Does anyone know any research or publications on the intersection of Buddhism and semiotics/biosemiotics? I don't mean the study of Buddhist schools with the help of semiotics, but rather an interpretation of Buddhist doctrine itself as a kind of ancient proto-semiotics. Any references are appreciated.


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So far I have found three texts providing more or less clear interpretation of Buddhism as ancient form of applied semiotics:

  1. A 2003 article by Mario D'Amato titled "The semiotics of signlessness: A Buddhist doctrine of signs":

[There is a] distinction between an analysis of Buddhist semiotics and a semiotic analysis of Buddhism: While the former would be an analysis of a Buddhist doctrine of signs (as, for example, is given in this paper), the latter would be a semiotic analysis of Buddhist cultural forms.


Through seizing on the signs or characteristics of things, mind functions according to a conceptual matrix that is not in accordance with the way things really are, and this occurrence is the very basis of suffering. Thus, to give a semiotic interpretation to the three entrances to nirvana — signlessness, desirelessness, and emptiness — if signs and semiotic processes were to be properly understood, signifying could be brought to an end, seizing on things would terminate, and the ultimate emptiness of all phenomena would be realized.


The ultimate goal is not to ‘regress’ to a pre-semiotic condition, but rather to arrive at a completely perfected mode of semiosis wherein there is no longer a barrier between the sign and reality itself: When everything has been signified, when the sign encompasses all possible interpretants (signs), then a state of semiotic perfection has been attained and semiosis has been brought to its completion.


Thus, all phenomena (all signifieds) are to be ultimately understood as nothing more than conceptual constructions. And because there are ultimately no objects, there is nothing for signs to refer to. Hence, the highest awakening entails the end of semiosis.


The perfected signifier is reality itself. ... I take this to imply that the perfected signifier should be understood in terms of Peirce’s category of firstness. ... The perfected signifier is thusness itself, without the mediation of discursivity and without unreal imagination.

  1. Chapters 9-14 of Nalin Swaris' 1997 PhD dissertation titled "The Buddha's Way: A Socio-Historical Approach". Can be purchased on Amazon or downloaded here:

The Buddha developed a method for realising in practice what Derrida understood in theory. That is to say a way of achieving "bare perception" and realising "signless freedom of the mind"


Humans suffer because of their ignore-ance of the true character of actuality as impermanent and without substance. Ordinarily, we do not see mere things or beings. We perceive them in terms of what they mean to us - 'good for me'/ 'bad for me'. In other words see not things, but signs, and we measure everything in relation to our interests. As a result beings and things trigger lust or hatred in us. We are not aware of what transmutes perceived forms into signs of lust or hate. It is therefore far more important to understand, not so much how things come into existence - ontogenesis - but semiosis - the processes by which everything in the universe is converted into 'Signs'. People live under the sway of signs which are identified by names. ... It is by turning an ephemeral form into a fixed 'thing' that it can be made an object of lust, hatred and delusion. The diagnosis is illuminating. Lust, hate and delusion are not the result of qualities intrinsic to what is perceived. It is the gaze of the beholder which, under the sway of craving, transforms perceived forms into lustful, hateful or delusive 'things'. ... Craving transforms what is pleasant into lustful objects. But how does craving achieve this? Sariputta lays bare the stratagem - "lust is a sign-maker; hate is sign-maker; delusion is a sign-maker".


Suññatā ... is emptying the mind of signs and liberating it from its sign-making proclivity - the habitual compulsion to project significations on to percepts. Overcoming this compulsion, says Sariputta, is animitta cetovimutti - "signless liberation of the mind". It is nibbanic freedom. It is liberation from what the Buddha called "the tyranny of names".

  1. A 2008 article by Mario D'Amato, "Buddhism, Apophasis, Truth" says:

According to Buddhist semiotics, there is a significant sense in which semiosis itself is systematically deceptive, binding one further to cyclic existence. According to Buddhist metaphysics, conditioned phenomena—phenomena which comprise “the world,” including whatever we refer to as “the self”—are radically impermanent and without inherent nature or essence. Signs, on the other hand, function to posit stable entities where there are none, affixing inherent natures onto hypostatized existents. While phenomena are in flux, signs posit enduring objects. While phenomena are without essence, signs posit essential natures. Signs point to a realm of stable referents, but the purported “objects” to which they refer are always on the move. So coming to a proper understanding of semiosis, and bringing about its end or terminus through a radical transformation, is understood in Buddhist traditions to be one of the very “doors to deliverance.”


This is understandable insofar as according to certain strands of Buddhist thought, the fundamental cause of suffering, or the fundamental problem that must be overcome, is some form of conceptualization (sajñā), conceptual discrimination (vikalpa), conceptual construction (parikalpa), or conceptual proliferation (prapañca) — in short, the fundamental problem is some form of semiosis.


All of this seems to quite clearly imply that when the goal is attained, even Buddhism itself will not ultimately be taken to be true: when awakening is attained, Buddhist doctrine is to be left behind. In the end, Buddhism should serve as a means of achieving the realization of signlessness, an attainment which dissolves the possibility for affirming any truth at all.

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