caused by both inner turbulence and outer attraction. The monkey leads the elephant everywhere, always to different objects—also an easy to relate to reference if you’ve ever seen a monkey.
  5. The rope held by the monk symbolizes mindfulness and the hook symbolizes awareness.
  6. The fire is the energy and zest for meditation. The progressively diminishing flame, along the path, represents a lessening of the effort needed to cultivate understanding or mindful concentration.
  7. Cloth (touch), fruit (taste), perfume conch (smell), cymbals (hearing), and a mirror (seeing) are the distractions of the five senses and their objects because in the early stages of cultivating meditation, these sense experiences distract the meditator.
  8. The rabbit represents a more subtle aspect of scattering and dullness, which dilutes the zest for practice and diminishes clarity.

This thangka, just for an extra bit of information, is done in Karma Gadri style. Here you can see other examples of paintings in this style, and a few contrasting styles.


  1. Lama Lekshe

    Carolyn, thangkas come in so many levels of painting skill. This one is particularly nice, isn’t it?

  2. Carolyn

    o thank you! This is the best thangka on that subject I have seen and the explanation you provided makes it clear as can be!

  3. Julie Carmer

    I love this! It is so graphic, illustrative, relevant, funny, terrible, true ….. everything. Thanks for sharing this amazing facet of Tibetan art.

Leave a Reply