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.
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.
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.
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.