The Art of Calm Abiding Meditation

The Buddhist Channel, 13 May 2023

Bangkok, Thailand -- In November 1967, the 14th Dalai Lama met with Buddhadasa Bhikkhu in Bangkok, marking the Dalai Lama's first international trip outside of India.

During their meeting, the Dalai Lama presented Buddhadasa Bhikkhu with a special gift - a line drawing accompanied by written instructions outlining the steps of Calm Abiding Meditation, or "samatha". The replica of this line drawing, created for Suan Mokkh's Spiritual Theatre, is depicted in the painting "Calm Abiding" which visitors can see when they visit the Suan Mokhh centre in Bangkok.

Calm Abiding Meditation, also known as Samatha Kammatthana in Pali, is a practice aimed at cultivating inner peace and concentration. Various methods exist for engaging in Calm Abiding Meditation. For example, one can focus on mindfulness of breathing, contemplate unpleasant aspects of the body or a corpse, or fixate on a neutral object to enhance concentration. By practicing samatha, individuals aim to develop stability of attention, overcome mental agitation, and cultivate inner peace. It is considered a preliminary practice to prepare the mind for more advanced forms of meditation and insight, leading to profound states of realization and wisdom.

The Calm Abiding Meditation painting is rich with symbolism. It serves as an illustration of the progression of this practice, from its initial stages to the attainment of heightened concentration.

Calm Abiding Meditation explained

The first step in practicing Calm Abiding Meditation or samatha involves attentively listening to explanations provided by knowledgeable teachers before commencing the practice itself.

Mindfulness and clear comprehension play crucial roles in controlling the mind, symbolized by a black elephant, with a rope representing mindfulness and a goad representing clear comprehension. The black colour signifies lethargy and a sinking mental state. Accompanying the elephant is a black monkey, representing distractions stemming from the five objects of sensual pleasure: visible form, sound, smell, taste, and touch.

The painting incorporates a large flame, symbolizing the significant strength of mindfulness and clear comprehension required during the initial stages of practice to make substantial progress. As the practitioner advances along the path, the flames decrease in size, signifying the diminishing effort needed to sustain mindfulness and clear comprehension at each progressive stage.

The hare positioned on the elephant's back represents the subtle dullness of the mind. As the practitioner advances on the meditation journey, their mindfulness strengthens, enabling them to tie the elephant with the rope - indicating a heightened level of mindfulness.

Gradually, the elephant, monkey, and hare transition from black to white, all facing the practitioner. This signifies a gradual reduction in lethargy and subtle dullness, as well as the subjugation of distractions.

Various objects - fruits, cloth, cymbals, perfume, conch, and mirror-represent disturbances to concentration through the senses of taste, touch, hearing, smell, and sight, respectively. As the practitioner progresses towards inner peace, these distractions diminish and eventually vanish.

A white monkey perched on a tree symbolizes thoughts of merit and virtue that may emerge as distractions. The practitioner must employ the strength of mindfulness and clear comprehension to refocus on the object of concentration. At this stage, the practitioner gains control over the elephant using the rope and goad. Consequently, the elephant, monkey, and hare all turn half white.

Subsequently, as the mind becomes more controlled and tranquil, subtle dullness and distractions originating from sensual pleasures are eliminated. This is represented by the disappearance of the hare and monkey. The practitioner attains complete control over the now entirely white elephant, which peacefully rests beside them, demonstrating a perfectly focused mind and a state of equanimity.

The appearance of a rainbow and the practitioner soaring through the air symbolize the profound sensation of bodily ecstasy. Subsequently, the practitioner rides atop the elephant, representing the achievement of tranquil mental states intertwined with mental bliss.

The presence of the white flame signifies the inseparable fusion of mindfulness and clear comprehension with the mind. These dynamic forces empower the mind to excel in the practice of Insight Meditation, known as Vipassana Kammatthana in Pali.

Through this practice, one thoroughly examines the attributes of phenomena to grasp the profound significance of Emptiness, or "sunyata" - the ultimate reality underlying all phenomena.

Origin of the Calm Abiding Meditation Painting

Calm Abiding Meditation instructions in the form of a painting originated in the writings of Asanga. Later in Tibet, Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) emphasized the visual analogy in his teachings and commentaries on meditation.

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. An original Tibetan version of the painting has not yet been located, however a similar image of a Bhutanese mural can be found at Thimpu Tango Shedra (

Meditation instructions

The Calm Abiding Meditation painting is a useful visualization guide for meditators as they embark on the practice of "samatha". The step by step transformation as one journeys through this meditative path is clearly outlined, which makes this Himalayan art one of the most inspiring "user manual on meditation" ever produced.

The image below is of a poster published in India in the early 1970s. Meditation instructions are encapsulated in numbers with accompanying explanations below the poster.

(1) The first is the Force of Hearing. The First Stage of Mediation is attained through the Force of Hearing.
(2) Fixing the mind on the object of concentration.
(3) The Force of Recollection (Mindfulness).
(4) The force of Consciousness (Clear Comprehension).
(5) From here until the Seventh Stage of Mental Absorption will be found a flame decreasing in sizes at each progressive stage until it becomes
conspicuously absent. This difference in sizes, absence and presence of the flame denotes the measure of efforts and strength required of Recollection and Consciousness.
(6) The elephant represents the mind, and its black colour, the mental factor of Sinking.
(7) The monkey represents interruption, distraction and its black colour, the mental factor of Scattering.
(8) The Force of Reflection. This achieves the Second Stage of Mental Absorption.
(9) Uninterrupted and continuous absorption on the object of concentration (lengthening of the period of concentration).
(10) The Five Sensual Desires are the object of the mental factor of Scattering.
(11) From here, the black colour, beginning from the head changes in to white. It denotes the progress in the clear grasp of the object of meditation and prolonged fixing of the mind on the object of mediation.
(12) The Force of Recollection. The attainment of the Third and Fourth Stages of Mental Absorption is achieved through the Force of Recollection
(13) To return and fix the strayed mind on the object of concentration.
(14) The hare represents the subtle aspects of the mental factor of Sinking at this stage, one recognises the distinct nature of the subtle and gross aspects of the mental factor of Sinking
(15) Looking back means that having perceived the diversion of the mind, it is again brought back to the object of concentration.
(16) Maintaining a clear conception of even the minutest detail of the object of concentration.
(17) The Force of Consciousness (Clear Comprehension). Through this is attained the Fifth and Sixth Stages of Mental Absorption.
(18) The arising of the mental factor of Scattering preceding the actual State of absorption is greatly reduced.
(19) At the time of Samatha Meditation, even though thoughts of virtue arises, these had to be eliminated and the mind tenaciously projected on the object of concentration. The reason is that such thought, in spite of its virtuousness will act as interruption. Such elimination is not necessary when one is not doing samatha meditation.
(20) The Force of Consciousness (Clear Comprehension) arrests the mind from drifting astray, and because of its sheer loftiness. the mind is drawn towards absorption.
(21) The mind is controlled.
(22) The mind is pacified.
(23) The Force of Mental Energy. The Seventh and Eighth Stages of Mental Absorption are accomplished through the Force of Mental Energy.
(24) The mind becomes perfectly pacified. At this stage the arising of the subtlest Sinking and Scattering will not be possible. Even if there occurs some, it will be immediately removed with the slightest effort.
(25) Here the black colour of the elephant has completely faded out, and the monkey has also been left out. The meaning represented is: bereft of the interrupting factors of Scattering and Sinking, the mind can be settled continuously in absorption (on the object of concentration) with perfect ease and steadfastness, beginning with the application of a slight amount of the Forces of Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension.
(26) One-pointedness of mind.
(27) The Force of Perfection. The Ninth Stage of Mental Absorption is attained through the Force of Perfection.
(28) Perfect equanimity.
(29) Ecstasy of body.
(30) Attainment of mental quiescence or Samatha.
(31) Mental ecstasy.
(32) The roots of Samsara or Becoming is destroyed with the joint power of Samatha and Direct Insight (Vipassana) with Sunyata (Void) as the object of concentration.
(33) The flame represents the dynamic forces of Recollection (Mindfulness) and Consciousness (Clear Comprehension). Equipped with this power, one examines the nature and the sublime meaning of Sunyata (Void) the Knowledge of the ultimate reality of all objects, material and phenomenal.
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