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Good will , compassion , equanimity etc are objects of meditation. Good will is used to escape from ill-will. Compassion is used to escape from viciousness. Equanimity is used to escape from passion. All the above ideas are familiar to me and I understand them well.

Along the similar lines there is a concept of signless (I guess signless is also an object of meditation). Signless is used to escape from all signs.

Following quote from aṅguttara nikāya explains signless :

“Furthermore, there is the case where a monk might say, ‘Although the signless has been developed, pursued, handed the reins and taken as a basis, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, and well-undertaken by me as my awareness-release, still my consciousness follows the drift of signs.’ He should be told, ‘Don’t say that. You shouldn’t speak in that way. Don’t misrepresent the Blessed One, for it’s not right to misrepresent the Blessed One, and the Blessed One wouldn’t say that. It’s impossible, there is no way that—when the signless has been developed, pursued, handed the reins and taken as a basis, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, and well-undertaken as an awareness-release—consciousness would follow the drift of signs. That possibility doesn’t exist, for this is the escape from all signs: the signless as an awareness-release.’

I am having difficulty in understanding what are signs?

My question is : what is signless (or what is sign) and what is meant by escape from all signs?

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According to Mahayana interpretation, "signs" or "marks" are concepts, or conceptual designations, also known as preconceptions.

The problem with conceptual designations is that we tend to confuse them with reality (=to reify; noun "reification"). To give a canonical example, when someone is attached to his own personal stereotype of what an "attractive woman" should look like, when he meets one that matches his stereotype he no longer sees her as a complete person, instead he only sees his own concept of woman, he sees a sexual object! Then we tend to look with our conceptual brain, instead of looking with an open mind. Then, all we see is our preconceptions or biases - instead of seeing what actually is. Not only we see nothing but our preconceptions, we completely confuse them for reality, we think that what we "think" is what really "is" - but it is not, we see our own mental fabrication! Then on the basis of that fabrication, we develop certain attitude toward the object - for example we want to make acquaintance with the woman, with an implicit intent to get close with her. This is called "following the drift of signs".

Another example of this is racial stereotyping. You see a person of a national origin that you generally associate with ignorant violence - and then all you see is your preconception, you no longer see the real person. On the basis of this you develop aversion to this person, which ends up causing a conflict.

This happens with inanimate objects as well. Once we know that a given object is "a tree" - we no longer really see it as-is, we see our concept: "a tree". It takes a special effort to unsee our abstract concept and see the actual tree.

According to Mahayana, the entire Samsara is an illusory world completely made of such concepts! The notion of "I" or atman is one of such preconceptions. It is on the basis of attachment to preconceptions that we have unsatisfied craving, which manifests as suffering. Complete cessation of reification is "escape from all signs".

This is a rather simplified presentation, it actually goes much deeper than that, but this can get you started. Entire Mahayana was born from study and development of this teaching, passed in the oral form from Buddha's students to next generations. In Mahayana we refer to this as "shunyata" and "prajna-paramita", but it is also present in the Pali Canon in quite a few places like this one, using terms like "groundless", "having no position", "signless" etc.

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  • I think this is a good answer and I've up-voted it accordingly, but I have a question about it... some tenet systems maintain that giving up conceptual thought is enough to arrive at the understanding of emptiness. In other words, when the mind empties of conceptual thought is that enough to directly realize emptiness? Signlessness? Or is there more work to do? Do we need to just stop thinking or having conceptions? Relatedly, when an ordinary person perceives (as opposed to conceives) objects... do the objects appear truly or inherently existent? Or do we perceive them as they really are? – Yeshe Tenley May 7 '18 at 19:22
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    In my understanding, giving up conceptual thought won't cut it. We're not trying to become animals here :)) According to Mahamudra and Dzogchen teachings one has to achieve complete "spontaneous presence", for which conceptual groundlessness plays a merely instrumental role. Concepts are like 2D vision, and this is like 3D vision. – Andrei Volkov May 7 '18 at 20:50
  • @AndreiVolkov Buddha calls for abandoning of sign of forms, of sounds, of odours, of flavours, of tangibles, and of mental objects. If sign is a concept then do we have to get rid of the concepts of the forms,sounds,odours,flavours,tangibles and mental objects? Buddha doesn't say to abandon preconceived notion of beauty but to abandon the sign of forms. – Dheeraj Verma May 8 '18 at 11:30
  • That's right, it's not as much to abandon all preconceived notions, as to learn to not be their slave, @DheerajVerma It's a sort of multidimmensional cognition that makes one immune to suffering arising due to attachment to views. – Andrei Volkov May 10 '18 at 14:23
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There's some other discussion of it here (with lots of references): Understanding animittā (signlessness) as in AN6.13

I think that "sign" i.e. nimitta is a vague or general-purpose word, like the English word "attribute" or "aspect" or "characteristic" -- when I say that word is vague or unclear I mean because different things have different characteristics (different appearances) -- perhaps I should call it an abstract word, if it's one word that describes character or whatever it is that all (different) characteristics have in common.

As well as being used to describe sense-objects, the word ("sign" or "nimitta") is often used (or is more frequently used, in Buddhist talk) to describe meditation stages or "attainments" (e.g. here or here).

Volume 19 of Piya Tan's Sutta Discovery series consists of topics related to "Nimitta".

SD 19.7 starts with different definitions of Nimitta ("object", "basis", "condition"), and how the word is used in the context of meditation.

But his paper which describes "signless concentration" is later, i.e. it's an element of volume 24 which describes "mental concentration (samadhi)" -- see The Discourse on the Question of the Signless Concentration of Mind which begins with,

The term, “signless concentration of mind” (animitta ceto,samādhi) is not fully explained in the Nikāyas, “but its placement after the eighth formless attainment [of S 40.9] suggests it is a samādhi qualitatively different from those attained in samatha meditation.”

I think it's related to the topic in SD 19.14 -- "Theme: Sense-restraint & wise attention: how to master the senses". A lot (but not all) of that is Abhidhamma material -- its topic is the formula which appears in several suttas:

Here, bhikshus, when a monk sees a form with the eye, he grasps neither its sign nor its details.

In that context I think that a sign is your first impression of something, and its details are what you discern afterwards if you then focus on that thing.

When you get a first impression of something the (unmindful or "unreleased") consciousness will "follow" the sign.

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  • I assume this was downvoted by Dhammadhatu and I don't like when the answerers downvote each other's answers. Upvoting can be reserved for special cases when an answer is truly awesome, but downvoting because you disagree... naturally alternative answerers are very likely to disagree with each other. So I'm upvoting this and hoping the other answerer can remove his negative vote? – Andrei Volkov May 11 '18 at 11:05
  • I assume the same (and felt a passing dislike of that too) I suppose downvoting is justified when an answer is wrong (or even "not useful") -- though apparently "revenge downvoting" as well as "sympathy upvoting" are also sometimes a thing on SE, but aren't to be encouraged much. IMO I might prefer that a downvote (intended as criticism) were accompanied by an explanatory comment, but what can you do, one cannot require that of downvoters. ATM I only assume this answer was downvoted because it references Piya Tan, discourse.suttacentral, and the Visuddhimagga, none of which he finds agreeable. – ChrisW May 11 '18 at 12:11

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