Author  IITBT

This month we are considering the rather elusive term wuxiang 無相, which in translations from Sanskrit typically reflects alakṣaṇa, animitta, or nirnimitta. This is a rich term that brings up many interesting issues involved in Buddhist translation. The term is intrinsically elusive: pointing to the very inadequacy of our minds and of language to represent the world accurately, it refers to a realm of experience that is beyond most of us. It is, needless to say, not a common topic of discussion in modern Anglophone culture. Some standard translations include “marklessness” or “signlessness.” The Digital Dictionary of Buddhism suggests the following alternatives: “without attributes,” “lacking characteristics,” “the absence of perceptual attributes,” “lacking form or shape,” and finally “featureless.”

These options are all rather abstract and somewhat unnatural in English. Indeed, when we asked Dharma Master Jin Rou for her reflections on the term, she responded that she had little to say, that the term “gives me a headache.” Although she has no solution for how we translate the term, she does point out some issues with the translation of “mark” for xiang: “‘Marks’ is an old-fashioned word to me. Folks used to say that I have my mother’s mark. I prefer ‘characteristics’ or ‘attributes.’ I see ‘marks’ often used in BTTS publications, but it sounds strange.”

Without offering a final answer, three reflections explore the term’s nuance and resonance. Petra Lamberson, PhD candidate at UC Berkeley and a fellow at IITBT, discusses the Sanskrit terms. Justin Howe, a fellow at DRBU and a PhD student in Clemson University’s Rhetoric program, draws on his knowledge of Chinese to explore the term’s meaning. Finally, DRBU Professor Emeritus Ernie Waugh offers his philosophical musings on what “signlessness” might denote (if it could). 

“All things are, in reality, alakṣaṇa”

Petra Lamberson

The term wuxiang 無相 translates the Sanskrit alakṣaa or animitta (also ānimitta, nirnimitta), negations of terms that mean something like “characteristic,” “sign,” “mark,” or even “image” (nimitta). In some contexts there is a difference between these two terms: an alakṣaa is a characteristic or trait possessed by something; a nimitta is the perceivable sign (perhaps “indication”) of a characteristic (whether falsely or correctly indicating it). For example, in Vasubandhu’s Pañcaskandhaka,(1) an explication of the five skandhas, the skandha of perception (or perhaps better, “ideation” or “conception”; sajñā) is defined as “the grasping of the sign of a sense object” (viṣaya-nimitta-udgrahaa). I might see a body of water one day, a water-nimitta, and find that there is indeed a lake there. Another day, I again see a water-nimitta, but find that it was only a mirage. The nimitta was there, but not the lakṣaa.

In the three-turnings scheme of the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra,(2) in which the Buddha’s teaching is said to come to us in “three turnings” of the wheel of Dharma, the second turning is that of the alakṣaṇa wheel of Dharma (alakṣaṇa-dharma-cakra). After the first turning of the four noble truths, wherein dharmas (i.e., the four noble truths) are taught to exist, the second turning, associated with Prajñāpāramitā and Madhyamaka thought, teaches—according to the Saṃdhinirmocana—that dharmas do not exist (whether this is an accurate representation is another discussion!). This is also known as the teaching of emptiness (śunyatā), or the teaching that all dharmas are devoid of inherent nature (niḥsvabhāva, asvabhāva). The third turning is that of the “well-differentiated” (suvibhakta) teaching, represented by the Saṃdhinirmocana and the Yogācāra tradition, wherein the Buddha teaches the three natures (trisvabhāva). 

(You may have heard of the distinction between provisional and definitive [neyārtha and nītārtha] teachings; for the Saṃdhinirmocana the third turning is definitive, while the first two are provisional.) Alakṣaṇa, then, we can associate with emptiness and the lack of an independent, inherent nature or essence.

All things are, in reality, alakṣaṇa.

And some things are also animitta. In his commentary to the abovementioned Pañcaskandhaka, Sthiramati explains that some very special objects (if we can call them that) are animitta, without a perceptible sign. One such thing is…I’ll bet you can guess…nirvāṇa! There is nothing nirvāṇa is accompanied by that one can pick up with one’s conceptualizing perception. As Nāgārjuna said, “the stilling of conceptual proliferation (prapañca) is tranquility [i.e., nirvāṇa]” (Mūlamadhyamakakārika 25.24).(3)

One of the other “objects” that Sthiramati lists as animitta, or lacking a mark or sign, is the essence or inherent nature of an object (vastusvarūpa). This means that, though we perceive nimittas all over the place, the true nature (svarūpa, basically synonymous here with svabhāva) of the thing that is “with nimitta” (sanimitta) has no perceivable sign at all. Can we say, then, that anything “real,” anything that is really there really, has no mark? Is nimitta-less? If you perceive it, it’s not real. Could we use this as another angle for reflecting on the teaching that everything is empty, śūnya? The inside-out view, if you will?

The best thing I think I can leave you with is a quote from Nāgārjuna’s “Praise to the Dharma Realm [Buddhist University]” (Dharma-dhātu-stotra): “The dharma realm is alakṣaṇa” (dharmadhātur alakṣaṇaḥ).

Don’t worry; they give out diplomas anyway.


1. For an English translation, see Artemis B. Engle’s The Inner Science of Buddhist Practice: Vasubandhu’s Summary of the Five Heaps with Commentary by Sthiramati.

2. For an English translation, see The Scripture on the Explication of Underlying Meaning translated by John P. Keenan.

3.  Found in Nāgārjuna’s famous Madhyamaka text, Verses on the Middle Way. For an English translation, see Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way by Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura.

“I can only speculate”

Justin Howe

The term wuxiang 無相 always scares me—or rather, xiang 相 scares me because of its technical complexity. You could probably write a dissertation on just a portion of the commentarial tradition concerning xiang. To empty it out with wuxiang is even more difficult! I have a background in Western philosophy, and I believe there may be some similarities between xiang and certain Western concepts, but I wouldn’t push that comparison too far.

I find it helpful to reflect on two things. First, xiang 相 is literally an eye 目 (mu) and a tree 木 (mu). It basically refers to sense experience. Second, xiang 相 is part of xiang 想, “thought,” which shows an eye and a tree sitting on the mind 心 (xin). When the eye sees a tree, a thought forms in the mind.

Then xiang 相 seems to refer to a concept we hold rather than something inherent in the world. It’s not so much that we see a tree as we allow ourselves to make a distinction between one part of our visual field and another. That distinction is, or is the result of, xiang 相. Those who live and act through wuxiang 無相 either do not make such distinctions or, making them, do not attach to them. But since I’m not such a person, I can only speculate.


Ernie Waugh

I learned from Wittgenstein that ideas are entirely words. They are not the product of the disembodied Platonic ideen floating in the stratosphere.(1) In the Laṇkāvatāra Sūtra, Red Pine fashions one of the Buddha’s verses as follows: 

All sutras speak of projection, 

But never get free of words.

Because apart from language,

There is nothing of which to speak.(2)

Words fill our minds. Words are signs. Words come in many languages. Signs for the hard of hearing function as words.(3) An octagonal red stop sign embeds the words “Stop until the way is clear.” How can we find the way to clear our minds?

In meditation we apprehend moments of a ground of awareness where no words exist. Heidegger writes of a positive state of awareness to pursue “indwelling in releasement to that which regions.”(4) With more practice we can find more moments, of space, or not.

The Buddha has thirty-two marks; the Buddha has no marks. Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Because it exists, it doesn’t; because it doesn’t, it does.(5) As DRBU Professor Doug Powers often emphasizes, countless contradictions such as these, especially in Chan/Zen, can be understood as devices to stop the mind so that we can see the gap, the moment, before it starts again. Or they may be acknowledgements of that ground of awareness where distinctions cease.(6)

So much for the one who sees. But what about the seen?  

A monk asked, “What is the Buddha within the city?” 

Dagui said, “In the ten-thousand-person crowd, not leaving signs.”(7)

The Buddha had features, he had characteristics, but nothing remarkable. There were no marks.


1. Professor Wallace Matson of UC Berkeley translated the sphere of Platonic ideas, like “chairness,” with the German “Ideen.”

2. Lankavatara Sutra, translated by Red Pine (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2012), p. 213.

3. DRBU student Caden Hill reminded me of sign language as relevant to this discussion.

4. Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking (New York: Harper  Perennial, 1966), p 82. “Regions” as a verb may be a bad English translation of the German, but I like it. I’m indebted to Martin Verhoeven for knowledge of this book.

5. Lankavatara Sutra, Translated by Red Pine (Berkeley: Counterpoint,  2012), p 216.

6. Kittisaro and Thanissara offer a better discussion of these ideas. They write, “The myriad distinctions in our experience of the world seem so obviously real, but that is only the apparent reality…. Form and emptiness seem different, but they are actually ‘not two,’ the differentiation melting into the serene gaze of non dual suchness.” Kittisaro and Thanissara, Listening to the Heart (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2014), p. 167.

7. Andy Ferguson, Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000), p. 402.