All thought is in signs.
— Peirce (EP1:24)
All things have no signs:
This is the real body of Buddha.
Avatamsaka Sutra (Cleary 1984, 380)
The usage of the sign ‘sign’ in this sutra seems to differ from the Peircean or semiotic usage deployed in Turning Signs. Thich Nhat Hanh (2017) associates it with distinction-making, and ‘signlessness’ with interbeing and impermanence:
A sign is what characterizes the appearance of something, its form. If we recognize things based on their sign, we may think that this cloud is different from that cloud, the oak tree is not the acorn, the child is not the parent. At the level of relative truth, these distinctions are helpful. But they may distract us from seeing the true nature of life, which transcends these signs. The Buddha said, “Where there is a sign, there is always deception.” With the insight of interbeing we can see there is a profound connection between this cloud and that cloud, between the acorn and the oak, between parent and child.
— Hanh, The Art of Living (p. 45)
All things have no signs is a sign, namely a proposition. Is it true?

If that cloud up there has a sign, its form has a name, a label. Semiotically, the subject of the proposition has a predicate attached to it. But this attachment is deceptive. Even if we don’t call it (recognize it as) a “cloud,” we might see it as a particular thing having a visual form, but that momentary form is in no way essential to it, doesn’t really belong to it. It is only a “cloud” – or whatever we call it in whatever language we are speaking – in relation to us, to our bodyminds. It has no name or form that is essential to it, just as you have no essential self.

On the other side, that cloud is ‘a phenomenal manifestation of ourselves,’ just like any and everything which is present to us. It doesn’t have a real name or sign, but it may be a sign, of rain for instance, or of the direction of the wind up there. Likewise we might say that it is a form of water, and see the ‘profound connection’ between it and other bodies of water, including the contents of our own skin-bags. This is how we read the signatures of all things: we read them as signs, not as having signs or fixed identities. In genuine mindfulness we see through signs just as we see through deceptions.

How do we do that? Here is Dogen’s Zen advice:

For practicing Zen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Put aside all involvements and suspend all affairs. Do not think good or bad. Do not judge true or false. Give up the operations of mind, intellect, and consciousness; stop measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views. Have no designs on becoming a buddha. How could that be limited to sitting or lying down?
— ‘Fukanzazengi’ (Leighton and Okumura 2004, 533)
Is there any connection between this practice and phaneroscopy? Peirce used the word phaneron ‘to denote the total content of any one consciousness (for any one is substantially any other), the sum of all we have in mind in any way whatever, regardless of its cognitive value’ (EP2:362). Could it be that ‘the phaneron’ is another name for ‘the real body of Buddha,’ or for what Dogen called ‘One Bright Pearl’?

Can this question be investigated?

The investigator would have to practice both phaneroscopy and zazen, and be fluent in both Peircean and Buddhist terminologies.

Is it possible to investigate such a question while practicing zazen or phaneroscopy?

Fayan, Great Zen Master of Qingliang Monastery, said, “If you see that all forms are beyond forms, you don’t see the Tathagata.”
These words by Fayan are words of seeing the Buddha. When we examine these words, they stand out and extend their hands. Listen to his words with your ears. Listen to his words of seeing the Buddha with your eyes. …
See thoroughly that all forms are Tathagata forms and not beyond forms. See the Buddha in this way, make up your mind, realize trust, and maintain these words. Chant these words and become familiar with them.
Thus, keep seeing and hearing these words with your ears and eyes. Have the words drop away in your body, mind, bones, and marrow. Have the words seen through your mountains, rivers, and entire world. This is the practice of studying with buddha ancestors.
Do not think that your own words and actions cannot awaken your own eye. Turned by your own turning words, you see and drop away your own turning of buddha ancestors. This is the everyday activity of buddha ancestors.
— Dogen, SBGZ ‘Kembutsu’ (Tanahashi 2010, 597-8)


The pain of inhabiting this body
and the pleasure of inhabiting this body
are equally signs of life.

Is life itself a sign?
Who reads it? Why?

The universe of meaning
is only one of the three.
In the one there is no other.
In the other there is x.
In the third you can say something.
It might even be true, for all we know.


Every moment has its momentum.
Something behind it has just been determined,
and something before it is about to be.
— if we think of time as a thing in motion, like an arrow.
But what if time is the motion itself?
Is the past then before and the future behind?

And what if time is the continuity of presence?

Phenoscopy analyzes ‘whatever is before the mind in any way, as percept, image, experience, thought, habit, hypothesis, etc.’ (Peirce).
What does it mean for something (X) to be ‘before the mind’? Most obviously, X can be an object of your attention, something you are “minding” or conscious of. The sound of the rain, say. But there must be other ways of being ‘before the mind,’ – or ‘in the mind,’ as Peirce sometimes put it. He included ‘thoughts’ and ‘habits’ in his ‘whatever’ list, but you cannot be directly conscious of either.

Thought is often supposed to be something in consciousness; but on the contrary, it is impossible ever actually to be directly conscious of thought. It is something to which consciousness will conform, as a writing may conform to it. Thought is rather of the nature of a habit, which determines the suchness of that which may come into existence, when it does come into existence. Of such a habit one may be conscious of a symptom; but to speak of being directly conscious of a habit, as such, is nonsense.

— Peirce, EP2:269

You can be indirectly conscious of a habit, by using a sign to refer to it, as this sentence has just done. The sign at the moment has to be a replica of a legisign. But habits – including the habits or “laws” of nature – are themselves legisigns. They determine the momentum of the moment by determining what comes into (or goes out of) existence at this time – just as the Thought determines where your thinking and feeling are presently going.

The only kind of sign that can embody this momentum is the argument: for ‘“urging” is the mode of representation proper to Arguments’ (Peirce, EP2:293). Likewise some kind of urging seems to be the mode of life itself, driving all the creatures in its urgent grip like ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ (Dylan Thomas).

Every moment has its momentum.

Is that a fact?

A proposition is a statement of fact.

A Fact may be defined as the Secondness which consists between anything and a possibility, or Firstness, realized in that thing.

— Peirce, EP2:271

A proposition is a symbolic Dicisign or informational sign, which ‘must profess to refer or relate to something as having a real being independently of the representation of it as such’ (EP2:275).

Thus every kind of proposition is either meaningless or has a real Secondness as its object. This is a fact that every reader of philosophy should constantly bear in mind, translating every abstractly expressed proposition into its precise meaning in reference to an individual experience.

— Peirce, EP2:279

In fact, then, meaning can only grow from the ground of experience, from reading the time of your life.

They said to him, ‘Tell us who you are so that we may believe in you.’
He said to them, ‘You read the face of the sky and of the earth, but you have not recognized the one who is before you, and you do not know how to read this moment.’

Gospel of Thomas 91 (tr. Lambdin)

Real meaning and true guidance grow in the soil of experience as ‘the total cognitive result of living’.

What you plant well can’t be uprooted.
What you hold well can’t be taken away.

Cultivated in yourself, virtue becomes real.
Cultivated in your family, virtue grows.
Cultivated in your village. virtue multiplies.
Cultivated in your state, virtue abounds.
Cultivated in your world, virtue is everywhere.
Thus view others through yourself,
view families through your family,
view villages through your village,
view states through your state,
view other worlds through your world.

How do you know what other worlds are like?
Through this one.

— Daodejing 54 (Red Pine, repunctuated)


‘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.

Peircing Dogen

Dogen’s Genjokoan (‘Actualizing the Fundamental Point’) is Peirce’s phaneron.

It contains past and present, the three worlds, the ten directions, delusions, enlightenment, all buddhas, sentient beings, birth, and death.

— Nishiari Bokusan (Weitsman, Wenger and Okumura 2011, 12)

The Firstness of the phaneron is punctuated by its Secondness, while the two are married and mediated by its Thirdness. These elements of the phaneron do not obstruct one another as they collude in composing the interbeing of all phenomena.

A single total experience

There is only one phaneron, and there is no difference between this and the experience of this. In its Firstness, the buddha-nature is the buddha.

All buddhas are realization; thus all things are realization. Yet, no buddhas or things have the same characteristics; none have the same mind. Although there are no identical characteristics or minds, at the moment of your actualization, numerous actualizations manifest without hindrance. At the moment of your manifestation, numerous manifestations come forth without touching one another. This is the straightforward teaching of the ancestors.
Do not use the measure of oneness or difference as the criterion of your study. Thus, it is said, “To reach one thing is to reach myriad things.” To reach one thing does not take away its inherent characteristics. Just as reaching does not make one thing separate, it does not make one thing not separate. To try to make it not different is a hindrance. When you allow reaching to be unhindered by reaching, one reaching is myriad reachings. One reaching is one thing. Reaching one thing is reaching myriad things.

— Dogen, ‘Gabyo’ (Tanahashi 2010, 444)

To ‘reach one thing,’ 法 通 (ippō tsū), is ‘the total experience of a single thing’ in Hee-Jin Kim’s translation:

‘The total experience of a single thing’ does not deprive a thing of its own unique particularity. It places a thing neither against others nor against none. To place a thing against none is another form of dualistic obstruction. When total experience is realized unobstructedly, the total experience of a single thing is the same as the total experience of all things. A single total experience is a single thing in its totality. The total experience of a single thing is one with that of all things.

— Dogen, SBGZ ‘Gabyo’ (Kim 1975, 66)

In the Firstness of its Thirdness, there is no difference between these two translations of ‘Gabyo’, or between the total experience of a single thing and 法 通.

For Dogen, the enlightened person was adept at appropriating the semantic possibilities of ordinary words in order to express and act out the extraordinary, and even the ineffable, according to the situation. Dogen’s characteristic way of thinking here in connection with the use of language was that the meaning of an ordinary word was totally exerted so that there was nothing but that particular meaning throughout the universe at that given moment. This was the idea of the total exertion of a single thing, which was central to Dogen’s entire thought.

— Kim (1975, 88)

The total exertion of a single meaning is a pure expression of what Peirce called thought, which comes naturally to children learning to use language, before they learn about the difference between words and meaning, or thought and expression.

The child, with his wonderful genius for language, naturally looks upon the world as chiefly governed by thought; for thought and expression are really one. As Wordsworth truly says, the child is quite right in this; he is an “eye among the blind,”
“On whom those truths do rest
Which we are toiling all our lives to find.”
But as he grows up, he loses this faculty; and all through his childhood he has been stuffed with such a pack of lies, which parents are accustomed to think are the most wholesome food for the child,— because they do not think of his future,— that he begins real life with the utmost contempt for all the ideas of his childhood; and the great truth of the immanent power of thought in the universe is flung away along with the lies.

— Peirce, MS 464-5 (CP 1.349, 1903)

Hence the advice of all the sages that realization of this great truth, or of the buddha-nature or the Kingdom of Heaven or the Firstness of Thirdness, depends on learning from little children.

Phenoscopy 5

All things and all phenomena are just one mind; nothing is excluded or unrelated.

— Dogen, ‘Bendowa’ (Tanahashi 2010, 15)

Everthing is related
to everything else. More or less.
All right. But do you see, feel or know
how this relates to that?
Do you relate to that relation?

Or as we say, Does it make any sense?

Sense-making is semiosis,
the Thirdness of things,
triadic relations
waking up the wind
making up the mind,
winding up the wake.

Phenoscopy 4

The object of study in phenoscopy is any phenomenon (appearing), or all phenomena, or the phenomenon (as Peirce often put it), or the phaneron (the term coined by Peirce when he became dissatisfied with all of the above). What we are looking for is ‘the elements that are always or very often present in, or along with, whatever is before the mind in any way.’ Studying the phenomenon in this way, we can dismiss from our attention those aspects of the phenomenon which are unique to it; but uniqueness itself is more ‘elementary,’ being present in all unique phenomena – in every phenomenon which differs from every other in some way. (This difference or otherness, this being not something else, is the Secondness of the object, which may be more or less ‘genuine’ relative to other objects.)

This phenoscopic practice of dismissing some aspects of an object from our attention in order to focus on others is called prescinding: in the case above, we prescind uniqueness from the unique phenomenon because it is more elementary, being present in any and every unique phenomenon – and anything appearing as a phenomenon must be unique in some way. This practice may also be called ‘prescissive abstraction,’ or even simply ‘abstraction,’ except that the latter word has other uses, so that we must rely on the context to clarify exactly what practice we are referring to.

Phenoscopy being analytical and prescissive in this way, there are some common distinctions we can dismiss from our attention in order to focus on the more universal elements of the phenomenon. For example, we can dismiss the usual distinction between “appearance” and “reality.” We are accustomed to thinking that things are not always what they appear to be; but here we are attending only to the appearance itself, not asking whether it is the mere appearance or representation of “something” other than itself. We also drop the typical distinction between a “thing” and our experience of it. The phenomenon simply appears, or ‘is before the mind’: those expressions are two ways of saying the same thing. If the expression ‘before the mind’ is too suggestive of difference between the mind and the thing ‘before’ it, we can say instead ‘in the mind,’ or not mention “mind” at all; but no verbal expression is quite free of irrelevant suggestions, so we must be ready to improvise with language if we are to talk about phenoscopy at all.

Phenoscopy 3

Getting back to that crow i heard (Phenoscopy 2):

Actually i’m only guessing that the sound i heard came from a crow. For all i know, it could have been made by some other animal, or could even have originated inside my head, or in my ears, like the constant rhythmic swishing sound of my blood in circulation. (Apparently most people don’t hear this all the time, as i do, but you can probably imagine what i mean.)

What i can say for sure is that the sound was an event in a universe of events. This makes it different from a color, for instance, which is not an event like a flash of light or a sudden change of color (say from red to green). A sound is inherently temporal, while a color, abstracted from any colored object, is eternal.

Theoretically, of course, we can say that both sounds and colors are vibrations whose frequencies account for their perceived qualities, and vibration necessarily takes time. We humans are always trying to explain things in this way, just as i explained the sound i heard by making a hypothesis that a crow made it. But explanations are signs, and highly complex signs at that. The sign is a very different phenomenon from a sound, or a color, as experienced. Signs inhabit a universe that is both qualitative and temporal: they don’t function as signs unless they are interpreted, which takes time. Any functioning whatsoever takes time as well as place.

To actually experience the pure quality of a sound, you have to set aside all such explanations. Try listening for awhile to the sonic universe, the audiverse, without trying to name the sounds according to (your guesses at) their causes. This forces their Firstness and their Secondness to the foreground while relegating their Thirdness (and any meaning they might have) to the background. (The Canadian composer Murray Schafer called this ‘ear cleaning,’ in a booklet by that name.)

Why would you want to engage in such a practice? Your purpose could be contemplative, meditative, spiritual, scientific, philosophical or all or none of the above. Peirce engaged in his phenomenology, or phaneroscopy, because he was a logician and needed to clarify what was truly elementary about anything that anyone could think, sense or experience. For me, it’s a way of getting back in touch with what’s actually happening all around and within me, instead of taking most of it for granted, as we all habitually (and necessarily) do. Writing about it like this doesn’t make my experience accessible to you, but it might suggest ways of paying closer attention to your own experience. That’s what i hope for, anyway.