In Theragatha 5.9, the author uses an extended metaphor in which he compares meditation to the caging of an elephant. This effectively describes the path to achieving śamatha, which is known as the Buddhist practice of calming the mind. The monk purposefully utilizes this metaphor comparing the mind to an elephant to reveal many details and understandings about the Nine Stages of training the mind to achieve śamatha.
First, elephants are a symbol of enormity. The task of caging an elephant, as described in the poem, is not a small thing to be wrangled. By using an elephant as the focal animal rather than a smaller, less formidable creature, the author effectively pays homage to the challenging task of meditation. In this way, the author calls attention to the significant amount of work and diligence required to achieve śamatha.
Elephants are also typically wild animals. If not tamed, they have the power to do harm and evil to others. The author compares the untamed mind to an evil, wandering elephant. This directly relates to the thought in Buddhism that all suffering is caused by the untamed mind (2). Elephants once tamed however, obey their masters far better than any other animal, similarly to the obedient mind when it has reached śamatha. The author describes how one overcomes this untamed evil by “binding the elephant with mindfulness” within a closed gate (1). Here, he is describing the state of śamatha, where the tamed mind can maintain the intensely meditative focus without distraction, like an elephant trapped in a closed gate with no way out.
Throughout the poem, the progression of the task of meditation and pursuing śamatha is also revealed as the author describes his advancement through the Nine Stages. Initially, he refers to himself as “I” before diving into his meditation practice. Once he has mastered the caging, he refers to himself as a “strong hook holder,” (1). By time he has reached śamatha, he describes himself as an “excellent charioteer skilled in taming excellent horses” (1). This personal advancement of the meditator effectively shows how the Nine Stages transform the monk’s state of mind, from knowing oneself simply as “I” to mindfully progressing into a more superior version of the self in tranquility. This progression also shows the accumulating personal strength and determination building within the author that is gained through the task of reaching śamatha.
All of this imagery and hidden meaning within the poem are not stretches of the imagination. Perhaps the main purpose of this poem, as well as the others we have read in class, is for a means of communication between monks and their new followers. The poem was conceivable written in order to describe to path to reaching śamatha, a task that is so difficult to understand through simple words. This metaphor of the elephant enables the monk to communicate his experiences and thoughts of meditation and mindfulness more effectively to his followers, in hopes of helping them to achieve śamatha just as successfully as he did.
(1) “Vijitasena” (Thag 5.9), translated from the Pali by K.R. Norman. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 4 August 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thag/thag.05.09.norm.html
(2) Dharma fellowship of his holiness the gyalwa karmapa: The nine stages of abiding. (2005-2015). Retrieved 2/17, 2015, from http://www.dharmafellowship.org/library/essays/nine-stages-of-abiding.htm