Universal colors


…sometimes the oddest thoughts arise during walking meditation…

Listening daily to DN33, one notices an emerging landscape of connected themes. One of these themes is the universal meditation on colors, which comprise four of the ten universal dimensions of meditation.. The colors are listed as blue, yellow, red and white.

And this is quite odd. It is odd because our computer monitors are universal blue, green, red. They are RGB monitors, not BYR monitors. Blue, green and red are universal primary colors because they add together to form white. This is what makes them universal.

Why then do the suttas talk about universal yellow and not universal green?

The obvious answer is that the Buddha did not have computer screens lit up with primary colors. What then, did the Buddha have available? And with a moment’s thought, we realize that the Buddha had dyed cloths from Varanasi. The suttas in fact do refer to Varanasi, which continues to be a textile hub of the world.

And what do the Varanasi dyers use to color fabric? They use secondary colors. Secondary colors are subtractive. We use them for printing. In fact, the colors we use for printing are cyan, yellow, and magenta. Printing also uses black, but let’s just deal with the three colors for now. Here are the colors:

In the suttas, the universal colors are linked to three flowers. The flax flower, the champak flower, and the scarlet mallow flower.

But wait. Those flowers look oddly like cyan, yellow and magenta. And they are not really the blue, yellow, red we are used to talking about in our RGB world.

So now let’s just say that the universal colors are really cyan, yellow and magenta. OK. That’s fine. So what?

Well. Look at this picture. It has shades of our three colors. It is from a famous landscape.


But now that you’re back reading here, notice that if we walk around this landscape, we might look at just the blue things. Then just the yellow things. Then just the red things. And in doing so we would have seen all the things.

And if we pick any of these color meditations, we will be connecting in our head things that are normally unrelated. Let’s take blue, and see what we see that is not normally related. We would for example see the blue of the sky, water and shadows. This would be our universal blue. Directly knowing blue, we would see blue things and see directly that they are related. Our internal forms would bend and blur with new associations based on reality, not some commonly used definition. The sky would blur into the water into the shadows.

Therefore, in cycling through the color meditations, we successively see marvelous new connections. And once we have passed through all three colors, we will have seen everything that is to see. We will have seen everything because the secondary colors are universal (although in practice, additional colors are sometimes used for richness).

…sometimes the oddest thoughts arise during walking meditation…

And many thanks to @AlexM for mutually exploring the idea of universal color meditations.


As we talked about privately, I think this makes a lot of sense as it also mirrors the use of the four elements meditation.

The four elements break down tactile sensations into their respective “elements” of hardness, etc as well as pointing out that all matter merely exists in the four phases. When doing this reflection continuously on your present experience (of e.g. physical pain) you can “break down” the feeling into its parts and come to a point of equanimity. No longer caught by the “sign” or “features” of the thing. No longer making it into a “thing” at all. Ah yes! More yellow and blue and red! My old friends!

I’m particularly interested in hearing if anyone here has heard of doing “primary color” meditation before? Because to me it seems to fit the theory perfectly yet I’ve never heard anyone explain “when seeing, just see” in quite this way.



Reading this bring to mind that blue and green are not separate in some language link.

Also, pali “nīlā” is translated “blue”,
in indonesia, we call indigo color as “nila”.


I think the problem with attempting some kind of primary color meditation is that while the colors of visible color space can be derived by mixing primary colors, either additively or subtractively, the mixing does not generally happen in the way a computer screen generates those colors. When we see a secondary spectral color, it may be from an object that is emitting light of exactly that wavelength. The fact that a particular shade of green could be produced by mixing blue and yellow light does not mean that the object that looks green has some little parts that are emitting blue light and some little parts that are emitting yellow light, and that these separate waves are then mixed either physically or by our visual apparatus. That’s one way it could happen. But also, the object might just be emitting a single wavelength of green light.

So if you think that with sufficient attention you can visually analyze any scene you see down to primary colored “pixel”-like elements, you will be attempting the impossible.


Samatha or tranquility: using coloured kasina is noted in the visuddhimagga. Letting go and not becoming attached because of a certain colour is also part of the work up for truly seeing things for what they are.

Ultimately the same colour is found somewhere else in the world in an unattractive setting. Earth, wind,fire and water meditation is performed comparing with other places in certain traditions. ‘Unattractive’ colours can be dealt with in a similar manner by taking the aversion out.


Just adding to the mix that he also had available a pair of eyes which contain colour receptors (cones) which respond to the different wavelengths - short(s), medium(m) and long(l) which generally are said to correspond to blue, green and red respectively. So yellow, is perceived when the l cones are stimulated slightly more than the m cones.

But the structure of the eye as outlined above might render the seemingly impossible perhaps possible? What do you think?


I used to theatre stage lighting, which is about suggesting locations and creating atmospheres. There does seem to be a universality involved in response to colour, so it’s not just about personal associations.
I used to do kasina practice using a blue disc - I haven’t tried the other primary colours but it would be interesting to do.


I’m not sure, but I don’t really see how. If the visual stimulus is not pixelated, then even if you could somehow “turn off” one type of receptor , that would only make you color blind, and certain colors that are usually differentiated would appear to be the same color. It would break up the impression of the colors you do see into component. Also, the cones in the eye are not stimulated only by one particular wavelength. They are all sensitive to a band of wavelengths, but are stimulated more by wavelengths near the peak of their receptivity curves.


Yes. I guess I’m being cautious here because I don’t really understand how sight works, but my suggestion is that what we see is pixelated because the receptors pixelate it before it is processed by the brain. Each cone would correspond to an individual pixel maybe? Sort of the same way that a digital camera pixelates the outside world. But you probably understand this better than me.


Here is the original picture:

Here is the universal meditation on cyan/blue with a white background:

Here is the universal meditation on cyan/blue with a black background:

In both of the simulated color meditation pictures you can notice how the familiar shapes/forms disappear and different connections emerge. These two pictures also demonstrate how white factors into things as well, with black being the absence of white.

And this is what Seurat did when he painted. Seurat saw the colors. Not the conventional colors. Seurat saw the real colors and directly knew them.

And are cyan/yellow/magenta the only universal colors?
No. They are not. You are seeing this on an RGB monitor.


IMO polarization and depolarization of nerves is key to seeing arising and passing of phenomena. Pixelation is only a simile.


No, I don’t think that’s how the processing works. Just because the receptors form a finite array doesn’t mean that the image that is produced by the neural processing that occurs as a result of the receptors being stimulated is an image consisting of a finite array of visual pixels.


Yes, something like the same meditation process is described in the two suttas on suññata in MN. I have never really pursued that style of meditation, because nobody seems to know anything about it. Those suttas seem to be interpreted figuratively by the commentarial tradition as a basis for katsina meditation. Anyway, that’s not really the approach I take to meditation.


Press the side of your eye ball and see that you are seeing an image, not in the world.


I have wondered about color disk kasinas. They do simplify the color meditations in much the same way that chanting “Buddho” or “Mu” do. But all these seem to be variants of spiritual grasping. Here. Look at the blue disk until it disappears. Here. Say “Buddho” until you disappear and there is just “Buddho”.

Why not just see the blue in everyday life or while walking meditation? :grin:

Because we can’t just do that.


Better to work backwards- notice the colour you are attached or averse to and work on that colour.


Yes. Absolutely.

Going blind, I am working on black, learning to see the light. :pray:

Amusingly, I don’t need a black disk. :rofl:




Well, I always understood the kassina stuff as just being one technique among many for cultivating samadhi. To achieve absorption, you have to have some meditation object into which to become absorbed. The important thing is not to study or groove on the qualities of the object you are experiencing, but your success in having “turned off” all of the other things you are no longer experiencing. It seems to me that it would be pretty hard to do this while walking around and looking at a bunch of stuff. But my understanding of and background in these things is very different from the Mahayana/Zen approach which thinks that the goal of the path is a transfigured perception of everyday samsaric life.


Actually, what is hard is the grasping to find blue. One could go crazy asking oneself to see only blue things walking.


Unless we abide in blue and see what we see just seeing blue. It’s as if I place my mind in Spanish and walk about. I will hear Spanish. Or if I place my mind in English and walk about. I will hear English. If I place my mind in blue and walk about, blueness becomes apparent on its own.

How do I place my mind in blue? I think of a flax flower (or a blue disk, but no need, we have Google on flax flower images.). Then I walk about abiding in that flax blueness, allowing the flax flower to dissolve into just blueness. And then blueness just appears around me. I do not have to hunt for blueness.

How does this work for you just as an experiment?