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The use of a Visual Meditation Object

April 5, 2004

By the contemplative recluse monk Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

(copyright 2004 all rights reserved)

A kasina is a visual meditation object that is described in the Pali canon.  The Pali canon is considered the earliest known document of Buddhism, and is therefore considered the "last word" on Buddhist philosophy, theology and practices. 

The books where Kasina is mentioned are:
 Diighanikaaya, Paathikavagga (3rd book)
 Majjhimanikaaya, Majjhimapa~n~naasa (middle 50)
 Anguttarnikaaya, Book of Ones, Book of Tens
There is also a great deal regarding the Kasina in two key commentaries:
Vimuttimagga by Upatissa
Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa.

The kasina, as described by the historic Buddha, Sidharta Gotama, as typically a circular or hemispherical device as an aid to concentration.  He described several different kasinas, but there is no reason that many more could not be described given the basic guidelines and an understanding of its purpose and use.

The Ten kasinas:


Pathavi kasina

gazing upon earth


Apo kasina

gazing upon water


Tejo kasina

gazing upon fire


Vayo kasina

gazing upon wind


Odata kasina

gazing upon white


Pita kasina

gazing upon yellow


Lohita kasina

gazing upon red


Nila kasina

gazing upon blue (or green)


Akasa kasina

gazing upon the space, the sky, a hole or an opening


Aloka kasina

gazing upon bright light

To understand the Buddha's use of the kasina one has to first understand the historic Buddha's relationship with the senses.  Sidharta Gotama fundamentally believed in contemplation as a means toward what he called Nibbana (cessation).  To him Nibbana was not a place, such as Paradise, but a state or condition in which all volition ceases.  That is why Nibbana means "to stop," or cease, the term commonly used to translate the concept of nibbana, or nirvana as it is known in Sanskrit.

The historic Buddha developed a meditation strategy he called Satipatthana, which means mental cultivation or training.  To him, mental cultivation was not what we often consider, such as education and culture, but in his conception of the term, he meant the cultivation of subjective experiences that he called the jhanas.  Jhana in this sense means ecstasy or absorption.  He was interested in cultivating an ecstatic contemplative experience in his followers through the regular practice of meditation.

In the Satipatthana Sutta his description of meditation incorporates the senses into the contemplative practice.  The object was to avoid "grasping" at the "objects" of the senses and to learn to observe the sense domain as a field of observation in which no sense object takes precedence over another.  This is best described in the Bahiya Sutta, Udana I.10:

Bahiya Sutta (Udana I.10)
"Then, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bahiya, there is no you in terms of that. When there is no you in terms of that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of {suffering (dukkha)}."

This is where the kasina comes in.  The purpose of the kasina is to develop the use of the visual sense without grasping at visual "objects."  The kasina is meant to be gazed upon, not looked at.  The brush strokes and details are to be ignored, which is easiest done by defocusing the eyes and only observing the 'luminance' of the object.  Luminance is an Astronomical term that refers to the general range of light that is reflected by an object, and not the characteristics of the object.

Our ability to defocus in the visual field serves as an excellent metaphor for how we are to meditate upon the other sense fields.  We however are not accustomed to "defocusing" in the other sense fields, so it is a bit difficult to do without some practice.  But, the point is to get to a place where we can observe any sense field, such as the tactile field, without resolving any of the objects of that field, let's say a tickle. 

I have found by observing the entire sense field as a single object then the rising and falling away of individual sense objects (tickles and the like) become simply variances in the "luminance" of that field.  Here I use luminance not as a property of light, but the idea of the general quality of sensation in any given sense field.

In the different kasinas the Buddha described some were based upon the 4 elements, "Earth," "Air," "Fire," and "Water."  Others were dedicated to the visible planets, such as Venus and Mars, and still others were dedicated to the primary colors.

In the case of the Earth Kasina, Sidharta Gotama recommended the use of mud or a reddish color to form a hemispherical object for the use of the Kasina.  My impression from the description was that it sounded like a rust red.  It is of course true that reddish colored earth varies widely over the earth.  In the Sonoran desert, my homeland, the soil is yellow-pink, causing the color of many of the old adobes to be just slightly pink in color.  Whereas, in Sedona the soil is almost bright rust-red.  And, in Chaco canyon, where I was just this last summer, the cliffs are almost blood-red. 

So, which color of Earth-red do we choose?  It has also been recommend the color should be that of the dawn, but dawn in the Southwest can range from yellow to pink, to peach on a turquoise sea.  So, again, which color will we choose for the color of the dawn?  Should it be the color of dawn in Northeastern India, where it might often be a particular shade of pink?  But, then I am sure the dawn there also varies.

The question then is what was the historic Buddha getting at.  Was the color he suggested a reference to the dawn, or the Earth?  Or, was it a color with a particular subjective effect on our psyche?  Then the question arises, do certain colors have different meanings (subjective effects) in different cultures.  We know that of course is true.  White in European culture means purity, but in Chinese culture it means death, and so forth.

So, I believe we should seek to not have too rigid an interpretation of the historic Buddha's intent?  After all we are seeking enlightenment, not becoming clones of 6th century BC Pali culture.  Therefore the color of the rainbow is up for grabs as far as I am concerned.  I believe the point after all is for the practitioner to learn to separate the mechanism of sensation from the act of cognition and perception.  Because, by doing so, I have found one will develop the necessary skill of non-objectification of sense objects, which I have found is the necessary precondition of the absorption (jhanic) experience.

May you become enlightened in this very lifetime,

Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

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