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The Three Doors of Liberation

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 nonflower
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 on 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 it 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
from 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 sign 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 no
way for us to touch the suchness of water. We
touch the water when we break through the signs
of the 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

"If you see the signlessness 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 the 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

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 they
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 in 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 and 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 wellknown
Vietnamese meditation teacher passed
away, his disciple wrote this poem:

Dharma brothers, do not be attached to the
The mountains and rivers around us are our

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 socalled
non-living species, like the air or the rivers,
we pollute living beings as well. If we look deeply
into the interbeing 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

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 beings 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
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 your anxiety about what happens in
the world to fill your 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 any 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.

From "Heart of the Buddha's Teachings"
by Thich Nhat Hanh