By Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh
This is an excerpt from Thay’s last Dharma talk at Deer Park Monastery during the 2013 US Tour (October 16, 2013).
The Three Doors of Liberation
You can find the teaching of the Three Doors of Liberation in every Buddhist tradition. This teaching encompasses the contemplation on emptiness, the contemplation on signlessness, and the contemplation on aimlessness (Không, Vô tướng, Vô tác).
There are two kinds of truth: conventional truth and ultimate truth. Although this teaching deals with ultimate truth, it can be applied in daily life. If we are sitting in America, we may believe that over our heads is above, and under our seats is below. For us there is no doubt. But people who are practicing sitting meditation in Japan are somehow sitting upside-down. This is because above and below belong to the realm of conventional, relative truth. As far as the cosmos is concerned, there is no above and no below. We use these relative notions as tools because they are useful. If you are building a house, you better be able to tell above from below, or you won’t know where to start building! At the same time, dualistic ideas do not fully match with the nature of reality, so they can cause deep confusion and suffering if we do not understand their limits.
Dualistic notions can be divided into four broad categories. These are: birth and death, being and nonbeing, coming and going, sameness and otherness. When you touch the ultimate, or nirvana, you let go of all kinds of notions, and you let go of fear. Nirvana means coolness. It is the extinguishing of the burning of our afflictions like fear, anger, and despair. These afflictions are born from our wrong views. Once you can let go of these notions and transcend pairs of opposites, you touch the ultimate. Then you get the cooling down of every affliction. There’s no more fear, no more anger, no more despair. This is why nirvana means extinguishment, cooling down.
Letting go of wrong views or incomplete views is possible with meditation. You can look deeply into a cloud or a pebble or anything, because everything is teaching you the ultimate. A flower is teaching impermanence, no-self, interbeing, and nirvana. We need to have the kind of ear that can listen to the Dharma talk given by the flower, the cloud, and so on. We can use the doors of emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness to tune into these lessons, which are on display all around us. If we know how to direct our attention, then all we have to do is listen.
When you look at a flower, you see the flower is full of the cosmos—the cloud, the sunshine, the earth, everything. It has no self, no svabhava, because a flower cannot be by itself alone. A flower can only inter-be with the whole cosmos. This is the meaning of emptiness. Emptiness means empty of a separate existence. Therefore, we may also refer to this principle as interbeing.
How can you apply this in your daily life? When you look into your son or daughter, you see that your child is made of many elements, including yourself. You exist in every cell of your child. And in every cell of your child there is the existence of all ancestors. If you were to remove your ancestors and parents, there would be no son left, no daughter left. So your child is devoid of a separate self. The nature of your child is emptiness. You see yourself in your child, and you see your child in yourself. The suffering of your child is your own suffering, and the happiness of your child is your own happiness. With that kind of insight—the insight of interbeing, of emptiness, of non-self—no more anger is possible, no more discrimination is possible. This is why emptiness is a door of liberation.
Before you bow to the Buddha, be sure you have the insight of interbeing. “Dear Buddha, you are empty of a self. You are made of non-Buddha elements, and I am in you. I am made of non-me elements, I am empty of a separate self, and that is why I know you are in me.” Until you have that insight of emptiness, bowing will not have the same effect. Similar insights should be possible between father and son, black and white, right hand and left hand. This is why we say emptiness or interbeing is a door of liberation.
We are often caught by outer appearances. When our beloved cloud is no longer in its usual form, we cry. But the rain, which is the continuation of the cloud, is calling us, “Darling, darling, why do you cry? I am still here. Look at me.” If you have the eyes of signlessness, you can recognize your beloved cloud in her new manifestation. This is the second door of liberation: signlessness. Let us not be attached to the appearance. Let us not be caught by the sign, the outer form. The person we love, although we no longer see her in the same form, is always there in her new manifestation. With your Dharma eyes, you can recognize her in the here and the now. Nothing is lost. Everything is transformed. This is the second door of liberation.
The third door of liberation, aimlessness, addresses our craving. We long for something, we crave something, whether that is fame, power, wealth, love, the Kingdom of God, or nirvana. We crave something because we think that we don’t have it in the here and the now. But in fact, we already are happiness. We already are enlightenment. Buddhahood is there in us. The Kingdom of God is inside of us and around us. You are already what you want to become. The wave does not have to jump up and look for water. She is water in the here and the now. This is the meditation on aimlessness.
With this kind of insight, you don’t run anymore, and you begin to be happy. Happiness is possible now that you have stopped running after the object of your craving. This is true even if you are craving enlightenment, craving nirvana, because your very ground is nirvana. You are of the nature of no birth and no death.
It would be wonderful if we could arrange to be less busy in our daily life, because doing this meditation is wonderful. It can help us touch the ultimate, touch God. This is possible. The purpose of the life of a human being is not just to seek material comfort. We have to touch the absolute, the ultimate. This is possible to do if we have enough time, if we can arrange our life in such a way that, in every moment of our daily life, we can look at things and at ourselves deeply. With this practice, we touch the nature of nirvana, of no birth and no death in us.
Let us use the tools of interbeing and signlessness to examine some of these notions that we typically take for granted, so that we can better appreciate and enjoy our true nature. Every year we celebrate our birthday, but do we really know what it means to be born? Take the example of a flame. Before I strike a match, would you describe the flame as being or nonbeing? We may like to ask the flame, “My dear beautiful flame, where have you come from?” And the flame will answer like this, “Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I have not come from the south, I have not come from the north, I have not come from the east or the west. My nature is no-coming and no-going. When conditions are sufficient, I manifest.” And we know the flame has told us the truth.
Now suppose that I use this match to light a candle, and I blow out the match. Is the flame of the candle completely different from the flame of the match? Is it exactly the same? Now we may ask the flame of the match, “Dear little flame, we miss you. Where have you gone? And the flame answers, “Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I have not gone anywhere. I have not gone to the south, to the north, to the east, or to the west. When conditions are no longer sufficient, I manifest in a different form.” And that is true.
If we have observed closely, we will see that during her brief manifestation, she has taken many forms. During those few seconds, the flame created a beautiful image that has penetrated all of us. The flame created the heat that has entered the cosmos and the smoke that has gone up to become part of a cloud. She has left a light in this world in the form of the candle’s beautiful flame. So, she is continued by her action, just as we are during and after our brief manifestation on this Earth. Nothing is lost. The flame has not died. The flame continues always with those who know how to meditate.
Now let us consider the candle that we have lit. If we keep the candle here and we go out for fifteen minutes, and we come back, we can ask a similar question. “Are you the same flame I saw when I left? Or are you a different flame?” And the flame can tell you, “Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I am neither the exact same flame nor am I a totally different flame.” That is the answer: neither the same nor different.
This is the teaching of the Buddha, the teaching of the Middle Way. You transcend the notions of sameness and otherness, being and non-being, birth and death, coming and going. You touch the nature of no-self. When you look at your picture in the photo album from when you were three years old, and you see that little boy, little girl, very vulnerable, fragile; you may ask yourself whether you are the same person as that little child. And the answer is that you are not the same. You have grown up into an adult. Your form, your feelings, your mental formations, and perceptions are entirely different, so you are not the same person as that little boy or little girl. Yet, you are not a different person either, because you are a continuation of that child.
The reality is that everything is impermanent and evolving. Nothing can be the same in two consecutive moments. This is why even though you are not the same, you are not an entirely different person either. Similarly, we see that we are not the same and not different from our parents, who brought us into the world. We are their continuation, and the way that we live through our actions of body, speech, and mind determine how we continue together with them. So not only God, not only the cloud, not only the flame has the nature of no birth and no death. Our true nature is also no coming and no going.
The Noble Eightfold Path
As we have seen, nirvana is the ultimate truth that transcends all kinds of notions, including notions of being and nonbeing, birth and death, coming and going, sameness and otherness. If we don’t let go of these notions, we can never touch the ultimate. By touching the ultimate, we can be free of fear—fear of change, fear of loss, even our fear of dying. When we see clearly, it can relieve so much suffering.
Yet, often we do not live our lives in a way that is consistent with ultimate reality. This is why we need a daily practice and a supportive community who shares our values and ideals. We need to gradually transform our mind by practicing selective watering of the wholesome and unwholesome seeds within us. The Five Mindfulness Trainings represent the path to transform our suffering, and to live in harmony with ourselves, with others, and with reality itself. These trainings are a path of healing and happiness. They are the Noble Path, the foundation of our training. Traditionally, this Noble Path has eight elements.
When the Venerable Katyayana came and asked the Buddha, “What is Right View?” the Buddha gave a very short answer. “Right View is the kind of insight that transcends the notion of being and nonbeing.” If you think that the flame of the match and the flame of the candle are two different entities, that is wrong view. If you think that the flame of the match has disappeared while the flame of the candle manifests, that is wrong view. So Right View can be described as the insight of interbeing. The Buddha said that many people in the world are caught in either the notion of being or the notion of nonbeing, and that is why they are victims of so many afflictions like fear, anger, alienation, and discrimination. Right View is the kind of insight that transcends many notions, particularly the Four Pairs of Opposites that we have described previously. These are birth and death, being and nonbeing, coming and going, sameness and otherness. Right View is the wisdom and insight that transcends this black and white way of seeing. With meditation you can get that insight and transcend all kinds of fear and discrimination.
Right Thinking should be based on Right View, which means it is free from all kinds of discrimination, and free from notions. When there is no discrimination, you’re not caught by dualistic thinking, and your thinking is characterized by understanding and compassion. When you produce a thought full of understanding and compassion, that thought begins to heal you and heal the world. If you produce a thought of discrimination, full of fear, anger, and despair, that thought begins to destroy your body and destroy the world. A thought of hate, despair, and anger may lead you to kill yourself or kill another person. But a thought full of understanding and compassion can only heal you and help heal the world. A good practitioner is someone who is capable of producing thoughts that can heal themselves and heal the world. Thoughts like that can be produced many times a day. Right Thinking is enabled by Right View, the absence of discrimination.
With Right View and Right Thinking, you have Right Speech. Without discrimination there is no anger or fear. What you say is full of understanding and compassion. What you write in a letter is full of understanding and compassion. Scientists have discovered that compassion can reduce inflammation on the cellular level and bring healing. So when you speak to another person, when you write him or her a letter, or when you use the telephone, if what you say is full of compassion and understanding, you are healing yourself by speaking, and you are healing the other person by what you say. A good practitioner can say things like that several times a day. When you open your mouth, what you say has the power to heal, because it is full of love and compassion. You are so generous. You have compassion and love in your heart, so everything you say can make the person suffer less; and you suffer less also.
With Right View, we can practice Right Action. You are more your thought, your speech, and your action than you are your body. The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, said something very close. He said, “Humans are the sum of their actions.” The Sanskrit word for action is karma. In Vietnamese it’s “nghiệp”. We are not our body; we are our karma, and our karma ripples out over lifetimes. The karma of today is called the “karma cause.” And the karma of tomorrow is called the karma fruit.
When you produce a thought, that is already action that can heal or destroy. When you say something, that is already action that can comfort or harm. When you do something to protect, save, nourish, support, that is a good action. We produce action every day, and no action is ever lost.
Even when this body disintegrates, you continue through your actions, because nothing can die. What you have produced cannot be lost. Therefore, you will assure a beautiful continuation if in the present moment you care about producing only Right Thinking, Right Speech, and Right Action.
With Right View, we will choose honest work that will not harm other people or harm nature. That is Right Livelihood.
With Right View, we can practice Right Diligence. We have learned about this as “the art of selective watering.” Every day, you water the positive seeds in you, and you refrain from watering the negative seeds in you. Your partner and loved ones practice the same. You support each other. The practice of Right Diligence can bring happiness very quickly.
Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration
Mindfulness is the energy that we generate by breathing, by walking, by living our life with joyful awareness. Mindfulness carries within itself the energy of concentration. When mindfulness and concentration are there, you begin to have Right View. Right View can be hidden in mindfulness and concentration. If we learn how to live mindfully and with concentration, Right View naturally manifests.
These eight elements are the components of the Noble Path. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are the concrete expression of this path of healing and transformation. If you have received the Mindfulness Trainings, you have seen our path, our way. With practice, you know that every moment of our day can be a happy moment, a peaceful moment. We learn how to make good use of the suffering, of the negative elements, in order to build peace, happiness, brotherhood and sisterhood. We should continue beautifully through the ways we think, the ways we speak, and the ways we act. We should be delighted in the miracles of life, and we should help other people to let go of harmful notions, and to see the world with the eyes of understanding and compassion. This can help them to suffer much less, and to begin to taste the nectar of no birth and no death. Every one of us should be a candle, a light in the darkness so that others may see. If we shine beautifully, we will transmit that light into the future, just as that light has been transmitted to us. We are the continuation of the Buddha. May we walk together joyfully on this precious and Noble Path.
Editor‘s note: this article is reprinted from The Day I Turn Twenty, the magazine commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Deer Park published in the summer of 2020.