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Chad’s Audio Diary and Friends’ Reports

Chad Atlas went on a 9-day retreat in June, 2016 practicing the fire kasina at Joshua Tree in California with three friends, John Finnell, Chris Miller, and Gabe Hill. Chad recorded an audio diary, and he and his friends gave some written reports. Here are their bios and reports.

Chad Atlas is a 35-year-old father, husband, dog lover, gamer, and lawyer who discovered Zen briefly in college after experiencing an Earth substance-assisted peak, non-dual, unitive experience.  Years later, he rediscovered “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” and began practicing meditation daily and diligently in December 2013.  Gravitating toward a goal oriented pragmatic dharma approach, Chad began working with Ron Crouch of Aloha Dharma in March 2014.  He experienced his first fruition several months later, with many, many more to follow. Prior to the Fire Kasina retreat, Chad attended a 10-day Goenka retreat in July 2015.  Chad is a moderator and regular contributor at /r/StreamEntry on Reddit (/u/CoachAtlus), where he sometimes shares the many challenges that regularly arise in his ongoing practice.

Here are his audio diaries in two parts:

 

Chad’s written report:

“Inspired by Daniel’s and Shannon’s Fire Kasina reports, three dharma friends and I took a trip to the desert in June 2016 to explore the potential of this practice.  We rented a home, fittingly called the Diamond Sky Retreat, in Joshua Tree, California and retreated officially for 8.5 days.

Entering the retreat, each of us had different meditation backgrounds, goals, and expectations. However, the unifying theme for our retreat was one of exploration, a willingness to engage fully and openly with the Fire Kasina and to accept whatever this practice had to show us.  As we learned, and as advertised, the Fire Kasina — like its elemental counterpart — is powerful, dynamic, and unpredictable.

Some personal background: by conventional standards, I am an ordinary western lay person who stumbled into a pragmatic dharma practice around December 2013.  (You can read my now dated AMA on Reddit here, where I described myself and my practice at the time in some detail.)  Prior to discovering meditation practice, my reaction toward anything remotely religious, magickal, or spiritual inevitably involved extreme aversion and absolute disbelief.  Through practice, my conceptual certainty about that and many other aspects of conventional reality started to crumble.  As a consequence, I found myself opening to more esoteric spiritual practices and techniques, suddenly curious about the mystickal and the magickal.  Hence, the Fire Kasina retreat.

My own expectations for the Fire Kasina practice varied widely and wildly both before and during the retreat.  In the months leading up to the retreat, I was suffering from classic symptoms of murky, middle path yogihood.  My practice felt like it was floundering and directionless.  During the retreat, I struggled constantly with a desire for technical meditation mastery, craving experiences ranging from path completion (whatever that might mean) to extreme, meditation-induced psychedelic states of consciousness.  In my audio diaries, which follow, that struggle is palpable.

Shortly after the retreat, I posted a technical summary of our retreat experiences to a newly created awakening-focused dharma community on Reddit called Stream Entry.  You can read that post here if you are interested in a contemporaneous, phenomenology-focused report of the retreat.

Initially, I intended to post a more elaborate version of that technical retreat summary, but I have since lost the appetite for it.  That happens, I think.  In the months following the Fire Kasina retreat, I experienced a lot of aversion toward meditation practice generally.  It was extremely difficult for me to find the motivation to edit my audio diaries and prepare this introduction.  That aversion eventually resolved, as things tend to do for me nowadays.

Sitting here today, I would recommend the Fire Kasina to practitioners seeking a challenging, humbling, dynamic, and different sort of practice.  If you engage in this practice, I recommend adopting an attitude of deep and sincere respect for the Fire Kasina.  The kitchy truth about this practice is this:  If you play with fire, you might get burned.  Please practice responsibly.

I want to offer a special thanks to Daniel, Florian, Duncan, and Shannon for sharing their experiences about this powerful practice and inspiring and encouraging me to explore it on retreat.  In particular, I am deeply grateful to Shannon, Daniel, and Florian for volunteering their time to offer personal instruction, advice, and encouragement, before, during, and after the retreat.

I hope and wish that these audio diaries and resources will be of benefit to you and your practice.  (Music from the audio diaries: www.bensound.com)”

John Finnell is a 36-year-old student of acupuncture and Chinese medicine living in Southern California.  John has been meditating since 2008.  He crossed the A&P during a three-month stay at a Goenka center and found himself stuck in the Dark Night thereafter.  After discovering Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, John began a two-hour-per-day Noting practice through which he became even more familiar with the Dark Night.  Eventually John began practicing with Ron Crouch, who guided him through the Dark Night and to his first fruition in 2014.  According to Ron’s system, John completed Second Path two months later and is currently working his way toward the higher path knowledges.

His report is here:

“When I went into this Fire Kasina Retreat I really didn’t have a lot of Kasina practice. I had a few meetings with Shannon and Chad about it and one meeting with Florian. I spent some time a few weeks prior getting used to the practice and trying to get a bit of head start with my concentration. But I didn’t get very far. I didn’t have any expectations going into the retreat which felt good. I had some ideas of what was possible, but wasn’t sure where I’d get with it. Mostly I was interested in relaxation, some bliss states, which was much needed, and to walk away with a stronger concentration practice. After the retreat I came to realize how quickly concentration fades if the same level of intensity isn’t kept up.

The first couple of retreat days my time was spent trying to stay focussed and getting my concentration up. There was a lot of exhaustion so I spent a lot of time taking breaks and resting for short periods. I was quite sleepy and foggy and concentration was generally low. I kept refreshing on the flame and following it as far as I could. Later, as I got deeper into the dissolution like state I started picking up on the backside of extremely brief and numerous periods of surreal visual dream states, along with a strong desire to see them and whatever else in the visual field more clearly and sustained.

I struggled with a mantra in the beginning but found one that worked which had two variations to it. I could use one variation for some time then switch to the other variation when my mind got really sick of one.

Trying to find balance, at times I’d let my mind go deeply into that foggy drifty state and even get lost trying to see the edges of it, and then when it felt unproductive or I noticed too much unconscious mind wondering, I would refresh on the flame, follow it until the image faded out, then immediately refresh on the flame again. It made sense that doing this would sharpen my concentration.

The basic practice was to stare at the flame eyes open long enough to have an image burned into the retina (grasping the sign), then closing the eyes, and following the after image as long as I could. The dot would move around, then stabilize then flicker in and out, then be gone for some time then come back then disappear and not come back. Then the field would turn static gray and the mind would get really bored and want to wander. I understood this to be what Shannon and Daniel call the “Murk”. While always having a mantra repeating in the background. This was tricky cause the mind wanted to go back and forth between the two objects, visual field vs mantra.

At this time I was taking lots of naps in between and trying not to push myself too hard. I was relatively okay with my weak concentration ability and enjoying some needed restful states.

On day 3 and 4 I hit some deep relaxation and bliss states. Feelings of being “at home” in my body arose, something I hadn’t felt since I was a little kid. It was extraordinarily beautiful. Memories of being content and drawing pictures laying on the floor of my room, or out with friends biking around the hillsides. Staring at the flame had such a genuinely soft and pure quality to it, it made my heart swell. It was so beautiful at times I almost cried just staring at it. The soft lush quality of the flame infused into my mind a state of blissful softness and awakened restfulness, and I was able to deeply soak it up. Other times it was just exhaustion and relaxation mixed with mind wandering and trying to keep up concentration.

Eventually my concentration got stronger. The after image red dot was becoming intensely golden, shimmering, deep and rich in its shining quality. I was mesmerized by its details when it was around. Little specks flying off the edges, rainbow ring around it. But after the dot disappeared, the hazy drifty murk stage arose. If I was able to stay with it, and keep the mantra going (for what felt like a painfully long time) a stronger concentrated state would come online, and in the murk subtle colors and luminous edges would start to arise.

Shannon had me try and play with intention on shifting colors. I quickly found out I was able to. It was a subtle shift, and though the colors weren’t super vibrant, it happened. I could shift the wash of color over my visual field (eyes closed), from one hue to the next, just by asking it. I would literally ask it “okay, shift to yellow”, there was about a 3 second delay between my intentional ask and the actual shift, which I found strangely intriguing, “okay, now shift to green”. I later found out that Daniel had discovered the same thing on the delayed response. It was a first taste into this realm that had it’s own persona and will, and at the same time could be subtly influenced and nudged by the meditators intention.

I hit a period of dark night shortly after this, I was irritated by any and all sounds, mental images were far from friendly, I felt awful physically and emotionally. I had visions of being murdered outside the house. I was definitely struggling at this point. I felt very stuck, doubt came up really strong along with all kinds of negative emotions. Feelings that I couldn’t get any further, that I wasn’t going to get out of this “Murk”. It was torturing me. I talked with Shannon and she helped me stay on track. I paid very close attention to the details. The murk seemed to go on and on, sit after sit with nothing new for my mind to grab onto.

Eventually the Dark Night passed into an Equanimity. I was able to work more closely with the very subtle shifts in visual content without freaking out. I just kept sticking closely to the instructions. Sharpening the mind in order to see what otherwise would be insignificant. This process was becoming clearer. The insignificant was becoming significant and the invisible, visible.

At one point I remember a kind of fruition happen while in our group sit. The fan was on and it clearly went out, and I believe everything else did, but it happened so fast I wasn’t sure if it was complete. Fruitions at this point are like this for me. I didn’t get a bliss wave, and anyway it had nothing to do with the goal of the Kasina practice. It was worth noting though, this linear insight progress happening while doing the Kasina work. One of the meditators who was highly skeptical of the maps, and we know is clearly passed Arising & Passing but Pre-Stream Entry, was cycling very clearly through the DN and eventually into EQ.

The last few days I felt like I was making more progress, albeit painfully slow, a minutia increment at a time. I had to really put in a lot of effort to see new details and allow the thing to reveal itself. Subtle edges and washes of light, color shifts, textures of luminosity which would arise and pass in the visual field. Luminous edges and glimmers at varying degrees of intensity, dull to bright, electric blue to muted gray, whatever it was I tried my best to follow it closely. If I tried to look too tightly it would fail me, if I relaxed too much I’d slip off into unconscious thought and get sleepy. There was a very specific state I had to work my way into and sustain in order for this thing to progress. It was a kind of letting go and watching closely without needing it to be anything. Just see what’s actually there, stay interested, even if it’s mundane.

My mind was getting a lot more interested in subtleties, which seemed to lead to more visual elements revealing themselves. Because things felt like they were progressing I really became hooked on wanting to see what was going to come next. When frustration came up I would do my best to stay as focussed as I could on the state of balance, which wasn’t perfect, but I felt I was onto this thing. The balanced mind became such an intensely finicky thing! I noticed I needed more and more silence around me, and less distractions. Anything that came up in my mind or outside would put a wrench in my progress, or so it felt.

During the last day and a half, I remember a moment where one of the guys asked to keep it totally silent until the dinner break (we had been pretty talkative during breaks up to that point), we all agreed. And then he, of all people, broke that request! It really threw me off my rails and I lost it inside. I gave up for a bit because I couldn’t get it together. I eventually confided in one of the other guys there. He shared a story that happened earlier in the day, one of real fascinating magick which involved real life objects. It was surreal and real. It blew my mind open to possibilities. I understood magick on a level I never hadn’t before. I went back to the cushion with a different attitude, one of curiosity, and I think more importantly a total lack of desire for anything particular to happen.

We were almost done with the retreat and this was the last night. I sat a bit longer and noticed a particular visual element I had been honing in on over the last day or two. It kept arising at a certain point in the sit, and I knew there was something to it. I fixated on it and watched it shift for a while. Then I went to lay down on my bed. Staring behind my closed eyes I saw this visual element which I could only describe as a phase disturbance in the visual field… and suddenly that element, like a key, opened a door to a surreal visual experience. The visual field behind my eyes turned into a psychedelic 3-Dimensional morphing shifting field of faces carved out of the gray. The gray murk came to life like amorphous clay being molded into a crisp defined yet moving form. The quality of the trip was similar in nature to previous acid trips I’d had over a decade ago. The 3 Characteristics were wildly apparent. I opened my eyes and the visuals were on the ceiling. I put my had up and could see them overlaid on my hand, which told me it wasn’t outside of my mind, that it was being projected from my mind. After that disappeared, I closed my eyes and rolled over in bed. Triggered by intentionally staring at the luminous phased distortion, a new pattern emerged. Completely 3-Dimensional organic geometric shapes but with the same qualities. Because they morphed out of the gray murk, the objects themselves were also created in shades of gray, no color. They were forming and morphing out of the gray and then disappearing back into it, arising and passing. They looked almost alien like but totally organic and natural. This wasn’t something I was making up or intending, nor had I seen anything quite like it before, even though it resembled the qualities of LSD trips. It was all clearly happening of it’s own accord, visibly impermanent, and clearly brining no lasting satisfaction. Though the visuals themselves were mostly neutral (neither pleasant nor unpleasant). I had no intention of seeing the 3 C’s, but this made me realize how helpful and important concentration is for seeing clear insight. And I hadn’t seen clarity on this level since my Goenka retreats.

Along with the visuals there was a tinge of darkness and fear coloring the whole experience. It was a realm I was afraid to go deeper into. Although I was relatively okay with what was happening, I had bad trips on acid in the past, and I realized this realm was not a realm that was going to bring me closer to Enlightenment or real happiness. (This was a pretty significant insight into my overarching goals and practice with Vipassana). The fear that arose around this had to do with the thought that this particular realm would show me things I didn’t want to see, against my will, and because I had opened the door, I knew I was vulnerable to it. There was also a real sense of ownership over having gone into this territory willingly and naively thinking it would only be good and fun, and neglecting the fact that it could come with dark twisted lessons. It brought on a huge sense of humility for these meditative practices. A certain kind reality about it came up, a thought to the extent of: “You asked for this. You went and tinkered with reality, and now you have to accept what it’s giving you. You unlocked something, and you have to see what it’s offering regardless of whether you like it.” Fortunately, it didn’t go further, and I was able to fall asleep and wake up with no resonating bad side effects. (Except for the post retreat confusion and depression that emerged for weeks after.)

In the end, I was satisfied with what I saw without the use of drugs. The work had paid off on many levels as the week went on. The end result seemed like a certain land mark, a kind of goal that I was working toward the whole retreat. It felt complete even though I knew it could go much further given enough time and the right mind to preserver.

I’m extremely grateful to Daniel, Florian, Duncan and Shannon for their work prior and helping to reignite the fire, exploring the fringes of meditative practices. I’m especially grateful to my close friends I spent those 8 days with and how well the whole self guided retreat came together, what each man offered. Everyone played a key role, and it wouldn’t have been the same without one of them there.

I’m looking forward to more retreats like this, and perhaps exploring the depths of the Fire Kasina after I finish 4th path. Or whenever I’m ready for a psychedelic experience to teach me something in a surreal form. Until then, I wish everyone well on their journey, to strive for a real Enlightenment that benefits us all. May all beings be happy, peaceful, and well.”

With Metta,

John Finnell

A little background: Since 2008 I’ve been on 4 Goenka 10 day Vipassana retreats, spent 3 months at a Goenka center in NZ. Followed his style of meditation diligently for several months after each retreat, then sporadically on and off. Passed Arising & Passing on one of my retreats and got stuck in the Dark Night there after. A close friend turned me onto Daniel Ingram’s book. I started noting practice 2 hours a day diligently and consistently, cycled heavily through the DN, got up to Equanimity several times but eventually ended up residing in the DN. Eventually met with Ron Crouch and under his guidance systematically worked through it over 1.5 years. Finally hit Stream Entry in 2014, and then Second Path a month or two later. Currently working toward attaining 3rd path.

Chris Miller is a 20-year-old student, who stumbled across an abiding, non-dual state in his teenage years, yet realized that his awakening was nonetheless incomplete.  To Chris, the Soto Zen approach of sitting with no goal comes naturally and effortlessly.  Chris had prior retreat experience through a Goenka center, but otherwise had not practiced with the Fire Kasina or researched or read about the practice before attending the retreat. His report is here:

“June 7 arriving at the retreat at night, it was beautiful getting there at sunset, the desert always has a special feel to it, a good place to do a meditation retreat. I had been doing quite a bit of meditation the week before so I was in pretty steady equanimity and felt well prepared for the retreat.

Starting out the retreat I had the subtle expectation that the rest of the retreat was going to go so well, the first day or so if I remember right was a breeze, I had planned to take it easy on myself throughout the retreat and not push too hard on the concentration, which certainly helped on the long run and with the meditation. I would recommend for other people doing a fire kasina retreat not to go with too many expectations, too take it easy and go at your own pace but also to not be lazy.

After the first day or two it started to get challenging in terms of maintaining the concentration and also having a fair bit of personal challenges. I remember at a certain point I really had to focus upon self love and surrender, because what was coming up for me made it challenging to work just with the candle flame. The dark night cycles were off and on during the retreat, and didn’t really seem too reduce the concentration too much other than the times that I was not doing the flame meditation. The concentration was steady, and increased gradually during the time of the retreat.

The stages:

1. Physical concentration staring of the candle flame, I would stare anywhere from 30 seconds- 1 minute. Initially it may have been longer, but over time I didn’t have to stare as long to maintain the imag

2. After image, multitude of colors and multilayered, at times it seems like I could call up whatever color I wanted the afterimage to be. After the dance of colors it would settle down into a small red dot, which stays for quite a bit of time as the meditation progresses. In the beginning the image would bounce around a lot, but eventually settle, 5 days into it I don’t think I had any bouncing at all.

3. The red dot seems to have been the most predominant stage in the meditation, there is still a vague after image at times and darkness that circles the red dot. The red dot I did not find as interesting as all the crazy colors.

4. After the red dot disappears there is a vortex like blackness that appears where the after image use to be which was pretty cool, there was still a little bit of color surrounding the void-like after image and I think this was the time where I started getting peculiar images in the center of the dark imprint, such as faces and objects, I think it is possible to create images at this stage.

5. During the later period of the retreat I was having images of 3D geometric shapes that were kind of moving and shapeshifting into other 3D shapes. This was probably the most exciting part, I don’t remember going beyond this point.

Magical experiences:

The last two days concentration was very high and that was the time I was more receptive to magical experiences. I had a few instances of waking up consciously through the night with single pointed focus on the visual field. Peak concentration was during this time. I had several surreal psychic/extra sensory experiences throughout the night. I had a few out of body experiences, one in which I became aware of the space in the room, floated up through the ceiling and further into the sky seeing a birds eye view of the desert. I had a sense that there were other spirit beings around and in my room was a crow like being which was a little frightening. I remember focusing upon love and calling up good spirits to be present at that time.

Wrapping it up:

Taking it pretty easy on the last day, meditation stays about same. Enjoy discussing our experiences with the group and celebrating the end of the retreat. Sat around the fire pit at night outside the house and did magical ceremony, the stars were stunning, and we could see the Milky Way.

Post-Retreat

Concentration was still high with with a vague after image still continuing for a couple days, continued to having interesting sleep experiences, waking up at night with high concentration of the visual field. Concentration is back to normal within a week.”

Gabe Hill is 32 years old and has been practicing magick and various contemplative techniques since his teenage years.  Gabe has enriched his meditation practice through his work with Kenneth Folk, Ron Crouch, and other pragmatic dharma community members.  Gabe was an active participant in the “early days” of the DhO.  He was, by far, the most experienced practitioner of the group.

His report is here:

“July, 2016

This document will briefly outline my own experience with Fire Kasina meditation during a nine day retreat that took place last July. I’ve chosen not to simply transcribe my own notes from that time, as they were generally repetitive, and instead, I will relate the course of events, as I experienced them, in broader strokes. Hopefully this document will be of some use in supplying data to anyone interested.

Firstly, I am a fairly experienced meditator, having practiced steadily over eight years. I was taught Vipassana and Samatha technique initially from Kenneth Folk directly and from Daniel Ingram, via his book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. Ron Crouch was my guide thru Stream Entry, and subsequent Paths.

I have always enjoyed and valued Samatha/Concentration practice, sometimes making it a goal to abide for long periods of time in jhana. Aside from a few random exercises with other methods, I have always employed Anapanasati as my main approach to bliss states. Never before had I tried any of the Kasinas until this retreat.

The first few days were much like other retreats I’ve been on, which felt mainly concerned with establishing the best atmosphere for prolonged practice and adjusting to the shift between Retreat Life and so-called Normal Life. During those first days, concentration came easily enough to me, and I felt a habitual inclination towards Anapanasati. Before the retreat, I intentionally decided to limit my research of the Fire Kasina to what instruction exists (this would be mainly the Vissudhimagga). This felt useful in that it helped to avoid too much “scripting” of the experience beyond the fundamental level.

Establishing the after-image of the flame was difficult at first. It took a good day and a half of solid practice (roughly fifteen hours?) and some conversation with my fellow retreatants to understand that staring at the flame must be neither too hard or soft, but rather, a steady, receptive gaze. Also, what exactly is the object to concentrate on? The very center of the flame’s after image, or can the proverbial eye wander towards the vaguely rainbow-like halo surrounding the after-image? How vivid should it be to be effective? How often should one refresh the after-image? Essentially, by experimenting, we found that it was generally helpful to have an open, inquisitive attitude towards these questions, and that the flame “sign”, soon enough, would situate itself without much manipulation or fuss from the individual.

With the after-image fairly well stabilized, the familiar progress thru the Nanas became noticeable during our sits. We established a regular sitting schedule, roughly divided into mornings, afternoons, and evenings. For me personally, each phase of the day was distinct in its characteristics: The mornings tended to be when sitting was the easiest, and the progress thru the levels of Insight most obvious. Afternoons were when the Joshua Tree heat was inescapable, and everyone in the house tended to drag quite a bit. (I think it’s fair to say that we all discovered that somewhere around 2pm it was siesta time in Southern California.) Evenings were extremely productive for me, however- the time when the rubber hit the road most often in terms of deep jhanic bliss states and when extraordinary visionary territory was explored.

After the first two or three days, most of the confusion about how the Fire Kasina practice works was cleared up thanks to constant practice and the further instructions relayed from established teachers that one of our retreat participants was in contact with. This is where things began to get interesting. Again, the typical movement through the nanas was evident, with Dissolution being a vast gulf in the practice that usually resulted in prolonged boredom, doubt, and sedation. Visually and otherwise, the field of perception was cloudy and indistinct. I found that it required a delicate balance between alertness and relaxation to begin to enjoy the subtle drift of this stage.

Behind the “clouds” of this stage was a pearlescent light, and a delicate jhanic pleasure throughout the body. When these subtle sensations began to be apparent, I turned my attention more toward them (as I was taught with traditional Anapanasati), and the after-image, the “sign”, would also alter. I would frequently find that, when dwelling in this more subtle, pleasureable phase, the sign would change from being a flat after-image, to being a much more vivid and entrancing image, seemingly animated apart from the actual physical flame that was burning in the room. I took this as a signal that I was in Fourth Jhana territory, as it felt so familiar from my previous experiences with other Concentration exercises.

It was from this (presumably) Fourth Jhana territory that the potential for exploration began to open wide. Something about the “ambiance” of this state felt very familiar to me, similar not only in terms of sitting meditation, but also to psychedelic and Magickal experiments from the past. I found it was easy to direct the general route of exploration by simply stating my intent as I entered this powerful state.

I was successful in willing myself into what felt very strongly like true Fruitions, vivid and easy to come by. Self-Inquiry methods were also deeply satisfying, in that the exploration of questions such as “Who Am I?” resulted in an acute, resounding awareness of the kind of “ground state” of being that I’ve only known through prolonged and intense non-dual practice. Asking ridiculously open ended questions in this space, such as “What is the true nature of the Universe?” resulted in a very blatant, immediate response in the form of a vast and colorful mandala. Within the mandala was every form of life imaginable, all interlinked in activity and form, all intimately interconnected throughout. When I followed the question with another, equally grandiose “What lies beyond this Universe?” the mandala in my mind’s eye dropped into the distance, and I could see it was being upheld by some sort of unimaginably large deity or demon, a wrathful, laughing being with skin as black as coal. A truly striking image, and one that left me to wonder how it could be the product of my own mind, or if it was the influence of an outer agency.

It was around the fifth day of our retreat that I found some kind of consistency with the quality of my concentration and the clarity of the visual field subsequent to “locking in” to the fire sign. Reliably, to make progress into the deeper realms, I found the flame would have to move from it’s 2D, mental object phase, into the ultra-real phase, where it appeared independent of the actual burning candle. Venturing into visionary realms of a profound and tantalizing nature seems to me the natural outcome of this practice, and in the final days of the retreat, I was growing more comfortable with “calling up” specific experiences: Profoundly blissful and comforting Arcadian gardens. The sensation of swift flight through an endless space. When I sought out the “spirits of the desert”, I witnessed a great figure, not quite human, step through the wall of the house from the warm night outside, into our little space, and stand there, regarding us all in meditation with approval.

Visionary experiences like this became somewhat normalized by the end of the retreat, for me at least. However, during our discussion periods, it became apparent that all of us in the retreat were noticing results that were both unusual and very interesting on a daily basis. Without an overriding goal (beyond simply familiarizing myself with the Fire Kasina technique), we were left to explore the territory at hand. Knowing what I know now, it seems that it would be very useful for a future retreat to have some specific goal. Perhaps a test of psychic powers? Manifestation of a physical object or specific event? Healing an illness or disorder?

From a technically oriented Dharma perspective, displays like this are plainly not in the service of Awakening, at least not directly. It is easy to see the temptation towards power over oneself and others due to the accessibility and relative ease of this technique. As stated before, I found this technique to be somewhat similar in tone and content to psychedelic and magickal routes that are probably more well known here in the West. And yet, the frequency and vividness of independent entities, who appear to be autonomous, and possibly powerful, leads me to believe that this realm of experience deserves its own categorization. It would certainly not be a kind of training that I would recommend to, or perhaps even discuss in depth with a beginning meditator. However, that being said, I have gained quite a lot of valuable experience and information as a result of this practice, and would recommend it to anyone with the skill and the will, especially if it could include the addition of a compassion-oriented goal.

I am deeply thankful for the good guidance we had on the retreat from Daniel and Shannon, and to my fellow retreatants who were absolutely vital to success on every level, from the practical to the sublime.”

commentaries

Commentary on the Vimuttimagga

The following includes passages from the Vimuttimagga (The Path of Freedom) by the Arahant Upatissa, Fascicle IV, Chapter VIII, Section I, and Fascicle V, Chapter VIII, Section II. The translated passages appear in italics. Our commentary follows these in normal text.

Three Ways Of Sign-Taking

The yogin should meditate on the form of the mandala and take the sign through three ways: through even gazing, skilfulness and neutralizing disturbance.

‘Even gazing’ is important because the practice is all about looking at the object of attention. In order to look you must, at all times, be seeing something. What you see is your object. It is always what is actually seen, rather than your thoughts or feelings about it. If you are not at all times able to see your object and know that it is your object, then you should probably refocus your attention.

Q. How, through even gazing?

A. When the yogin dwells on the mandala, he should not open his eyes too wide nor shut them entirely. Thus should he view it. If he opens his eyes too wide, they will grow weary, he will not be able to know the true nature of the mandala, and the after-image will not arise. If he faces the mandala closing the eyes fast, he will not see the sign because of darkness, and he will arouse negligence. Therefore, he should refrain from opening his eyes too wide and closing them fast.

If your eyes are open too wide when looking at the candle flame, they will grow strained or dazzled or it will take longer for the after-image to form (if at all). If you squeeze your eyes too tight, likewise the after-image will not form, or (if it has formed already) you may squeeze it out of existence. If you fail to see the after-image, you will probably become bored and your attention will then drift. When practised correctly, it should take anything from only seconds or up to a couple of minutes at most for the after-image to form. The after-image is a purely physical reaction, resulting from exposing your eyes to a light source. It is not a mysterious, mental or ‘spiritual’ process.

He should dwell with earnestness on the mandala. Thus should the yogin dwell (on the mandala) in order to gain fixity of mind. As a man looking at his own face in a mirror sees his face because of the mirror, i.e., because the face is reflected by the mirror, so the yogin dwelling on the mandala sees the sign of concentration which arises, because of the mandala. Thus should he take the sign by fixing the mind through even gazing. Thus one takes the sign through even gazing.

We see our face in a mirror because the mirror reflects light. Likewise, when we stare at a candle flame we will see an after-image, because our retina reacts to light from the flame. Look at the flame, keep your eyes steady, and the after-image will form. It is no harder or more special than seeing your reflection when you look in a mirror.

Q. How, through skilfulness?

A. Namely, through four ways. The first is to put away any internal lack;

As you begin concentration, do you notice any sensations of wanting or craving for anything? Do not get drawn into those! Focus on the object.

the second is to view the mandala squarely;

Have a clear view of the candle flame, and keep looking at it.

third is to supply the deficiency should a partial sign or half the mandala appear;

If the after-image is not clear or otherwise imperfect, do not continue – sort it out! Adjust your gaze, position or the length of time spent gazing until an adequate after-image appears. An adequate after-image is one that is bright and clearly apparent when the eyes are closed.

(fourth:) at this time if his mind is distracted and becomes negligent, he should endeavour like a potter at the wheel and, when his mind acquires fixity, he should gaze on the mandala, and letting it pervade (his mind) fully and without faults consider calmness (?). Thus should skilfulness be known.

If you feel distracted or sleepy, keep bringing the mind back to the object. A potter must maintain a constant awareness of the clay under his hands, otherwise it will spin off his wheel. Aim for a tight, constant, moment-by-moment awareness of the sight of the object.

Grasping Sign

There are two kinds of signs, namely, the grasping sign and the after-image.

This term ‘sign’ seems to have caused more confusion than anything else among prospective kasina practitioners. Probably it arises from difficulties in translation. For this reason, we have decided to avoid using the term ‘sign’ altogether, to avoid the idea that what is being described is not something completely obvious.

What is the grasping sign? When a yogin, with undisturbed mind dwells on the mandate, he gains the perception of the mandala and sees it as it were in space, sometimes far, sometimes near, sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right, sometimes big, sometimes small, sometimes ugly, sometimes lovely. Occasionally (he sees it multiplied) many (times) and occasionally few (times). He, without scanning the mandala, causes the grasping sign to arise through skilful contemplation. This is named grasping sign.

What is being described here is the effect that appears around the flame (or other kasina object) that indicates an after-image is in the process of forming on the retina. This effect commonly appears as an apparent shadow or coloured aura around the candle flame. Its position in relation to the flame will vary, depending on how steady we have been able to keep our gaze. The more steady the gaze, the quicker the effect will grow, the more apparent it will become, and the more it will approximate to the position and dimensions of the candle flame itself. The more apparent this aura about the flame, the more vivid the after-image is likely to be.

The After-Image

Through the following of that (the grasping sign) again and again the after-image arises. The after-image means this: what when a man contemplates appears together with mind.

When the aura has established itself, this means the after-image has arisen. The after-image is the effect of brightness on the retina. It is not an actual, external object, but an artefact caused by how our perception is hard-wired. It is in this sense that it ‘appears together with mind’: i.e. it is a ‘mental’ thing, rather than something relating to an external physical object.

Here the mind does not gain collectedness through viewing the mandala, but it (the after-image) can be seen with closed eyes as before (while looking at the mandala) only in thought.

At this point the mind puts its focus no longer on the external candle-flame but on the internal after-image, which becomes fully visible only when the eyes are shut. So we are being told to close our eyes at this point, and to focus no longer on a physical object but on a ‘mental’ phenomenon.

If he wills to see it far, he sees it afar. As regards seeing it near, to the left, to the right, before, behind, within, without, above and below, it is the same. It appears together with mind. This is called the after-image.

Because the after-image is a retinal effect, its apparent position can be altered by moving the eyes. Whilst they are closed, if the eyes look to the right, then the after-image will move to the right. Similarly, if the closed eyes focus into the distance, or close-up, or upwards, or down, then an equivalent effect occurs.

The Sign

What is the meaning of sign?

The meaning of (conditioning) cause is the meaning of sign. It is even as the Buddha taught the bhikkhus: “All evil de-meritorious states occur depending on a sign”. This is the meaning of conditioning cause. And again, it is said that the meaning of wisdom is the meaning of the sign. The Buddha has declared: “With trained perception one should forsake”. This is called wisdom. And again, it is said that the meaning of image is the meaning of the sign. It is like the thought a man has on seeing the reflection of his own face and image. The after-image is obvious.

Pavlov’s famous dogs salivated when they heard the bell ring, because for them the ringing bell had become entrained as a sign that food was about to arrive. ‘Sign’ is being used in a similar sense here. Just as we look in a mirror and immediately recognise the image we see there as ourselves, so we should habituate ourselves to the kasina practice. It should become habitual. When we see the after-image we should recognise it as such, and associate it with the activity of concentrating. We must condition ourselves to focus intently whenever we recognise the after-image, for just as bad habits are a result of conditioning, so are good habits (‘wisdom’).

Protecting The Sign

After acquiring the sign the yogin should, with heart of reverence towards his teacher, protect that excellent sign. If he does not protect, he will, surely, lose it.

‘Protecting’ means simply cultivating the practice, making the after-image as clear as possible and making the concentration upon it strong. (Reverence towards me, in return for this information, is optional.) If you do not continue to practise then you will lose interest, because you will not get proficient enough to start to experience any interesting effects.

Q. How should he protect it?

A. He should protect it through three kinds of actions : through refraining from evil, practice of good and through constant endeavour.

How does one refrain from evil? One should refrain from pleasure of work, of various kinds of trivial talk, of sleeping, of frequenting assemblies, immoral habits; (one should refrain from) the non-protection of the faculties, intemperance as regards food, non-practice of the meditations, jhanas, and non-watchfulness in the first and last watches of the night, non-reverence for that which he has learned (the rule), the company of bad friends and seeing improper objects of sense. To partake of food, to sit and to lie down, at the improper time, are not wholesome. To conquer these states is (to do) good. Thus he should always practise.

Organise your life and everyday behaviour in a way that supports your practice, and consequently the practice will become easier. Not enough time to spare for the practice? Get up earlier or go to bed later. Busy mind? Set aside some intentional quiet time. Distracting friends? Drop them! etc., etc.

Q. What is the meaning of constant endeavour?

A. That yogin having taken the sign always contemplates on its merit as if it were a precious jewel. He is always glad and practises. He practises constantly and much. He practises by day and by night. He is glad when he is seated. He is at ease when he lies down. Keeping his mind from straying hither and thither, he upholds the sign. Upholding the sign, he arouses attention. Arousing attention, he meditates. Thus meditating, he practises. In his practice, he contemplates on the mandala. Through this constant endeavour, he sees the sign and protecting the sign in this way, he acquires facility. And if the (after-) image appears in his mind, he gains access-meditation. And if access-meditation appears in his mind, he, by means of this, accomplishes fixed meditation.

Take every opportunity you can to practise. And enjoy it! This practice cultivates some very intense and enjoyable states of trance and bliss. Make the most of these, because this is partly what the practice is for.

The Fire Kasina

Q. What is the fire kasina? What is the practising of it? What are its salient characteristic, function and near cause? What are its benefits? How is the sign grasped?

A. The thought that is produced relying on fire – this is called the fire kasina. The undisturbed dwelling of the mind – this is called practising. The skilfulness of sending the mind forth into the fire sign is its salient characteristic. Non-abandonment of fire perception is its function. Undivided thought is its near cause.

The fire kasina is that mental activity which results from concentrating totally and uninterruptedly upon the perception of fire. Based upon my experiences so far, this is how I understand the following passages:

“What are its benefits?” There are five distinctive benefits. These are displayed in the fire kasina. A man is able to produce smoke and flame,

i.e. exceedingly vivid and intense mental images of fire arise spontaneously, to such a degree that they appear more like sensory perceptions than mental images.

is able to reveal things through producing brightness,

i.e. mental imagery becomes so vivid it reveals things that are not intended by the mind, in the way that sensory perceptions reveal what is not intended by the mind.

is able to destroy the light of other forms, is able to burn whatever he likes,

i.e. the mental imagery is so intense that it can be seen with the eyes open, and overrides ordinary visual impressions as and how we choose.

is able to know fire through the arising of brightness. The other benefits are equal to those of the earth kasina. Owing to the practice of the fire kasina, a man is able to see fire everywhere.

As a flame is bright and malleable so these are recognised also as characteristics of everyday perception. Everyday perception becomes to us as bright and malleable as a flame.

“How is the sign grasped?”: The man who takes up the fire sign grasps the sign in fire, i.e., in a natural or a prepared place. Here, a practised yogin grasps the natural sign. (He grasps the sign) on seeing any fire, i.e., a grass-fire, a wood-fire, a forest-fire or a house that is on fire. He develops the natural or the prepared as he pleases and sees the appropriate sign. Thus the after-image of fire occurs to him.

The person well-practised in fire kasina can enter the states it makes accessible by taking any form of fire s/he happens to encounter as the object.

The new yogin is different. He is able to grasp the sign only in a prepared place and not in an unprepared place. He follows what is expedient in the practice of the fire kasina. The new yogin should at first gather fuel, heap it up in a clean place and burn it. He burns it from below, at about the time the sun rises or sets. He does not think of the smoke or the flames that rise up. He sends his mind towards the fire sign by directing it to the middle of the thick flames and grasps the sign through three ways : through even gazing, skilfulness and the elimination of disturbance. (The rest) is as was fully taught before.

The person new to this practice is likely only to be able to enter the states it makes accessible by using a bright and well-defined object, as is described above.

The fire kasina has ended.