Introducing Samye Institute's Vajrayana Membership

Three Doors of Liberation

The three doors or gateways of liberation are taught in both foundational Buddhism and in the Mahayana. A practitioner is instructed to meditate on three realities or features. Correct penetration of these factors leads to complete liberation as all clinging, to reality, to the path, and to the result, is relinquished.
Temple door at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery. Image courtesy of Jampa Kalden.

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The three doors, or gateways of liberation, or sometimes simply the “three liberations” are the three features of all phenomena. All Buddhist traditions teach these three. Through the direct recognition of these three, one can attain liberation.

  1. Emptiness (Sanskrit śūnyatā; Tibetan སྟོང་པ་ཉིད་, tongpa nyi)
  2. Signlessness or the Absence of characteristics (Sanskrit animitta; Tibetan མཚན་ཉིད་མེད་པ་, tsen nyi mépa)
  3. Wishlessness or Desirelessness (Sanskrit apraṇihita; Tibetan སྨོན་པ་མེད་པ་, mönpa mépa)

Generally understood, recognition of emptiness refers to correctly apprehending that the basis of the aggregates, elements, and sense fields is not real or permanent. The recognition of signlessness, or of the absence of characteristics means that there is no conceptual identification of perceptions.

In the Mahayana context, the correct meditation on these three principles is taught by the Buddha in the Āryāṣṭā­daśa­sāhasrikā­prajñā­pāramitā­nāma­mahāyāna­sūtra, The Perfection of Wisdom in Eighteen Thousand Lines:

“Furthermore, Subhūti, the Great Vehicle of bodhisattva great beings is this: the three meditative stabilizations that are the three gateways to liberation. What are the three? They are the emptiness meditative stabilization, the signless meditative stabilization, and the wishless meditative stabilization.

“What is the emptiness meditative stabilization? The stability of mind that understands analytically that all dharmas are empty of their own mark is the emptiness gateway to liberation called the emptiness meditative stabilization.

“What is the signlessness meditative stabilization? The stability of mind that understands analytically that all dharmas are without a causal sign is the signlessness gateway to liberation called the signlessness meditative stabilization.

“What is the meditative stabilization on the wishlessness? The stability of mind that understands analytically that all dharmas do not occasion anything is the wishlessness gateway to liberation called the wishlessness meditative stabilization.

“The meditative stabilizations that are those three gateways to liberation are the Great Vehicle of bodhisattva great beings. They should train in those three gateways to liberation.

Āryāṣṭā­daśa­sāhasrikā­prajñā­pāramitā­nāma­mahāyāna­sūtra, The Perfection of Wisdom in Eighteen Thousand Lines, 16.26-16.30.

Much later, in the same text, the Buddha again explains to Subhūti:

“…there is nothing bodhisattva great beings should train in other than training in dharmas that are emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness.

“And why? Subhūti, it is because all wholesome dharmas are included within these three gateways to liberation. Thus, the emptiness of its own mark is the emptiness gateway to liberation; the absence of a causal sign is the signlessness gateway to liberation; and the absence of occasioning anything is the wishlessness gateway to liberation.

Āryāṣṭā­daśa­sāhasrikā­prajñā­pāramitā­nāma­mahāyāna­sūtra, The Perfection of Wisdom in Eighteen Thousand Lines, 74.30.

The renowned Sakya scholar, Röngton Sheja Kunrik (1367-1449) wrote a short treatise on how to meditate on the three doors or gateways. In this work, he based his interpretation on the teachings of the 8th-century Indian master Haribhadra, the disciple of Śāntarakṣita, and a founder of Vikramashila monastery. He reminds practitioners that his explanation, “in which the three samādhis are related to basis, path and result, is given from the perspective of the Mahāyāna. It is the way to practice the meditation on the three gateways to liberation. The explanation of the path-knowledge consisting of these three gateways to liberation must be related to the Mahāyāna approach.”1The Excellent Path of the Great Vehicle: How to Meditate on the Three Gateways to Liberation According to the Mahāyāna by Rongtön Sheja Künrig.

In this work, Röngton underlines the need for meditation because the doors or gateways are blocked or obstructed by incorrect perception. He explains:

  • Perceiving the basis as real blocks the gateway of emptiness;
  • Believing the path to have real characteristics blocks the gateway to absence of characteristics; and
  • Considering the result as something to be wished for blocks the gateway to wishlessness.
The Excellent Path of the Great Vehicle: How to Meditate on the Three Gateways to Liberation According to the Mahāyāna by Rongtön Sheja Künrig.

Thus, according to these texts, by meditating correctly on the three doors, one comes to a direct realization of emptiness and drops any clinging to either path or result. The three doors of liberation are then open, and the practitioner is a noble being.

Temple door at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery. Image courtesy of Jampa Kalden.

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