In our latest feature on the theme of Blue, Anna Aysea explores the origins of the colour blue, the language used to describe it and how our perception of it has developed over time.

Blue pigment
Blue pigment

There is more to blue than meets the eye. Apparently, the colour blue did not exist for our ancestors. Researchers analyzed ancient texts from all over the world, the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, and ancient Chinese, Hindu, and Inuit languages. All major languages seem to show the same development regarding colour: words for black and white appear first as indicators for dark and light, then the word for red as an indicator for danger, then words for green and yellow, the word for blue is the last to appear in the language. In ancient texts, black and white are mentioned the most, to a lesser degree red is mentioned, then green and yellow, researchers found no mention of blue, not once. The word for blue appears only after the invention of blue synthetic dye by the Egyptians about 5000 years ago. Our ancestors did not see blue as a separate colour but as a shade of green.

The reason that there was no word for blue in ancient times is because blue pigment does not exist in nature. You may ask: “Well, what about the ocean, the blue sky, blueberries, my blue hydrangeas, my blue eyes? The blueish colour of less than ten percent of flowers is caused by a natural modification of a red pigment, which is also responsible for the colour of blueberries. The pigments of indigo or woad are variations of violet. The blue of the sky, the ocean and blue eyes are the result of how light is refracted. This is also true for the vivid blue of exotic birds or butterflies. The microscopic structure of the feathers or wings is such that it refracts the light in a way that the surface appears blue.

Lapis lazuli and the ultramarine made from it is the exception as a true blue pigment in nature. The fact that the pigment is so rare may be the reason why lapis lazuli is associated with healing, wisdom and compassion in Buddhist teaching. Also, plants thrive best under blue light. Afghanistan being the major source of Lapis lazuli, the pigment was mostly used in the east in Buddhist and Mughal art for centuries. Its diffusion in Europe began during the Crusades in medieval times, but its rarity and cost meant that it could be afforded for the creation of artworks only for the most wealthy. Hence blue is the colour of royalty.

The ephemeral nature of the colour blue is in fact true for all colours. According to modern science, colour is the way light is absorbed, reflected and scattered by a surface, colour does not exist as such but is an interpretation of a wavelength by the sensory apparatus. In other words, colour is what reality looks like when it is filtered and interpreted by the body-mind. Sense perceptions are not reality but an image, like the map, is not the territory but a representation of it. I am reminded of the Scripture of Great Wisdom which also dismisses sense perceptions as reality:

… in this pure there is no … eye, – ear, – nose, – tongue, – body, – mind; No form, – no tastes, – sound, – colour, touch or objects…

The world is real, but it is not what it appears to be based on eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Form, taste, sound, colour, touch or objects are images, are representations, not reality. Mistaking the image for the territory is entering the world of illusion. Without that erroneous belief, there is beauty and joy in the play of the senses, in the radiant, glorious blue of ultramarine as one of the myriad faces of the one reality.

The Deep Blue Eyes of the Peacock Butterfly

This week, Mo Henderson continues the theme of ‘Blue’ with a reflection on the life cycle of the Peacock butterfly and how its “natural connection with the world around it” can serve as a reminder of our own purpose.









I recently saw a peacock butterfly. I can understand how it got that name, so beautiful, just like the colours in a male peacock’s feathers. This one had vivid blue spots on its wings, looking like eyes peering out at you from a bright crimson background. Its expression of life was breathtaking,  how sad this wonderful creature’s life is all but a few fleeting weeks in spring. I looked up its life cycle.

‘In May, after mating, females lay their eggs in batches of up to 500. After a week or two the caterpillars hatch and spin a communal web in which they live and feed. As they grow, the caterpillars increasingly live in the open. They pupate alone, and adults emerge from July. The main priority is to feed-up before the winter hibernation, in dark crevices, sheds and tree holes. Adults emerge again in spring to mate and breed’. 1

That evening I recalled the sight of this stunning little creature and pondered on its existence. Expressing life in that way appears to have meaning because of its functioning and natural connection with the world around it. A butterfly is not searching for meaning, it simply ‘is’, it has nothing to hold on to or search for. It simply responds to the need of the moment. How easy it seemed for this creature to flow with nature, without present concerns based on past memory or future possibilities.

‘I suggest that enlightenment and meaning are functions of the present moment’ 2

As a human being and not a butterfly, I often wonder if my own authentic expression of life is ‘seen’. I’m consciously aware of having an individual story, based on what I have experienced and how I perceive and remember it. I’m sure these elements must intrude on my response to the needs of the present moment. Sometimes I feel distracted from ‘seeing’ what needs doing. Is our real nature always present like the butterfly’s?

At a personal level I believe each of us has a part to play and discovering what that is, and how we can naturally function to express that in a much bigger picture, is a lifetime’s work. This is challenging, particularly in making the ‘right’ choices. Sometimes, I can all but wonder how much my choices will help ourselves and others. There may be a sense of knowing but no absolute certainty.

The daily practice of Zazen (sitting meditation), simply learning to accept and be with what arises in the present moment, is enough to help us see how to respond by making good choices 3.

When I realise I have made a mistake, is this still expressing life as best I can? I believe meditation practice is an expression of our true nature, by giving space to be with and accept life as it is. This daily practice, which permeates into our lives, helps us to ‘see’ ways to help us learn from mistakes and respond to the conditions which arise. For me, rather than blaming myself or others, it has meant having faith in the practice and trusting myself to respond in helpful ways.

Sometimes life seems to flow easily and other times the work which comes is challenging. I am not the butterfly with the deep blue eyes on its wings, but there is a wish to try to ‘see’ with eyes that look closer at expressing what true nature is.

Mo Henderson

1 The RSPB Wildlife Charity
2 Rev Master Daishin Morgan (Page 63 Buddha Recognises Buddha).
3 Rev Master Daishin Morgan (Sitting Buddha-Zen Meditation for Everyone)

The colour blue

Our second post, on the theme of Blue, is by Chris Yeomans. In it, she explores human perception and experience of the colour. Enjoy!


This morning when I looked out of the window in the semi-darkness everything was shrouded in soft grey mist, white frost outlining roof tiles and branches.  The air was still.

Yesterday, in contrast, there was a clear blue sky, the frost sparkling, the light dancing, lifting the spirits, putting energy into my step.

I am reading a book called ‘The Flow’ by Amy-Jane Beer, essentially about rivers and water courses.  By chance in the current chapter, she explores the idea of blue, starting with the etymology of the word.  ‘Blue, it seems, is consistently last among the primary hues to be named.  Many old languages and some modern languages fail to separate it emphatically from green.’  Just as Arctic cultures have many more names for snow than we do, it seems that, in some cultures, blue has far fewer and she suggests that ‘humans can see colour In different ways and these seem to relate to language.’

It seems that the colour blue has absorbed and inspired humans for centuries.  For us in our climate and our culture, blue is everywhere, day and night.  Van Gogh’s night sky was a startling navy. ‘Ice’ says Robert McFarlan, ‘has a memory and the colour of this memory is blue.’  ‘Fresh snow is white,’ says Amy-Jane,’but it sinters into blue.’  (Interesting choice of word here.)

The race and culture to which I belong can ‘see’ blue in many shades and guises and we can name many of them.  It is the fabric of the natural world for us, so it is hardly surprising that my heart lifts when I see blue sky, the reflection of it in a dazzling blue sea and a sense of peace as it fades in the evening through the spectrum into a darkness which is not black.




Lapis Blue ~ by Karen Richards ~ part of the Blue series

For the next few weeks, Dew on the Grass is featuring writing and artwork around the theme of the colour Blue. To kick things off, we have a short post by Karen Richards who writes about lapis lazuli and its associations with healing.

The blue of lapis lazuli is intensely deep and often contains gold-coloured flecks of pyrite, giving the impression of faint stars in a darkening sky (1). Lapis lazuli has been associated with medicine for centuries and, in the ancient world, was thought to have mystical and healing power, especially the ability to reduce inflammation. In Vajrayana Buddhism, the deep blue colour of lapis is thought to have a purifying and strengthening effect on those who visualise it.  It is not surprising, therefore, that lapis lazuli was incorporated into the iconography depicting the Bodhisattva Bhaisajyaguru, also known as The Healing or Medicine Buddha.

All very apt, when we consider that the colour blue also has associations with the NHS, and so it’s fitting perhaps that, at the beginning of two days of strike action by NHS medical staff, in pursuit of better pay, conditions and improved patient safety that we should give a hat tip to the service.

According to  Raoul Birnbaum, in his book The Healing Buddha (2), medical healing was seen as important to the Buddha who, in His wisdom, saw that a strong body was conducive to a strong meditative practice. Further, it is said that He directed the early monks to tend to those who were sick as part of their practice. So, whilst the Medicine Buddha points towards the healing of spiritual afflictions – the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion – he also represents the healing of the physical body.

Some years ago, now, my husband had his lower left leg amputated because of an infection. During this time of acute illness, he was drawn to Birnbaum’s book and kept it by him to study. He also developed a love of lapis lazuli. So, on his 60th birthday, I sought out a piece of the semi-precious stone, finally settling on the piece, below.

I found it in a crystal shop, in the town of Ironbridge, and I was intrigued by its shape, which looked uncannily like a foot or boot. My husband loved it. For him, it represented the foot that he had lost and he found strength and comfort in it. He still keeps it by him, ready to hold should he feels the need.

For those who are in physical and mental suffering, alongside the medical treatments of the modern world, getting to know a little about The Healing Buddha and the associated semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli, may bring a different healing dimension.

1. Information and introductory photograph by Wikipedia

2. The Healing Buddha by Raoul Birnbaum ISBN 0 09 142451 8 First published in Great Britain in 1980


Dew on the Grass
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