The Three Doors of Liberation

From Thay's book, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching

The Three Dharma Seals are the keys we can use to enter the Three Doors of Liberation – emptiness (shunyata) signlessness (animitta), and aimlessness (apranihita). All schools of Buddhism accept the teaching of The Three Doors of Liberation. These Three Doors are sometimes called the Three Concentrations. When we enter these doors, we dwell in concentration and are liberated from fear, confusion, and sadness.

The First Door of Liberation is emptiness, shunyata. Emptiness always means empty of something. A cup is empty of water. A bowl is empty of soup. We are empty of a separate, independent self. We cannot be by ourselves alone. We can only inter-be with everything else in the cosmos. The practice is to nourish the insight into emptiness all day long. Wherever we go, we touch the nature of emptiness in everything we contact. We look deeply at the table, the blue sky, our friend, the mountain, the river, our anger, and our happiness and see that these are all empty of a separate self. When we touch these things deeply, we see the interbeing and interpenetrating nature of all that is. Emptiness does not mean nonexistence. It means Interdependent Co-Arising, impermanence and nonself.

When we first hear about emptiness, we feel a little frightened. But after practicing for a while, we see that things do exist, only in a different way than we'd thought. Emptiness is the Middle Way between existent and nonexistent. The beautiful flower does not become empty when it fades and dies. It is already empty, in its essence. Looking deeply, we see that the flower is made of non-flower elements – light, space, clouds, earth, and consciousness. It is empty of a separate, independent self. In the Diamond Sutra, we are taught that a human being is not independent of other species, so to protect humans, we have to protect the non-human species. If we pollute the water and air, the vegetables and minerals, we destroy ourselves. We have to learn to see ourselves in things that we thought were outside of ourselves in order to dissolve false boundaries.

In Vietnam, we say that if one horse is sick, all the horses in the stable will refuse to eat. Our happiness and suffering are the happiness and suffering of others. When we act based on nonself, our actions will be in accord with reality, and we will know what to do and what not to do. When we maintain awareness that we are all linked to each other, this is the Concentration of Emptiness (shunyata samadhi). Reality goes beyond notions of being and nonbeing. To say that the flower exists is not exactly correct, but to say that does not exist is also not correct. True emptiness is called “wondrous being,” because it goes beyond existence and nonexistence.

When we eat, we need to practice the Door of Liberation called emptiness. “I am this food. This food is me.” One day in Canada, I was eating lunch with the Sangha, and a student looked up at me and said, “I am nourishing you.” He was practicing the concentration on emptiness. Every time we look at our plate of food, we can contemplate the impermanent, nonself nature of food. This is deep practice, because it can help us see Interdependent Co-Arising. The one who eats and the food that is eaten are both, by nature, empty. That is why the communication between them is perfect. When we practice walking meditation in a relaxed, peaceful way, it is the same. We step not just for ourselves, but for the world. When we look at others, we see how their happiness and suffering are linked to our happiness and suffering. “Peace begins with me.”

Everyone we cherish will, someday, get sick and die. If we do not practice the meditation on emptiness, when it happens, we will be overwhelmed. The Concentration on Emptiness is a way of staying in touch with life as it is, but it has to be practiced and not just talked about We observe our body and see all the causes and conditions that have brought it to be – our parents, our country, the air, and even future generations. We go beyond time and space, me and mine, and taste true liberation. If we only study emptiness as a philosophy, it will not be a Door of Liberation. Emptiness is a Door of Liberation when we penetrate it deeply and we realize Interdependent Co-Arising and the interbeing nature of everything that is.

The Second Door of Liberation is signlessness, animitta. “Sign” here means an appearance or the object of our perception. When we see something, a sign or image appears to us, and that is what is meant by “lakshana.” If water, for example, is in a square container, its sign is “squareness.” If in a round container, its sign is “roundness.” When we open the freezer and take out some ice, the sign of that water is solid. Chemists call water “H2O”. The snow on the mountain and the steam rising form the kettle are also H2O. Whether H2O is round or square, liquid, gaseous, or solid depends on circumstances. Signs are instruments for our use, but they are not absolute truth, and they can mislead us. The Diamond Sutra says, “Wherever there is a sign, there is deception, illusion.” Perceptions often tell us as much about the perceiver as the object of perception. Appearances can deceive.

Practicing the Concentration on Signlessness is necessary for us to free ourselves. Until we can break through the signs, we cannot touch reality. As long as we are caught by signs – round, square, solid, liquid, gas – we will suffer. Nothing can be described in terms of just one sign. But without signs, we feel anxious. Our fear and attachment come from our being caught in signs. Until we touch the signless nature of things, we will continue to be afraid and to suffer. Before we can touch H2O, we have to let go of signs like squareness, roundness, hardness, heaviness, lightness, up and down. Water is, in itself, neither square nor round nor solid. When we free ourselves from signs, we can enter the heart of reality. But until we can see the ocean in the sky, we are still caught by signs.

The greatest relief is when we break through the barriers of signs and touch the world of signlessness, nirvana. Where should we look to find the world of no signs? Right here in the world of signs. If we throw away the water, there is now ay for us to touch the suchness of water. We touch the water when break through the signs of water and see its true nature of interbeing. There are three phases – water, not water, true water. True water is the suchness of water. Its ground of being is free from birth and death. When we can touch that, we will not be afraid of anything.

“If you see the signlessness nature of signs, you see the Tathagata.” This is a sentence from the Diamond Sutra, Tathagata means, “the wondrous nature of reality.” To see the wondrous nature of water, you need to look beyond the sign (appearance) of water, and see that it is made of non-water elements. If you think that water is only water, that it cannot be the sun, the earth, or the flower, you are not correct. When you can see that the water is the sun, the earth, and the flower, that just by looking at the sun or the earth you can see the water, this is “the signlessness of signs.” An organic gardener who looks at a banana peel, dead leaves or rotting branches can see flowers, fruit and vegetables in them. She is able to see the nonself nature of flowers, fruit and garbage. When she can apply this insight to all other spheres, she will realize complete awakening.

Politicians, economists, and educators need to practice signlessness. We put many young men in jail. But if we meditate on signlessness, we will discover where their violence comes from. What is our society like? How are our families organized? What is taught at our schools? Why should we lay all the blame at the feet of the young people? Why can't we acknowledge our own co-responsibility? Young people harm themselves and others because life has no meaning for them. If we continue to live the way we do and organize society the way we do, we will continue to produce so many thousands of young people who will need to be imprisoned.

Signlessness is not just an idea. When we look deeply into our children, we see all the elements that have produced them. They are the way are because our culture, economy, society, and we ourselves are the way we are. We can't simply blame our children when things go wrong. Many causes and conditions have contributed. When we know how to transform ourselves and our society, our children will transform also.

Our children learn reading, writing, math, science, and other subjects ins school that can help them earn a living. But very few school programs teach young people how to live – how to deal with anger, how to reconcile conflicts, how to breathe, smile, and transform internal formations. There needs to be a revolution in education. We must encourage schools to train our students in the art of living in peace and harmony. It isn't easy to learn to read, write, or solve math problems, but children manage to do it. Learning how to breathe, smile, and transform anger can also be difficult, but I have seen many young people succeed. If we teach children properly, by the time they are around twelve, they will know how to live harmoniously with others.

When we go beyond signs, we enter the world of no-fear and no-blame. We can see the flower, the water, and our child beyond time an space. We know that our ancestors are present in us, right here and right now. We see that the Buddha, Jesus, and all of our other spiritual ancestors have not died. The Buddha cannot be confined to 2,600 years ago. The flower cannot be limited to its brief manifestation. Everything manifests by means of signs. If we get caught by the signs, we become afraid of losing that particular manifestation.

When an eight-year-old boy who had lived at Plum Village suddenly died, I asked his father to be fully aware of the presence of his son in the air he was breathing and in the blades of grass beneath his feet, and he was able to do this. When a well-known Vietnamese meditation teacher passed away, his disciple wrote this poem:

Dharma brothers, do not be attached to signs.

The mountains and rivers around us are our teacher.

The Diamond Sutra enumerates four signs – self, person, living being, and life span. We get caught in the sign “self,” because we think there are things that are not self. But when we look deeply, we see that there is no separate, independent self, and we become free of the sign of self. We see that to protect ourselves, we have to protect everything that is not ourselves.

We get caught in the sign “person.” We separate humans from animals, trees, and rocks, and feel that non-humans – the fish, the cows, the vegetation, the earth, the air, and the seas – are there for our exploitation. Other species also hunt for food, but not in such an exploitative way. When we look deeply at our own species, we can see the non-human elements in it, and when we look deeply at the animal, vegetal and mineral realms, we see the human element in them. When we practice the Concentration on Signlessness, we live in harmony with all other species.

The third sign is “living being.” We think that sentient beings are different from insentient beings. But living or sentient beings are made of non-living or non-sentient species. When we pollute the so-called non-living species, like the air or the rivers, we pollute living beings as well. If we look deeply into the interbeing nature of living and non-living beings, we will stop acting this way.

The fourth sign is “life span,” the period of time between our birth and our death. We think we are alive for a specific period of time that has a beginning and an end. But when we look deeply, we see that we have never been born and we will never die, and our fear dissolves. With mindfulness, concentration, and the Three Dharma Seals, we can unlock the Door of Liberation called signlessness and obtain the greatest relief.

The Third Door of Liberation is aimlessness, apranihita. There is nothing to do, nothing to realize, no program, no agenda. This is the Buddhist teaching about eschatology. Does the rose have to do something? No, the purpose of a rose is to be a rose. Your purpose is to be yourself. You don't have to run anywhere to become someone else. You are wonderful just as you are. This teaching of the Buddha allows us to enjoy ourselves, the blue sky, and everything that is refreshing and healing in the present moment.

There is no need to put anything in front of us and run after it. We already have everything we are looking for, everything we want to become. We are already a Buddha so why not just take the hand of another Buddha and practice walking meditation? This is the teaching of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Be yourself. Life is precious as it is. All the elements for your happiness are already here. There is no need to run, strive, search, or struggle. Just be. Just being in the moment in this place is the deepest practice of meditation. Most people cannot believe that just walking as though you have nowhere to go is enough. They think that striving and competing are normal and necessary. Try practicing aimlessness for just five minutes, and you will see how happy you are during those five minutes.

The Heart Sutra says that there is “nothing to attain.” We meditate not to attain enlightenment, because enlightenment is already in us. We don't have to search anywhere. We don't need a purpose or a goal. We don't practice in order to obtain some high position. In aimlessness, we see that we do not lack anything, that we already are what we want to become, and our striving just comes to a halt. We are at peace in the present moment, just seeing the sunlight streaming through our window or hearing the sound of the rain. We don't have to run after anything. We can enjoy every moment. People talk about entering nirvana, but we are already there. Aimlessness and nirvana are one.

Waking up this morning, I smile.

Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.

I vow to live fully in each moment

and to look at all being with the eyes of love.

These twenty-four hours are a precious gift, a gift we can only receive fully when we have opened the Third Door of Liberation, aimlessness. If we think we have twenty-four hours to achieve a certain purpose, today will become a means to attain an end. The moment of chopping wood and and carrying water is the moment of happiness. We do not need to wait for these chores to be done to be happy. To have happiness in this moment is the spirit of aimlessness. Otherwise, we will run in circles for the rest of our life. We have everything we need to make the present moment the happiest in our life, even if we have a cold or a headache. We don't have to wait until we get over our cold to be happy. Having a cold is a part of life.

Someone asked me, “Aren't you worried about the state of the world?” I allowed myself to breathe and then I said, “What is most important is not to allow our anxiety about what happens in the world to fill you heart. If your heart is filled with anxiety, you will get sick, and you will not be able to help.” there are wars - big and small – in many places, and that can cause us to lose our peace. Anxiety is the illness of our age. We worry about ourselves, our family, our friends, our work, and the state of the world. If we allow worry to fill our hearts, sooner or later we will get sick.

Yes, there is tremendous suffering all over the world, but knowing this need not paralyze us. If we practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sitting, and working in mindfulness, we try our best to help, and we can have peace in our heart. Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse. Even though things are not as we would like, we can still be content, knowing we are trying our best and will continue to do so. If we don't know how to breathe, smile, and live every moment of our life deeply, we will never be able to help anyone. I am happy in the present moment. I do not ask for anything else. I do not expect additional happiness or conditions that will bring about more happiness. The most important practice is aimlessness, not running after things, not grasping.

We who have been fortunate enough to encounter the practice of mindfulness have a responsibility to bring peace and joy into our own lives, even though not everything in our body, mind, or environment is exactly as we would like. Without happiness we cannot be a refuge for others. Ask yourself, “What am I waiting for to make me happy? Why am I not happy right now?”

My only desire is to help you see this. How can we bring the practice of mindfulness to the widest spectrum of society? How can we give birth to the greatest number of people who are happy and who know how to teach the art of mindful living to others? The number of people who create violence is very great, while the number of people who know how to breathe and create happiness is very small. Every day gives us a wonderful opportunity to be happy ourselves and to become a place of refuge for others.

We don't need to become anything else. We don't need to perform some particular act. We only need to be happy in the present moment, and we can be of service to those we love and to our whole society. Aimlessness is stopping and realizing the happiness that is already available. If someone asks us how long he has to practice in order to be happy, we can tell him that he can be happy right now! The practice of apranihita, aimlessness, is the practice of freedom.

 For further reading see: Thich Nhat Hanh, The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Diamond Sutra