The Three Gates of Freedom

Nagarjuna taught that the city of Nirvana has three gates: emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness. These are also known as the three doors of liberation (vimoksamukha).

Emptiness (sunyata) is knowing that all things in their conventional or mundane aspect are non-substantial.

Signlessness (animittata) is the emptiness of signs. It refers to not seizing upon things in their mundane aspect and using them as objects for clinging.

Wishlessness (apranihitata) is abstaining from actions based on passion and desire.

Nagarjuna tells us that the three gates also correspond to knowledge, wisdom, insight, and that they are called samadhi because the gates cannot be entered without a “collected mind.” Without this crucial element the gates cease to be gates and become only “cases of confusion.” Using samadhi as an expedient, one enters the city of Nirvana free of passion and this is the real freedom, “the residueless of freedom.”

Dharma then is the path that leads to the three gates and samadhi or meditation is the vehicle that carries us along the path and into the city. Those who say that meditation does not lead to freedom  or Nirvana do not understand that in teaching samadhi it was like the Buddha handing us the keys to the car.

The city is not a real city because Nirvana is not a place but a state of mind. The gates themselves are only expedients in terms of emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness. In respect to knowledge, wisdom,  and insight, these are the glimpses of enlightenment or Buddhahood we collect as we fare along the path. Yet, it should be obvious that none of these things are within our reach as long as we remain in states of confusion. A confused mind cannot think clearly let alone see clearly enough to be able to even make out gates or cities.

In the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra (as translated by Robert Thurman) it reads

What is ‘Joy in the pleasures of the Dharma’? . . .  it is the joy of unbreakable faith in the Buddha . . . It is the joy of the renunciation of the whole world, of not being fixed in objects, of considering the five aggregates to be like murderers . . . It is the joy of always guarding the spirit of enlightenment, of helping other beings . . .  it is the joy of the exploration of the three doors of liberation . . .  it is the joy of acquiring liberative techniques and the conscious cultivation of the aids to enlightenment . . .

True renunciation is done in the mind. It has little to do with what one wears as clothes, or whether one’s head is shaved or not, or one’s lack of possessions. On the other hand, it has everything to do with using the expedient of samadhi.


8 thoughts on “The Three Gates of Freedom

  1. you say “True renunciation is done in the mind. It has little to do with what one wears as clothes, or whether one’s head is shaved or not, or one’s lack of possessions. On the other hand, it has everything to do with using the expedient of samadhi.”
    Wishful thinking. Renunciation leads everyone who truly DOES renunciation to give up their personal property, and live homeless or with other renunciates. Anything less is pretending. Just like the Buddha, Nargajuna, Jesus, Saint Francis, etc, etc, etc…….

    1. On the contrary, you are both correct but talking of a different thing. What he is saying is that the path doesn’t require you to give up your possessions. What you say is that following the path will lead one to do so anyway.

      That’s how I see it anyway 🙂

      1. Thanks for your comment. Actually I’m saying, or left unsaid, something different. I don’t recall where but in some text it is said that as soon as you posses something, it is already lost. If you really understand the path then it doesn’t make any difference whether you have possession or not. Trouble comes from clinging to the possession, not the possession themselves.

        1. I agree with you David. If renunciation was simply the removal of items, then every homeless man would be perfecting renunciation. Yet it’s not so. Per the anonymous comment, they suggest that renunciation leads all to give up physical possessions. This is a difficult premise because we really don’t know. I am not enlightened to know every being that attained enlightenment. So how can I know that everyone who attained enlightenment did so with or without possessions? But logically we can contemplate that a saint who lived without ownership of possessions is a renunciate. But likewise a “rich” man who gives his wealth to those in need can also be a renunciate. As renunciation is not the physical act but the mental construct of how one relates to the objects around them. Whether you own an object or not doesn’t determine one’s level of renunciation. It’s how one relates to the object, that determines one’s level of renunciation. I think it’s true that as one has much, one tends to be caught up in keeping that stuff – i.e. materialism… which is spoken of by Jesus as “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven.” Yet, there are wealthy people who seem detached from the wealth and give it out to others. Minority yes, but they exist. Because they exist, there is no hard rule that one must have nothing in order to be evidenced as a renunciate. It seems quite likely to me that there will be saints in this era or coming era that are/will be detached from their possessions and yet their karma gives them an inflow of wealth – which they detach from and keep moving on the spiritual path. Such a person is still a renunciate, regardless of what objects or wealth is around them.

  2. I was told once by a crazy old man whom I love for his wisdom that giving away all of your stuff and going it alone for a bit, wandering about without getting too comfy anywhere, is a good experience to have if you want go beyond “youness.” The venerable Robina Courtin makes it clear that this mentality of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, that is to say throwing out of possessions due to their tendency to cause grasping, is completely unnecessary. These teachings contradict, as do many of Buddha S’s teachings. In my very limited experience, this is typically due to the fact that the path is a path. It starts somewhere, sort of, and the starting point as it were is usually different for different beings and then it has stages which contain teachings that often contradict the previous stages’ teachings. One of the main problems people have is that we always think, “oh, now I get it.” If the end goal of this path is to realize there’s no “I” or “it” to “get,” then there’s definitely no right answer to this. Destroying duality is the key and if your door has issues grasping at your stuff, then ya practice gross physical generosity with your stuff (and the other paramitas). If your dualistic thought tendencies aren’t like that, then practice other sorts of generosity. Different strokes — be well and may you be free from all prejudice and dualistic distinctions

      1. Hey David,

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