- A Buddhist Theory of Semiotics: Signs, Ontology, and Salvation in Japanese Esoteric Buddhism by Fabio Rambelli
Buddhism has been studied from many different perspectives, with approaches ranging from the philological and doctrinal to those that focus on ritual, material culture, and diverse anthropological and sociopolitical concerns. Fabio Rambelli’s A Buddhist Theory of Semiotics broadens this scope even further by analyzing one Buddhist tradition from the perspective of semiotics. As is the case with any approach, the semiotic study of Buddhism has its own particular strengths and limitations; both are clearly manifested in this volume.
The book builds on doctrinal texts of the Shingon school—both the kogi and shingi branches—by Kūkai (774–835), Kakuban (1095–1143), Raiyu (1226–1304), and Raihō (1279–1330?). Rambelli focuses on discussions in these texts of signs and their relationship to meaning, seeking to uncover the logic of Shingon’s epistemological and ontological system. The main premise of that system, Rambelli points out, is the notion that Buddha Mahāvairocana, or Buddha’s Dharma body, is co-substantial with the universe itself; in other words, Mahāvairocana is identified as the physical stuff of which the universe consists. Shingon’s second fundamental tenet holds that this cosmic Buddha employs all the forms and sounds of the universe to preach, both for its own pleasure and in order to bring salvation to others. In this grand vision the universe appears as a Dharma realm in which all forms and sounds are manifestations of the Buddha-mind—a salvific machine produced by the preaching of Mahāvairocana. This cosmology has often been described as “pantheistic” (p. xvii), but Rambelli analyzes it first and foremost as “pansemiotic” (e.g., p. xvi). [End Page 259]
In Shingon’s pansemiotic universe, Rambelli argues, all dharmas appear as “doubles, examples, or samples of everything else” (p. 14), or as condensations of the Dharma body. All dharmas have their source in Mahāvairocana as signs that do not merely refer to, but physically embody, ultimate reality in material form. In this conception all forms and sounds are microcosms, each coextensive with the entirety of the Dharma body’s macrocosm. Rambelli stresses that in this cosmology the universe is a realm of both undifferentiated oneness or identity, and, at the same time, endlessly variegated multiplicity. There are a multitude of dharmas, and they are all doubles of Mahāvairocana; hence the many are one and the one is many.
Imposing its own order on the riotous multitude of dharmas, Shingon constructed an elaborate system of correlations that was “strikingly structured, limited, and predictable” (p. 112). On the basis of this system, individual Shingon lineages created transmissions that selected specific forms and sounds of particular “condensed” potency, explained the place of these forms and sounds within Mahāvairocana’s world of signs, designed ritual procedures for their use, and passed down this new knowledge by means of formal initiations. In particular, the Shingon system hinged on a small number of “macrosigns” that were used to organize and legitimize this body of knowledge. Rambelli mentions the five-element stupa (gorintō) and the mandala as two such macrosigns; arguably one could understand language, and notably the language of Brahmā (bongo) and its siddhaṃ script, as another macrosign central to the Shingon episteme.
The core of Rambelli’s book consists of detailed analyses of the semiotics of Shingon’s two most productive macrosigns: the mandala and the mantra. The bulk of the transmissions of Shingon’s many lineages concerned lineage-specific details regarding the ritual manipulation of mandalas and mantras for particular ends. Shingon lineages produced few texts that philosophized about the nature of mandalas and mantras per se, concentrating instead on creating, transmitting, and practicing specific instantiations of mandala- and mantra-based semiosis. As a result, Shingon transmissions have often been dismissed as random fabrications, devoid of any rational logic. Rambelli disagrees and looks beyond these instantiations to retrieve the semiotic structure on which the...