A Buddhist Model of Semiosis? Perception in “the Sign of Three”: Sense, Object and Consciousness

This paper intends to contribute to working out a Buddhist semiotics of perception by exploring in Peircean terms the notion that perceptual cognition takes place by means of a “meeting of the three” (Sanskrit: trayāṇām saṃnipātaḥ), i.e. “sensory faculty” (indriya), “object” (viṣaya) and “consciousness”/ “cognitive awareness” (vijñāna). Relevant matters are going to be unravelled with regard to the question of whether this Buddhist triadic conception actually presents us with a methodological equivalent of semiosis, i.e. of what Peirce describes as “an action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant” (EP 2, p. 411, ca. 1907). In phenomenological terms, the formula that “The meeting of the three is contact” (Pāḷi: tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso) (MN I,112ff., cf. Bodhi 1995:203; a. SN 35.60, Vol. II, cf. Bodhi 2000:1149) is something of a shortcut for the way in which sensory perception as the paradigmatic operation of consciousness (cf. Ronkin, SEP 2018) is explained: i.e. by means of the theory of twelve “sensory bases” (āyatana), which provides a scheme for classifying those minimal phaneronic events of sentient experience that in the Buddhist tradition are called “dharmas” (Skt. pl. dharmāḥ; Pā. pl. dhammā). Here the five physical senses and “mind” (manas) as the sixth cognitive faculty, together with six categories of corresponding “objects”, are understood to act as the “bases” for the respective modalities of “cognitive awareness” (vijñāna) to arise (cf. Lusthaus 2002).

Semiotically modelling the step from “phaneral manifestation” to “semiotic representation” (cf. De Tienne 1999 + 2013) with regard to Buddhist theory is going to involve a look at such key notions as “feeling” (Skt. and Pā. vedanā) and “apperception” (Skt. saṁjñā; Pā. saññā), which in Buddhist terms seem to indicate that transition from phaneron to the sign where “mentation” (Skt. manas; Pā. mano) becomes problematic through linguistic and conceptual proliferation (Skt. prapañca; Pā. papañca) (cf. Waldron 2003:37ff.). Considering that vijñāna (“consciousness” or “awareness”) in the act of cognizing “does nothing” (na kiñcit karoti) as is stated in Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣyam (IX, cf. Ed. Poussin 1923–1931/1980, Tr. Pruden 1988-1990), some of the comparative challenges are going to be: how to map what are only “evanescent flashings of consciousness” without any “’apprehending’ of the object by the intellect”, hence: without any subjective or psychological agent in Buddhism (cf. Stcherbatsky, CCB, pp. 55+58), onto what Peirce calls an “action, or influence” (EP 2)? Where to locate agency, how to find an equivalent notion to the interpretant, and how to deal with perceptual cognition without making recourse to any stable relations between external (or objective) and internal (or subjective) elements in the process? The explanation offered by Ransdell in “Is Peirce a phenomenologist?” (Ed. CHK 2017) that “Semiosis is not a mental act of interpretation” is going to serve us as an important clue for showing why it seems indeed to be justified to read the considered “sign of three” as a Buddhist model of semiosis.

Alina Therese Lettner


English/American and Italian Studies (Vienna, Stirling, Florence, Innsbruck: M.A. 2002). Classical philologies (Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Biblical Hebrew) and modern languages (e.g. Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian). Second degree in Indology and English Medieval Studies (Göttingen: M.A. 2013). Research assistant and lecturer at the University of Kassel (2014: dissertation thesis defence, summa cum laude). Current research/publications: “Cybersemiotic philology of Buddhist knowledge forms” (in Brier/Vidales); “Peirce’s semiotic pragmaticism and Buddhist soteriology: Steps towards modelling ‘thought forms’ of signlessness” (2020); “Semiotic roots and Buddhist roots in phenomenology and intercultural philosophy: A Peircean study of Abhidharma Buddhist theories of consciousness and perception” (2021).

Buddhist philosophy
semiotics of perception
Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣyam
sensory bases