Lakṣaṇa (P. lakkhaṇa T. mtshan nyid མཚན་ཉིད་; C. xiang; J. sō; K. sang 相) refers to either the defining characteristics or main characterics of something. The term is used in a variety of contexts in Buddhist philosophy. It is commonly translated as "mark", "sign", "characteristics", etc.
As defining characteristics or definition
When used in the sense of a definition or defining characteristics within Buddhist philosophy, it is said that a correct and useful definition must avoid the three faults of being too narrow, too broad or impossible.
For example, in the case of a vase:
- the definition is something like "narrow-necked, bulbous object capable of holding water"
- the name (or definiendum) is "vase"
- and the basis of definition (or illustration) is the particular instance, such as the green vase on your table.
Importance within Buddhist scholarship
Contemporary scholar Mattia Salvini states:
- Buddhist scholasticism is in principle conservative, relying on sets of precise definitions (lakṣaṇa) that show remarkable uniformity throughout different systems. Recognizing the defining traits of the dharmas is “higher cognition” (prajñā) and is therefore relevant for both soteriology and ontology. To those coming from a different philosophical background, the idea of relying on succinct definitions in order to elicit a cognition of the nature of reality may appear odd. We must remember, though, that the “cognitive shift” from ignorance to its elimination is mediated by a gradual process of training in discipline and attention, for which clear, unambiguous, and brief definitions might create a workable system of references. What may appear as scholastic technicality is in fact linked to the broader Buddhist context of the philosophical texts we are trying to comprehend. Furthermore, Buddhist technical terms in Sanskrit are precisely that—technical terms, thrice removed from their approximate English renderings due to idiom, etymology, and contextual sense (more often than not, the three being closely connected).
- trilakṣaṇa - the three marks of existence
- caturlakṣaṇa - four characteristics of conditioned phenomena