The Nine Stages of Mental Development

Shamatha, which means calm, is the practice of meditation to develop the ability to focus the mind in single-pointed concentration. This is practiced as a pre-requisite for mindfulness or insight meditations. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition this practices is described as a nine stage progression beautifully depicted in this thangka showing a monk chasing and finally capturing an elephant. 9-stages-samatha-meditation The elephant is being led by a monkey. The monkey represents distractions. How well we know this scenario! This is ordinary mind or conventional mind mired in the Babylon Matrix (Jonathan Zap). But through study of the writings of Wisdom Teachers and mediation practice, the monk is able to capture and subdue the elephant. Gradually both the monkey and the elephant turn white representing the meditator’s ability to maintain the power of concentration.

Stages three and four represents the meditator’s ability to fix and hold his or her concentration steady. The meditator has lassoed the elephant and gradually the monkey, elephant and even a rabbit turn and look at the meditator to indicate that distractions acknowledge who is in charge.

In stages five and six the meditator begins to lead the elephant and the monkey of distraction follows the mind rather than leading it. The mind is controlled; the meditator uses a goad to discipline the elephant. The rabbit disappears and the mind is finally pacified.

In the seventh stage the monkey leaves the elephant and stands behind the meditator and pays homage.  In stage eight the meditator is in complete control. Single-pointed concentration is achieved.

The ninth is the stage of mental absorption. Perfect equanimity is found and the path has ended. The elephant rests beside the meditator who sits at ease. Now out of the meditator’s heart streams a rainbow like ray.

Stages ten and eleven represent crossing over into mental bliss. The meditator rides the elephant along the rainbow path into the perfection of the transcendent realm and returns bearing the sword of Wisdom. Samsara’s root is severed by the union of shamatha and vipashyana or insight meditation with emptiness as the object of contemplation. Aware of pure awareness, the meditator is now equipped with Compassion and Wisdom to guide others on the path to enlightenment. Ox Herding In the Chinese Chan (Zen) tradition this concept is illustrated through the Ten Ox Herding images by Master Kakuan in 12th Century China. There is a similar progression to the pictures to depict levels of realization.

The meditator (1) searches for the ox, (2) sees the tracks and follows them until (3) the ox is discovered in its hiding place. Once the ox is captured (4), the meditator is able to lead (5) and (6) then ride it back home. (7) Once home, the meditator achieves perfect concentration in non-duality (8). The next step, according to the Chan tradition is to realize the underlying, unshakeable unity of the cosmos (9); there is no separation between created (samsara) and uncreated reality (nirvana). Once realized, (10) the meditator returns to the marketplace. His Compassion compels him to help others on the path to enlightenment by offering his Wisdom.

The difference between the Tibetan and Chan illustrations reflects the cultural orientations of each rather than significant differences in the path or outcome. The Tibetan thangka, a sacred painting on cloth, is colorful and highly mythological while the Chan has an earthy pastoral flavor. Of course, there are no elephants in Tibet – nor in China – but Tibetan Buddhism was highly influenced by Indian culture. The Ox Herding pictures on the other hand demonstrate the Chinese orientation to nature beautifully and simply represented in ink drawings.

Both of these are examples of sacred or visionary art created for the purpose of teaching or clarifying the path of spiritual development. (See previous post: The Mission of Art.) Sacred art is purposeful and often uses high levels of logic as it in these illustrations. At the same time it is visionary and uses archetypal images from the realm of myth. Sacred art at its best is a union of logos and mythos.

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Cultivating Compassion

I teach a class called Spiritual Practices of the East at an international school in Hong Kong. It is for juniors or seniors at the High School level. It’s main focus is meditation and includes both the neuroscience of meditation and the study of Wisdom Teachers who have promoted meditation throughout the ages. This blog post is the first of several I will write for the class and I have copied it here with minor alterations. Students have added insightful comments to the class blog which are not included in this public version.

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From the class blog of September 4, 2013:

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Pema Chodron is a Tibetan Buddhist nun who has written many books on compassion and the Buddhist way of living. I get a regular email with great quotes. Today’s quote struck me because it resonates with our class discussion today. Here’s what she said:

“Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allowing ourselves to move gently toward what scares us. The trick to doing this is to stay with emotional distress without tightening into aversion; to let fear soften us rather than harden into resistance. We cultivate bravery through making aspirations. We make the wish that all beings, including ourselves and those we dislike, be free of suffering and the root of suffering.”

The I Ching hexagrams we got in class in response to our question “how should we proceed with learning about spiritual practices?” indicated we should take a risk with meditation. What sort of risk does this imply?

I think it implies taking the risk of finding out what we are really like inside. What motivates me? What triggers my negative emotions? Do I manage to observe them arising and keep them from taking over? Can I cultivate positive emotions, positive attitudes?

What Pema Chodron is talking about is “feeding the good wolf” – from the illustration in class today of the Cherokee Indian grandfather’s story told to his grandson.

When, in meditation, we notice negative thoughts arising how do we deal with them?

We can cut them off – as in ‘let go’ of them as soon as we notice them. Or, as Pema suggests, we can confront them. Sometimes it is better to confront them instead of letting them go because once we face them, acknowledge them, we can experience them in a new, aware way. Instead of running away from them  or trying to deny them, we will see them for what they really are and they will cease to hold any power over us.

Instead of cultivating these negative emotions we can train ourselves to cultivate positive aspirations such as compassion – like the bodhisattva vow which says we should strive for the freedom from suffering for all beings as we strive for our own freedom.

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TrinitySince writing the above for the class I have had further thoughts. Cynthia Bourgeault‘s new book, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, suggests a third factor – a reconciling or mediating force. I have not completely digested this book yet but I think I get the general principle of the law of three.

What Pema Chodron suggests is this third way – or from a Buddhist perspective, a middle way – of dealing with thoughts and feelings. 1) We can let them take over our minds and emotions; 2) we can cut them off, suppress or deny them; or 3) we can confront or reconcile them – actually acknowledging them as they are while seeing where they come from.

The third way frees us from their power over us. By doing this we can “soften” our fears and replace them with aspirations for freedom from suffering in ourselves and in all others. This naturally cultivates the capacity for compassion.

A Philosophy of Education

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach;
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thought,
you return to the source of your being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

Tao Te Ching, trans. Stephen Mitchell

This summarizes the ancient Chinese Taoist Master Lao Tzu’s philosophy of education. It was based on his contemplative approach to life. Parker Palmer makes a similar point in The Courage to Teach,

“As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.”

Along with communicating course content, communicating the teacher’s soul through a unique connection with each student is vitally important. Simplicity, patience and compassion, as Lao Tzu states, must be the true contents of the courses we teach. How else can schools genuinely produce the “well-rounded student” most Student Learning Results asks for?

At most private schools the “well-rounded-student” is steeped in academics and gets a liberal balance of athletics, the arts, and social service activities. Throughout the learning experience the hope is that students will also develop positive character traits, leadership skills and a degree of religious, gender, political and racial tolerance. As worthy as these goals may be, I believe it produces one-dimensional individuals who, though they will surely succeed in our competitive world, lack the ability and motivation to “see inside themselves”.

We are great at helping students form the container that will define them as unique individuals and we help them learn how to maintain the container (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward) but we don’t do a good job of showing them the true purpose of this container. We need to put a more deliberate emphasis on people as “homo-duplex” or “two-tiered beings” (Emil Durkheim). What we are neglecting is deliberate discussion and education regarding authentic self-hood that transcends (yet includes) individual identity and we neglect emphasizing to students that the true purpose of their container is to fill it with compassion rather than the “stuff” of this world.

Acknowledging that we are two-tiered means we recognizes that we are “spiritual beings having a human experience” (Teilhard de Chardin).

“If we want to grow as teachers — we must do something alien to academic culture: we must talk to each other about our inner lives — risky stuff in a profession that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.”
Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach

If teachers are socialized to ignore what it means to be fully and authentically human how can we be equipped to guide students into the upper tier of human life? Jesus’ rebuke in Matt. 23:13 aptly applies to us.

“Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

The kingdom of heaven is within and among us. It is entered through a contemplative practice of one’s own and becomes the root source of compassionate activity in the world. Obviously teachers need to enter the kingdom of heaven themselves so they can open the gates to others.

“Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks–we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.” Parker Palmer

As I teach I try to maintain a vision of both levels of being human, the ordinary and the transcendent. I do so by living out of my own contemplative practice to maintain a compassionate perspective. Living into the kingdom of heaven is the goal and joy of my life. I try to share with my colleagues and students the exuberant energy and joy this practice gives me . My collaborations and communications with my peers and with students becomes a matter of projecting the “condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.”

Those focused on success in a worldly sense might say that “my teaching is nonsense” and “impractical” but those who can “look inside themselves” will see that “this nonsense makes perfect sense”.