The primary source for the 16 stages of insight (aka 7 stages of insight) is the Theravadan text, the Visuddhimagga. But do other, unrelated, sects of Buddhism have similar stages? (ie. Do other sects mention things that could be compared to the dukkha nanas?)

You would think that separate sects of Buddhism, performing the same practices of meditation, would have encountered the same things, and so would have formed their own "maps". Did they? Or is it unique to the Theravadan tradition. And if that's the case, why?

2 Answers 2


Other sects definitely have plenty of "stages", just not necessarily the same ones.

For example in Tibetan Buddhism there's not just one text but a whole genre of texts called "Stages of the path" (usually shortened to Lamrim in Tibetan). These are not stages of meditation, rather it is the overall stages of insight and realization of the practice of buddha-dharma. You can see a sample of titles in this genre on the corresponding Wikipedia page: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamrim

Zen has the stages of taming the bull, as described in the other answer. Again, these are overall maturity not specifically meditation.

Although if you ask me, Visuddhimagga's stages don't read like in-meditation stages either, by that I mean they look more like (slightly obscured) stages of the realization of Emptiness than stages of progression of one's meditation skills. This gets more obvious when we see similar lists from other early schools, each of them having a slightly different description of the stages all clearly pointing to the same overall sequence of investigation => realization => denial => acceptance => liberation.

When it comes to meditation stages proper, Mahayana ones actually seem to be more to the point. For example in Tibetan tradition one traditional list is known as the "stages of taming the elephant" and counts anywhere from 10 to 30+ stages. Another one is called "The Nine Stages of Settling the Mind" etc. These actually describe one's meditation skills at each level of maturity - unlike Visuddhimagga's that mentions more generic things such as disenchantment, conformity, and knowledge of how the overall path works.

To summarize, indeed "separate sects of Buddhism ... have formed their own "maps" - just not necessarily by walking the same exact trail, though the overall landscape is undeniably recognizable to anyone who has walked it.

  • I would add that I disagree with your assessment of the 16 stages not being about the progress of insight. They are absolutely written about as the steps of a meditators progress. In fact I can't think of one book about them which doesn't explicitly view them in that way. Jan 13, 2021 at 22:50
  • Stages of insight gained from meditation, sure. Not stages of mastery of meditation.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Jan 13, 2021 at 22:55
  • 1
    I see what you mean. I guess I got a bit tripped up with "progression of one's meditation skills", as I guess progress of insight could be interpreted as getting "better" at meditation, but I understand what you mean now. The actual skill of meditation improving is something different. Thanks. Jan 14, 2021 at 15:43

Tibetan Buddhism illustrates a progressive path through the Bardo Thodol (aka The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an explanation of what happens after we die) but one usually needs to extrapolate and re-interpret the strange symbolic imagery and correlate that with one's worldly experience. It is possible to intuit most of the Bardo Thodol if you have already been exposed to a fair degree of spiritual 'things'. If there has been no such exposure, the Bardo Thodol can be a heavy read. You can read a copy on the Internet Archive.

With respect to the Theravada dukkha nanas, this might be comparable to a section in the Bardo Thodol that reads something like (I'm paraphrasing here): "as soon as you enter the 'kitchen sink' period, the teachings - which have touched you deeply - you are faced with the truth of yourself. Here, the ego is revealed and its 'sore spots' are then touched, and all sorts of problems start arising.

The Nine Deepening Stages of Calm Abiding is an illustrative painting used in various schools of Chinese Buddhism and in Tibetan Buddhism. In this painting there is a path with a monk, an elephant and a monkey. The monk learns, through dhamma, to tame both the monkey and the elephant - which are representations of the troubled and unrestrained mind.

Some Zen schools use a model called the Ten Bulls. Actually, it's not quite a model but more of a creative inspiration that leaves much positive ambiguity for the cultivation of what I call path-autonomy. There are various interpretations. Here is a quick rundown...

The Ten Bulls

  1. In Search of the Bull
  2. Discovery of the Footprints
  3. Perceiving the Bull
  4. Catching the Bull
  5. Taming the Bull
  6. Riding the Bull Home
  7. The Bull Transcended
  8. Both Bull and Self Transcended
  9. Reaching the Source
  10. Return to Society

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