Seven Stations of Consciousness, Seven Elements, Liberations, Mastery and Kasiṇa

I’ve made a table for all of these different lists. It looks like all of these are related. If I were to guess I would say the Seven Stations of Consciousness came from Āḷāra Kālāma, which is something Cousins suggests, whilst the Seven Elements were the scheme of Uddaka Rāmaputta with the Buddha adding the cessation of perception and feeling. Looking at this there is then some justification for the commentarial view of nimittas, absorbed Jhānas and Kasiṇa practice. Any thoughts?

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I’ve been thinking about these much myself too. I think it is also interesting to consider the 4 perceptions, MN127, and MN128. One note: it looks like you have flipped masteries 2 & 3?

Everything seems to correspond with other things on the list, except, imo, the earlier absorptions (or cessations) seem out of place. Why would rapture ceasing be equivalent to “the beautiful”?

Finally, it is worth looking at the Brahmaviharas. It is said that each Brahmavihara leads respectively to the beautiful, infinite space, consciousness, nothingness.

Very interesting stuff!

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As far as I can see they are in the right order?

Everything seems to correspond with other things on the list, except, imo, the earlier absorptions (or cessations) seem out of place. Why would rapture ceasing be equivalent to “the beautiful”?

What is left is subtle bliss, which corresponds also with the Devas of shining light. This ties into the colours which are said to “radiate” blue, or yellow etc.

Finally, it is worth looking at the Brahmaviharas. It is said that each Brahmavihara leads respectively to the beautiful, infinite space, consciousness, nothingness.

I didn’t include them as I think that is a somewhat different practice. Here the focus seems to be on the elements.

You are right, my mistake.

Here is a ChatGPT translation of a commentary on the Spheres of Mastery (AN 8.65). Please note I haven’t checked it over myself to see if there are any errors

"In the sixty-fifth abhibhāyatana, the factors that overpower are enumerated. What do they overpower? They overpower both internal and external objects. Indeed, through the counteractive power, these overpowering factors subdue the internal objects continually, leading to the superior knowledge of a person. For instance, when one engages in the internal perception of forms, one becomes the perceiver of internal forms. If, for example, one is practicing the perception of the color blue, whether in one’s hair, bile, eyes, or the body, one perceives the color blue internally. Similarly, when engaging in the perception of yellow, one perceives the color yellow in the internal organs related to bile, the skin, or in the places where yellow is naturally found. The same principle applies to the perception of red, where one perceives the color red in the internal elements related to blood, the tongue, or in red-colored places. Engaging in the perception of white, one perceives the color white in the internal elements related to bones, teeth, nails, or in white-colored places. Yet, such perception does not become truly blue, yellow, red, or white; it remains impure.

Externally, one sees only one color while practicing this perception. If, for instance, the perception of blue has arisen internally, one sees only blue externally. In this way, due to the internal practice and the arising external sign, it is said, ‘One who is internally perceiving forms sees only one color externally.’ ‘Paritta’ means limited or restricted. ‘Suvaṇṇadubbaṇṇāni’ means whether gold-colored or dark-colored. This abhibhāyatana is to be understood in the limited sense, as a person skilled in acquiring valuable goods might examine a small quantity of food obtained, thinking, ‘Is there anything to be enjoyed here?’ He investigates with a critical eye and consumes only a small portion, leaving the rest. Similarly, the person with superior knowledge, discerning the limitation of these forms in the restricted abhibhāyatana, thinks, ‘Is there anything to be gained here? This is not my burden,’ and having overpowered these forms, enters absorption, as the aim is to produce the sign through the emergence of the mental image.

‘I know, I see’ - this is the understanding and experience for such a person. This is the explanation of the benefit for one who has reached this stage. When the meditator emerges from absorption, it is not an ultimate achievement but only a temporary one. In this way, there is a perception of the absence of forms both internally and externally. ‘I see,’ even with respect to this perception of formlessness, is either due to the absence of signs or to the emergence from absorption.

‘Appamāṇāni’ means an increase, and ‘mahantānī’ means the opposite, a decrease. In this context, it means exceeding the ordinary. Overcoming this limited understanding, a person who has gained valuable goods through the increase in food thinks, ‘Let there be more, let there be more. What will she do for me?’ without recognizing its greatness. Similarly, the person with superior knowledge, with a discerning mind, having overcome the limited nature of this form, thinks, ‘What is to be achieved here? This is not limitless, and I am not burdened by the responsibility for my own mental one-pointedness,’ and having overcome these forms, enters absorption, as this is the goal.

Internally perceiving formlessness means being devoid of the perception of form due to the absence or lack of a mental image. Externally, seeing only one color while practicing this perception, one who has the perception of formlessness externally arisen thinks, ‘I am one internally perceiving formlessness while externally seeing only one color.’

This concludes the discussion on the four abhibhāyatana, and the same principle applies to the fifth abhibhāyatana. These four are briefly described due to the application of thought, due to the application of confusion, due to the application of attachment, and due to the application of aversion. They are suitable for these purposes. That suitability is indicated in the explanation of the Visuddhimagga.

Regarding the fifth abhibhāyatana, it is described as ‘nīlānīti’ or ‘blue,’ ‘vaṇṇavasena’ meaning color, ‘nidassanavasena’ meaning display, and ‘obhāsavasena’ meaning radiance. The display of blue radiance, not divided by any discernible colors, is the essence. These are elucidated through the explanation of the Visuddhimagga. It is said, ‘Taking the blue kasiṇa, one seizes the blue sign, whether in a flower, cloth, or the color element.’ In this way, the application, practice, and the mode of entering absorption for the kasiṇa are clearly stated in the Visuddhimagga."

This looks quite similar to what we see here

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Could you summarize why Cousins thinks this, and how he understood these practices (vimokkha/abhibhāyatana/satta dhātuyo)? I understand there is a book of his published surrounding some of this, but I do not have access to it.

We’ve discussed these similarities before, and I have elsewhere with others here. I agree they are related somehow, but the details are unclear.

He doesn’t really set out an argument as such, its more of a hunch.

I’ve been thinking about these practices some more lately and I’ve come to the conclusion that, just like the suttas, all these early schools including Theravāda are talking about the same thing, just in slightly different ways. The practices seem to be about meditating on either the body parts or corpse meditation. The aim is be able to enter Jhāna and to be able to master your perception, to see things how you want to see them. One meditates on ones form and then attempts to see external forms in the same way, as either a mass of foul body parts or as being merely skeletons. I take the “beautiful or ugly” to mean people or the external nimitta (seeing a nimitta in the form of a skeleton) “limited/unlimited” to mean with partial success/without distinction. This then progresses so, say with a skeleton, you focus only on the white of the bones which leads to the white bases of mastery/white Kasiṇa. The orthodox exegesises then are quite correct. The aim is to achieve something like this

It seems that as the elder was on his way from Cetiyapabbata to Anurádhapura for alms, a certain daughter-in-law of a clan, who had quarrelled with her husband and had set out early from Anurádhapura all dressed up and tricked out like a celestial nymph to go to her relatives’ home, saw him on the road, and being low-minded, [21] she laughed a loud laugh. [Wondering] “What is that?” the elder looked up and finding in the bones of her teeth the perception of foulness (ugliness), he reached Arahantship.15 Hence it was said:

“He saw the bones that were her teeth,
And kept in mind his first perception;
And standing on that very spot
The elder became an Arahant.”

But her husband, who was going after her, saw the elder and asked, “Venerable sir, did you by any chance see a woman?” The elder told him:

“Whether it was a man or woman
That went by I noticed not,
But only that on this high road
There goes a group of bones.”


When the Visuddhimagga discusses cemetery an body part meditation, it states

  1. This meditation subject is successful with a whole skeleton frame and even with a single bone as well. So having learnt the sign in anyone of these in the eleven ways, he should bring it to mind as “Repulsiveness of a skeleton, repulsiveness of a skeleton.” Here the learning sign and the counterpart sign are alike, so it is said. That is correct for a single bone. But when the learning sign becomes manifest in a skeleton frame, what is correct [to say] is that there are gaps in the learning sign while the counterpart sign appears whole. [193] And the learning sign even in a single bone should be dreadful and terrifying but the counterpart sign produces happiness and joy because it brings access… And it is only this that is correct here. Besides, the appearance of a woman’s whole body as a collection of bones to the Elder Mahá-Tissa through his merely looking at her teeth demonstrates this here (see I.55).
  1. If he applies his attention externally as well when all the parts have become evident in this way, then human beings, animals, etc., as they go about are divested of their aspect of beings and appear as just assemblages of parts. And when drink, food, etc., is being swallowed by them, it appears as though it were being put in among the assemblage of parts…; he becomes an obtainer of the four jhánas based on the colour aspect of the head hairs,37 etc.; and he comes to penetrate the six kinds of direct-knowledge (see MN 6)

The Vimuttimagga also states the same. In the Sarvāstivādin literature a meditator focuses his attention at the forehead and visually strips away the flesh and blood until there is only bone remaining. They then enlarge this so their whole body is seen a skeleton. Then they see the whole world as being filled with skeletons, which we could take as a nimitta but also like the example in the Visuddhimagga where you literal control perception to such a degree that you can see everyone as literally being a skeleton. Following this comes focusing on the white of the bones, which is then obviously the last sphere of mastery and a Kasiṇa practice. Tying this with corpse and body part meditation also makes sense since corpse meditation can involve visualisation methods whilst body part meditation is strictly a visual exercise. When we look at the liberations etc, especially the bases of mastery and kasiṇas these are obviously talking about advanced visualisations. Perhaps interesting to note that body part meditation was the original meditation that made up Satipaṭṭhāna.

This is an explanation from the Pudgalavāda school. They frame it in terms of corpse meditation. I don’t think we should be too concerned about the differences. For Sarvāstivāda and Pudgalavāda its interpreted in terms of corpse, but we also find explanations by way of body parts. For Theravāda its in terms of body parts, but we also find explanations that can fit with corpse meditation. Notice here that in the 2nd Liberation one sees external forms as they did a corpse which reminds us of what we see in Theravādin and Sarvāstivādin literature, where one can see corpses everywhere either as nimittas or real people as being literally walking skeletons. Far from being forgotten then, these ancient meditation teachings were successfully transmitted. They outline an interesting form of practice separate from mindfulness of breathing and incorporate foulness, samatha, insight and Kasiṇa practice into one whole.

On this, its interesting to note that in the Sarvāstivādin parallel both Āḷāra Kālāma & Uddaka Rāmaputta say the following

"…I traverse all consciousness, reaching the state of Nothingness, and thus achieve liberation. Therefore, I personally know, perceive, and realize this Dharma.’ - MĀ 204

That sounds like knowing the different “stations of consciousness” to me.

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In one sutta, after the 8 liberations are listed, it is said that this means they are “liberated both ways.” (In other words, the phrase doesn’t just refer to the formless necessarily.)

Interesting, thank you. The chapter from the Buddhadhamma: 7.5 Seven Noble Beings touches on the same topic and have nice charts:

Ubhatobhāga-vimutta = ‘one liberated in both ways’

Screenshot 2024-01-31 at 15.37.01

I had found this thread talking about the same thing as well :