For quite some time now I have been interested in the Eight Spheres of Mastery (Abhibhāyatanāni), the Eight Liberations (Vimokkhā), the Kasiṇas and the 6 element meditations. Apart from the elements these teachings are quite obscure in the suttas, only appearing a handful of times and with very little information on them. The Theravādin commentaries obviously do give an explanation. There the Kasiṇas are taught to be a mental image that one develops by grasping the sign of an element or colour, either in a disc or a flame or more naturally in the ground, or trees etc. One perfectly remembers the disc (which is for a beginner), which is the learning sign, in one’s mind. This is taken as the meditation object, until a counterpart image appears which fills one’s perception and leads to Jhāna. The Theravādin commentarial tradition then sees the teachings on the Spheres of Mastery and Liberations as being connected to Kasiṇa meditation. In the Atthasālinī Venerable Buddhaghosa says that in terms of the Abhibhāyatanāni and Vimokkhā one is seeing the Kasiṇa by grasping the colour of different body parts (blue of the eye, for example). This is “perceiving form internally, sees form externally”. The limited and unlimited refers to the extension of the sign, whilst beautiful or ugly refers to the colour of the disc or image. The section on seeing blue etc is interpreted as referring back to this. I find this explanation however somewhat lacking. It doesn’t seem to fit well, since the overall thrust of the Abhibhāyatanāni seems to be about controlling our reaction to sense experience and indeed sutta AN 8.119 states that the Spheres of Mastery are for insight into “lust”. The mention of “beautiful or ugly” also reminds us of the insights the Buddha had upon his awakening, where one of his knowledges was how beings pass away and are reborn either “beautiful or ugly”. The mention of the word “limitless” further hints at the 4 brahmavihārās and indeed the Paṭisambhidāmagga makes this connection when discussing the Eight Liberations, where “intent on the beautiful” is interpreted as referring to the culmination of loving-kindness (a view also shared by SN 46.54). Interestingly in the Atthasālinī Venerable Buddhaghosa disagrees with this interpretation. It is also interesting to note that the Atthasālinī states that the Eight Spheres of Mastery and the Eight Liberations are “according to the sutta method” whilst the Kasiṇas, as taught in the commentaries and so the Atthasālinī and Visuddhimagga, are according to the “Abhidhamma method”. I take this to mean that what is stated briefly in the suttas is stated clearly and, of course, more technically in the Abhidhamma and commentaries. It is by taking this view however that I feel the Theravādin tradition has missed the deeper implication of these meditations.
For another point of view, still Abhidharmic, we can look to the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Śāstra which, despite it being claimed to have been written by Venerable Nāgārjuna, possibly instead came from a Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika monk or nun who converted to Mahāyāna. There we see a more clear link with controlling our reactions to experience. In that text it is stated that Liberations 1-2 and the Spheres of Mastery 1-4 are to do with foulness meditation. Only when we get to Liberation 3 (the beautiful) and Spheres of Mastery dealing with colours do we arrive at Jhāna and the Kasiṇas, which are performed when in the 4th Jhāna. I found this to be a somewhat better explanation, but still there are some issues. If we take the Eight Spheres of Mastery as a whole, the whole thrust seems to relate to, as I said, sense restraint. It seems strange then to jump suddenly to the colour Kasiṇas, and it’s strange that the 4 elemental Kasiṇas aren’t mentioned at all. Could it be then that the colours actually mean something else? Interestingly, the Pāli word used in the text is “vaṇṇa”. Whilst vaṇṇa can mean “colour” it can also mean the colour of one’s skin, appearance or “caste”. Could it be then that the colours in the Spheres of Mastery aren’t actually colours at all, and so aren’t anything to do with colour Kasiṇas, but instead are about different types of people? This would be in-keeping with the view that the practice is about our reactions to people, but is there any basis for this? Well, interestingly enough in Brahminism each of the castes is associated with a certain colour. And guess what? The colours associated with each caste actually matches the colours that we see in the Spheres of Mastery:
“Not perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, blue, with blue colour, blue hue, and blue tint…yellow…red…white”
“The Mahabharata, whose final version is estimated to have been completed by the end of the fourth century, discusses the varna system in section 12.181, presenting two models. The first model describes varna as a colour-based system, through a character named Bhrigu, “Brahmins varna was white, Kshatriyas was red, Vaishyas was yellow, and the Shudras’ black”.
Caste system in India - Wikipedia
Black is an exception, but quite close since “blue” in the Spheres of Mastery (nīla) can also mean “dark blue”.
Now there is an interesting sutta on the Eight Bases of Mastery which states the following:
“The best of these dimensions of mastery is when someone, not perceiving form internally, sees forms externally, white, with white colour, white hue, and white tint.” – AN 10.29
Here we see “white” as being the best kind of colour, which matches exactly with the Brahmin caste who, of course, saw themselves as best. This then clearly links the Eight Spheres of Mastery with overcoming our reactions to different types of people. They are about developing loving-kindness or Foulness perceptions in relation to those whom we find attractive or loathsome, to all the different classes or, as it was back then, castes of people we come across in life. This would then tie into the beautiful and formless liberations as the suttas link those with the 4 brahmavihārās. The culmination of metta, through the spheres of mastery and liberations 1 & 2, is “the beautiful” which then leads to compassion and culmination in the sphere of Infinite Space. Now an objection might be raised that we do find the colours amongst the list of the Kasiṇas, but is this a later attribution? Yin Shun argued that the 6 elements are linked with the 4 element Kasiṇas and the 2 lower formless attainments (and that the Sphere of Nothingness and Neither-Perception-Nor-Non-Perception were added onto them to make a neat categorical list). Indeed, if we look at the 6 elements and the Kasiṇas we do see an obvious link. The earth element with the earth Kasiṇa, the space element and conciousness element with Infinite Space and Infinite conciousness. If then the link between the 4 brahmavihārās/foulness meditation was forgotten later on, and the Eight Spheres of Mastery and Eight Liberations was seen through the lens of later Kasiṇa practice by the traditions, then it’s possible the colour Kasiṇas were added to the original set of 6 Kasiṇas. We could further speculate that originally element meditation and Kasiṇa meditation (minus the colours) were linked as one practice, whilst foulness and the 4 brahmavihārās were linked with the Eight Spheres of Mastery and Eight Liberations as a separate practice.
As a final note I should say I haven’t researched this in detail. I’m an amateur, and obviously my argument rests upon something I have read on a Wikipedia article. I think though there are some good grounds for considering what I’ve wrote here and exploring it further.