Review: Semantics: Rambelli (2013)

AUTHOR: Fabio  Rambelli
TITLE: A Buddhist Theory of Semiotics
SUBTITLE: Signs, Ontology, and Salvation in Japanese Esoteric Buddhism
SERIES TITLE: Bloomsbury Advances in Semiotics
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: J. L Barnes, (personal interest – not currently working at a university)

Fabio Rambelli’s ”A Buddhist Theory of Semiotics” is an investigation into
the soteriology of Esoteric Buddhism (also known as Tantric Buddhism) via
semiotic methods. The book is composed of a preface and five chapters, as well
as extensive notes and references. Its focus is the use of language as a means
to salvation, specifically the importance of mantra and mandala as signs and
sign-bearing vehicles whose deeper meaning is divined through meditative and
exegetical processes. If anything, exegesis could be considered the main theme
of the text, as much of Rambelli’s work is based upon commentaries of
religious texts and practices. Indeed, every mantra itself can be considered
an act of exegesis.

The preface, “Semiotics and Buddhism,” begins with a summary of notable works
on Buddhism, including Roland Barthes’s treatment of Japan as an “Empire of
Signs” and D. T. Suzuki’s works, which helped to raise the profile of Zen
Buddhism in the west in the 20th century. This leads to a discussion of
Esoteric Buddhism (also known as Shingon or Tantric Buddhism), the Japanese
school at the center of the book. The primary difference between the Esoteric
school (hereafter referred to as EB for purposes of conciseness) and other
forms of Buddhism is that it traces its lineage not back to Sakyamuni Buddha
(that is, Siddartha Gautama), as do most other traditions, but to
Mahavairocana Buddha (xvi). The Esoteric tradition views Mahavairocana as “the
ultimate source of all possible signs, thoughts, and representations as
personified by the cosmic Buddha.” He is seen as an eternal being, coexistent
with the entire universe, wherein all things are part of a “single totality”
(xvii). This informs the EB view of world itself as an “ongoing cosmic sermon”
being preached by Mahavairocana (xviii). His teachings and revelations form
the basis of Esoteric Buddhism. At its most basic level, Rambelli says, EB is
based upon a system of meaning which distinguishes between signifier and
signified, as nōsen and shosen, respectively (xiv).

Chapter One, “Adamantine signs: The episteme of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism” is
an examination of how Esoteric Buddhism utilizes and interprets signs and
signifiers as part of its overall soteriological doctrine. Rambelli confines
his study to “the Japanese Shingon tradition as it developed between the ninth
and the sixteenth centuries” (2) but explains that the same principles can be
applied to the entirety of the tradition. Much of Rambelli’s study focuses on
the writings of Kukai, 8th century Japanese monk and founder of the Shingon
sect of Esoteric Buddhism, whose focus was on the “absolute language” of
mantra (7). As the bulk of the text examines semiotic interpretations of EB,
Rambelli attempts to frame many of its tenets and rituals in semiotic
terms.This includes representing two modes of Esoteric thought, nōsen and
shosen, as the signifier and signified, respectively (xiv.) Ultimately, he
describes the basic underlying ontology of EB as the doctrine of “pansemiotic
universe” —  “everything is organized in a systematic way and endowed with
meaning” (13).

The foundation of EB’s interpretive process is the three orders of meaning
which, Rambelli says, correspond to “different modes of semiotic knowledge:”
semiosophia, semiognosis, and semiopieta. Semiosophia refers to “the exotic
forms of knowledge of signs (sō), according to which language and signs are
considered to be arbitrary and illusory, but nevertheless usable as expedient
means (upaya) in order to indicate the truth,” (15). Semiognosis, on the other
hand, is knowledge gained through specific ritual practices. Finally,
semiopieta is a term denoting “the diffuse beliefs and non specialized
practices of the uninitiated concerning such Esoteric entities as sacred
images, texts, amulets, and talismans” (17). The relation between semiosophia
and semiognosis is “represented by the two- level semantic structure of
Esoteric signs,” which Rambelli refers to as the “exo-esoteric doctrine,”
separating the teachings of Mahavairocana into the superficial and the secret
(9). The superficial (jisō) is based on physical appearance or shape  “the
primary meaning at this level is usually a term that begins with the same
sound as its expression” whereas the esoteric (jigi) is “treated as a
condensation of another sign it stands for” (16). These two terms correspond
quite nicely with the Peircean categorization of signs as icons and indices
(Peirce 8). The remainder of the chapter is concerned with a discussion of a
text on mantra by Shogei (a Pure Land and Esoteric monk and commentator). This
is followed by a brief look into the life and work of scholar monks typical of
the period, before closing on a brief discussion of the codification of ritual
in the Esoteric school.

Chapter Two, “Ontology of signs: The pansemiotic cosmos of mandala” concerns
the ontological foundations of Esoteric Buddhism, as exemplified by the
concept of Sōdai, “the semiotic configuration of the universe, refers to the
countless alterations and transformations” of substance (39).

The beginning of the chapter draws parallels between the artistic philosophy
of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini and EB’s own “pansemiosis,” in which
every signified is itself a sign (40). These signs all ultimately originate
with Mahavairocana, whom Kukai says is the Dharma itself, the source of all

Language also originates with Mahavairocana, as a result of what Ryuichi Abe
terms “semiogenesis”: Mahavairocana intoned the letter A, thereby bringing
language itself into existence (47).

Rambelli refers the subjects of study of Esoteric Buddhism as “microcosmic
macrosigns,” denoting “open ended clusters of alloforms, objects, actions,
states, and qualities — distinct occurrences of the different modes of the
cosmic substance” (57). The most common examples of these macrosigns in EB are
the stupa and the mandala, both of which Rambelli explores in great detail.

As a fundamental and immediately recognizable aspect of both Buddhist and
Hindu practice, mandala is the focus of much of the chapter. For Esoteric
Buddhists, the mandala is the fundamental model of the universe  but even
more than this, the universe itself is a mandala (59). Rambelli goes through
the definition of the a mandala, as well as different typologies, before
discussing the seven “main semiotic characteristics” of the mandala functions,
its use as a liturgical and devotional instrument, a magical object, and its
use as an ideological device within the sociohistorical context of Buddhism in
Japan (66).

To underscore the importance of the mandala to the Esoteric tradition,
Rambelli emphasizes the fact that the universe itself is seen as one
all -encompassing pansemiotic mandala (77).

Chapter Three: “The secrets of languages: Structure of the Esoteric signs,”
focuses more on the general relationship between Esoteric Buddhism and
language. Rambelli covers a lot of ground, including the Buddhist
preoccupation with the confusion of reality and appearance, re- framed as a
problem of linguistics: “The external world, then, is essentially a linguistic
and semiotic construction and thus devoid of ontological reality” (80).
Following this is a discussion of the word of the Buddha and the importance of
distinguishing between the words themselves and “the signs conveying” the
Buddha’s message (82). Again, the emphasis on Sanskrit is stressed. An
exegesis on Kukai and the primacy of the uttered sound follows: “sound…is
always the signifier of a noun or of a semantic unit. And since every sound
signifies something, there is no distinction between levels of articulation”
(85), that is, no distinction between phoneme and morpheme.

Next, he moves to the subject of mantra, explaining its origins and history,
determining that mantra originally developed as “primordial protolinguistic
expressions” (96). Investigations of the phonology, syntax, semantics, and
pragmatics of mantra follows, segueing into the subject of Indian scripts. The
ubiquitous Kukai also founded the school of shittagaku, focused on
interpretation of the Indian shittan script, which plays a prominent role in
Rambelli’s investigation of EB’s exegetical methods. Sanskrit was considered
the holy language because of its exoticism — “the foreign is considered to
be more authentic” (13). Rambelli concludes this discussion of mantras by
evoking Peirce’s conception of “infinite semiosis” (100) (Eco 1979, 69), in
which each signified is also a signifier, leading to an unending chain of
signification. The chapter concludes with a case study on the shittan
character and “mantric seed” vaṃ, another extensive exegesis.

Chapter Four is entitled “Inscribing the diamond path: A semiotic soteriology”
and describes how enlightenment is achieved through semiotic processes. Again,
the “visual culture” of Esoteric Buddhism is emphasized: “Shingon meditation
was essentially eidetic and consisted in the visualization of particular
images. Even signless or formless meditation…is a contemplation of the
ultimate semiotic nature of the Dharma realm” (127). Following this is a
description of the “relationship of conformity between the structure of a
mantric expression, the structure of the salvation process in which it occurs,
and the ‘meaning’ of the mantra’s elements” (131). This is illustrated by an
exegesis of a commentary by the 12th century Japanese priest Kakuban — his
own exegesis on the mantric syllables “a bi ra un ken” (139), as well as a
more detailed look at the mandala: “The visualization process aims at
establishing a connection between the graphs of the mantra and their multiple
meanings on the one hand, and the parts of the human body and the elements in
the external world they correspond to by virtue of the correlative logic of
the East Asian Esoteric Episteme” (146) , as explicated in the first section
of the book. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Buddhist texts
themselves as a simulation of practice; that is, text as ritual. Here Rambelli
explores the obvious parallels with Austin’s theory of performative utterances

The fifth and final chapter, “The empire and the signs: Buddhism, semiotics,
and cultural identity in Japanese history,” is an analysis of the influence of
semiotics upon Japanese identity.Beginning with a reintroduction of Roland
Barthes and Empire of Signs, the discussion moves on to the ways in which the
Japanese language has shaped the spirit of the Japanese people (174, focusing
particularly on Zen Buddhism’s ties to Japanese nationalism and jingoism,
particularly the “militaristic and quasi- fascist ideology” of pre -World War
II Japan (180).


Rambelli’s book is ultimately geared more towards those interested in Buddhism
— specifically Esoteric Buddhism —  than to students of semiotics, though
there may be appeal for students of Sanskrit as well. Although specific
theories of semiotics are occasionally mentioned, they are merely incidental
and almost always brief, rather than the focus of any discussion. Instead of a
Buddhist “theory of semiotics,” as indicated by the title, the work is more
accurately an interpretation of Esoteric Buddhism in the spirit of semiotics.
The vast majority of the book is relegated to interpretations of Shingon
texts, including exegeses of exegeses by medieval scholars. Those areas of the
text that are strictly semiotic in nature could be relegated to a
chapter- length essay or journal article.

The text is not entirely devoid of semiotics in the strictest sense. Much of
Rambelli’s discussion of mandala (of which there is quite a bit) is based in
traditional semiotic theories. He notes that the “constitutive, essential
qualities” of the mandala can be represented by a variation on the semiotic
square (see Chandler 106) which he refers to as a “meta- semiotic square,”
contrasting the concepts of “one” and “many” with their oppositions in
“not- one” and “not -many” (73). He returns to the semiotic square at the end
of Chapter Three when discussing the nature of signs in Esoteric Buddhism,
this time contrasting ideas of “endowed with marks” and “devoid of marks”
(124). Further nods to known theories of semiotics include a reference to
mandala as a rigid designator, see Kripke 293, due to it being coextensive
with the “Original” mandala of Buddhist mythology (Rambelli 76). Rambelli also
defers to semiotics when discussing the interpretation of the mandala as an
“esoteric encyclopedia,” (66) referring to Eco’s encyclopedia theory of
reference, an alternative to “dictionary” theories of Putnam, among others
(see Eco 1986, Chapter 2).

The secondary importance of semiotics as such is a double- edged sword in
terms of
comprehensibility. Though the text is easily accessible in terms of semiotics
for anyone with a basic introductory or superficial level of familiarity with
the subject and its key aspects, the bulk of the Buddhist material is
extremely dense and therefore very difficult for anyone without a background
in Esoteric Buddhism. The book, then, is of limited importance for those
interested in semiotics. However, for students or enthusiasts of Buddhism,
especially the Esoteric school, it has the potential to be an extremely
enlightening and informative piece of work.


Abe, Ryuichi. 1999. “The weaving of mantra”. New York: Columbia University

Austin, J. L. 1975. “How to do things with words”. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1975.

Chandler, Daniel. 2007. “Semiotics: the basics”, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.

Eco, Umberto. 1979. “A theory of semiotics”. Bloomington: Indiana University

Eco, Umberto. 1986. “Semiotics and the philosophy of language”. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press.

Kripke, Saul. 2008. Naming and necessity. In A.P. Martinich (ed.), “The
Philosophy of Language”, 5th edn. New York: Oxford University Press.

Peirce, Charles S. 1985. Logic as semiotic: the theory of signs. In Robert E.
Innis (ed.), “Semiotics: an Introductory Anthology”. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press.

Suzuki, D. T. 1963. “Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism”. New York: Schocken.


J. L. Barnes is a philosophy and linguistics graduate currently residing in
the Louisville, KY area. Areas of interest include semantics, philosophy of
language, semiotics, and the relationship between music and language.

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