Similar to the Zen images of Ten Ox Herding, Vajrayana Buddhism offers an illustration of the spiritual path using elephants. As with the Ox Herding images, there are several different versions of the Elephant images.
I came across a comment from the Householder Dharma teacher Piya Tan being the sin. I love the different angles on the inner life presented in these different spiritual maps. And here’s one more…
Piya Tan’s comments follow, slightly edited:
The Vajrayana model describes the progressive stages of development. It is represented as a path traveled by a monk (the meditator), a black elephant and a black monkey in eleven stages. The elephant represents the spirit and its blackness is the “sinking of the spirit” or torpor (Tib jingwa, Skt nirmagnata, Pali middha). A wild elephant is dangerous; the same goes for an inexperienced mind. The footprint of the elephant, which is very large, here represents the defilements of the mind. The black monkey (“scattering of the mind” or restlessness: Tib gopa, Skt auddhatya, Pali uddhacca) leads the elephant: restlessness occurs when our mind runs after the things of the world.
Comments on pictures:
(1) A monk (the meditator), holding a rope (mindfulness) (Tib denpa; Skt smrti, Pali sati) in his left hand and a goad (mindfulness) 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 he looks back; the mind begins to be held back by mindfulness. The rabbit on the elephant’s back represents torpor that has become subtle.
(4) As the elephant (spirit) becomes more obedient, the rope (mindfulness) needs to be pulled less.
(5) The elephant is led by the rope and the hook, and the monkey follows behind. There is less commotion now; mainly mindfulness is used.
(6) The animals both follow and the monk does not have to look back (he continually focuses his attention on his mind); the rabbit (subtle agitation) has disappeared.
(7) The elephant is left to its own devices without the need for a rope or a hook; the monkey takes leave. Drowsiness and restlessness – both mild – only occasionally occur here.
(8) The elephant, now completely white, follows behind the man; the mind is obedient and there is no drowsiness or restlessness but still requires some energy to concentrate.
(9) The monk sits in meditation while the elephant sleeps at his feet; the mind is able to concentrate effortlessly for long periods of time and there is great joy and peace. The flying monk represents the zest and lightness of the body.
(10) The monk is seated 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 back of the elephant holds a sword (the realization of emptiness, sunyatā) and cuts the two black lines representing the obstacle to full knowledge (jñey’āvarana) and the ‘impediment of defilement (kles’ avarana). The term āvarana is synonymous with nívarana (mental restraint) (D 1:246, Sn 66 1005, Nc 379, Divy 378). The monk here cultivates insight (Tib lhagthong, Skt vipasyanā, Pali vipassanā) and is on his way to the perfection of wisdom.
Fire appears at different stages of the path. This represents the energy needed for meditation. It gradually decreases in the calm stages because less energy is needed to concentrate. It flares up again at the last stage when the monk practices insight.