The primal point

Arthur Green points out that in Kabbalah, wisdom (Hokhmah) is also primordial teaching (like Buddhist dharma) which is a ‘twin process’ with God’s creation of the world.

As the primal point of existence, Hokhmah is symbolized by the yod, the smallest of the letters, the first point from which all the other letters will be written. Here all of Torah, the text and the commentary added to it in every generation—indeed all of human wisdom—is contained within a single yod.

— Green (2004, 40)

Knowledge is a single point, but the ignorant have multiplied it.

— Islamic hadith (“tradition”) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad or the Imám Alí

‘The ignorant’ here includes you and me and all sentient beings subject to explicit knowledge, whose complexity conceals the implicit knowledge by representing it as multiplex. As Voltaire is said to have remarked in a different context, ‘the multitude of books is making us ignorant.’

Another hadith quotes the Imám Alí as saying that

All that is in the world is in the Qur’an, and all that is in the Qur’an is condensed in the first chapter of the Book, and all that is in the first chapter is in the basmala [first verse], and all that is in the basmala is in the bā’ [first letter, ب], and I am the point under the bā’.

(Lawson 2012, 102)

We might read this as a reference to the extreme compression of meaning found in turning signs. They seem to have a magical quality of turning meaning inside out, as it were, so that a single verse says it all: rather than serving as one of many particles in a vast System, it seems to be the point around which the System revolves – the I of the cyclone, in which Author and Reader are one with Scripture. As Northrop Frye puts it (1982, 208-9), ‘Ideally, every sentence is the key to the whole Bible … every sentence is a kind of linguistic monad.’

The Zohar (1:21a) speaks of ‘primordial light prevailing on the first day’; in the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi El’azar said that ‘With the light created by the blessed holy one on the first day, one could gaze from one end of the universe to the other’ (ZP I.159).

The whole Truth

In his 1818 preface to Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Arthur Schopenhauer told readers that his whole book was really ‘a single thought,’ which he could find no shorter way of imparting. Despite the linear order imposed by the book format, the real order connecting the parts was ‘organic’:

every part supports the whole just as much as it is supported by the whole; a connexion in which no part is first and no part last, in which the whole gains in clearness from every part, and even the smallest part cannot be fully understood until the whole has been first understood.’

— Schopenhauer (1859, xii)

His advice to the reader, therefore, was to read the book twice. My advice to the Ideal Reader of Turning Signs is to take the whole thought of the Obverse as context for every point to be presented on the Reverse (and here in the Universe).

Here we have another turn of the hermeneutic circle. But if the ‘single thought’ of the book cannot be expressed in a single sentence, or indeed in any shorter form than the book itself, how can any actual reader see it as a single thought? Can you really see it all at once? This question applies to the meaning cycle in all its guises, because it arises from the very nature of signs, which according to Peirce are of virtually unlimited size and complexity.

Giving to the word sign the full scope that reasonably belongs to it for logical purposes, a whole book is a sign; and a translation of it is a replica of the same sign. A whole literature is a sign.

— Peirce, EP2:303

Nor is the question limited in scope to books, or even to language in all its forms. Every sign is ‘connected with the “Truth,” i.e. the entire Universe of being’ (Peirce, EP2:303). A complete and explicit model of the connections would take up no less meaning space than that Universe itself, ‘perfused with signs.’ But a model working implicitly can be represented by the smallest possible sign, which will then show simply the wholeness of the “Truth.”


The body of the world which is broken into pieces is the body of the god. As the Christians say: others bequeath to their heirs their property, but he bequeathed himself, that is the flesh and blood of his body. The fall is the Fall into Division of the one universal man.

— N.O. Brown (1966, 21)

Literally, the Bible is a gigantic myth, a narrative extending over the whole of time from creation to apocalypse, unified by a body of recurring imagery that ‘freezes’ into a single metaphor cluster, the metaphors all being identified with the body of the Messiah, the man who is all men, the totality of logoi who is one Logos, the grain of sand that is the world.

— Frye (1982, 224)


A thing may be said to be wherever it acts; but the notion that a particle is absolutely present in one part of space and absolutely absent from all the rest of space is devoid of all foundation.

— Peirce (CP 1.38, c. 1890)

According to Swimme and Berry (1992, 28),

to speak of a proton as a separate particle restricted to a certain patch of space-time is to speak of its microphase mode of being, a valid though limited understanding. The macrophase mode or presence of the proton includes all particles with which it is correlated, which includes all those particles it has interacted with at any time in the past. Since the universe bloomed from a seed point, this means that a full understanding of a proton requires a full understanding of the universe. The fireball manifests itself as a quintillion separate particles and their interactions, but the nature of each of these particles speaks of the universe as indivisible whole. No part of the present can be isolated from any other part of the present or the past or the future.


The shorter the scripture, the more it says to the deep reader. For instance the very compactness of the Sefer Yetzirah contributed greatly to its seminal nature as the primary source of so much Kabbalistic symbolism. ‘Everyone found in the book more or less what he was looking for,’ as Scholem (1962, 34) says. Likewise you can find your turning symbol in the fragments of Heraclitus, the Tao Te Ching, the Gospel of Thomas, or Dogen’s ‘GenjoKoan’, if you read them recreatively.

For Thomas Traherne it was the Cross: ‘There may we see the most Distant Things in Eternity united: all Mysteries at once couched together and Explained’ (First Century 58). The Cross is, of course, the point of Crossing, or of fixation or final determination – or, as the icon of extension, the monad pulled in the four directions at once, the point turned inside out.

Here it is

There is nowhere the knowledge of the enlightened does not reach. Why? There is not a single sentient being who is not fully endowed with the knowledge of the enlightened; it is just that because of deluded notions, erroneous thinking, and attachments, they are unable to realize it. If they would get rid of deluded notions, then universal knowledge, spontaneous knowledge, and unobstructed knowledge would become manifest. It is as if there were a great scripture, equal in extent to a billion-world universe, in which are written all the things of the universe.… Though this scripture is equal in measure to a billion-world universe, yet it rests entirely in a single atom; and as this is so of one atom, it is also true of all atoms. Then suppose someone with clear and comprehensive knowledge, who has fully developed the celestial eye, sees these scriptures inside atoms, not benefiting sentient beings at all, and with this thought— ‘I should, by energetic power, break open those atoms and release those scriptures so that they can benefit all sentient beings’— then employs appropriate means to break open the atoms and release the great scriptures, to enable all sentient beings to benefit greatly. Similarly, the knowledge of the enlightened, infinite and unobstructed, universally able to benefit all, is fully inherent in the bodies of sentient beings; but the ignorant, because of clinging to deluded notions, do not know of it, are not aware of it, and so do not benefit from it. Then the Buddha, with the unimpeded pure clear eye of knowledge, observes all sentient beings in the cosmos and says, ‘How strange! How is it that these sentient beings have the knowledge of the enlightened, but in their folly and confusion do not know it or perceive it? I should teach them the way of the sages and cause them to shed deluded notions and attachments, so that they can see in their own bodies the vast knowledge of the enlightened.’

The Flower Ornament Scripture (Avatamsaka-Sutra), Book XXXVII (Cleary 1993, 190)

One sound preaching the Dharma is the arrival of the time.

— Dogen, ‘Bussho’ (Waddell and Abe 2002, 96)


‘A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house,’ said Jesus (Matthew 13:57). And as Peirce said, ‘so it is also with phenomena’: ‘most of us seem to find it difficult to recognize the greatness and wonder of things familiar to us’ (CP 5.65, EP2:158).
This year i’d like to honour some universally familiar things,
recognize the greatness of the artist
who can do that with words and other signs,
and work with the play of wonder all around us
here in our own house.
Let us not be distracted as usual
by the unusual
or the infamies of the famous.


When one bit of dust is raised, it includes the great earth; when one flower opens, the whole world is aroused. When a single moment of thinking is dropped away, the eighty-four thousand afflicting delusions are removed. When one phrase hits our true function, eighty-four thousand Dharma gates are fulfilled. For example, it is like when one pulls the main line and immediately the whole net follows, or when one lifts the collar and the whole cloth quickly comes as well. The one is uncountable, and the uncountable is one. The large manifests within the small, and the small manifests within the large. On one hairtip, the sanctuary of the jewel king appears; within an atom, the great Dharma wheel turns. Great assembly, please tell me, how does the sanctuary of the jewel king appear; how does the great Dharma wheel turn?

Dogen, EK 6.458