MCTB The Three Doors
Insight practice is all about understanding the Three Characteristics so that when we deeply understand them we may see beyond the three illusions and enter ultimate reality through one of the Three Doors. Stages twelve to fourteen and subsequent attainments of Fruition at that level of awakening present as radical and complete understandings of the Three Characteristics at the level of formations, i.e. at the level of the whole sensate universe, lasting three or four moments of one tenth to one quarter of a second each. As unpalatable as the Three Characteristics can seem, in the end they are the source and substance of our complete salvation.
There are three basic ways the doors may present themselves, which I will describe shortly, at least two of which are combined to produce the experience of entering ultimate reality. The third characteristic is considered inferred from the way the other two present, but sometimes aspects of that third characteristic will be experienced directly.
Regardless of the way that door manifests, there are some common characteristics of doors that point to something beyond all of this. They reveal something completely extraordinary about the relationship between “the watcher” and “the watched” that it would take a very warped view of the universe to explain, though I will try shortly. One way or another, these fleeting experiences cannot be explained in terms of our normal, four-dimensional experience of space and time, or within our ordinary experience of a subject and object.
One way to sort out a door to ultimate reality from an A&P Event is that the Three Doors involve the whole experiential space-time continuum as well as the object of investigation, as these become the same thing, an integrated whole. This does not hold absolutely for A&P Events if we are being honest with ourselves, as the subtle background of sensations that provide reference points is not completely included. Further, A&P Events tend to be very rich and thick, whereas there is always a sort of silent and luminous transparency to the way the Three Doors present. As stated earlier, the A&P Event occurs very much as the Three Doors, is then followed by an unknowing event, but then there are a few moments (usually about three or four) as the breath drops all the way to the bottom, followed by another unknowing event and a state shift.
Without doubt, the clearest and most illuminating experiences of the Three Doors come from attaining Fruition in the formless realms or in the realms of the “psychic powers,” though these are not necessary, just very interesting, memorable and educational. Another perspective would say that the Three Doors always happen at the level of the psychic powers, but this is a matter of semantics. The strength of one's concentration practice and the recent continuity of practice will also help determine how clear these experiences are. I had to go through them hundreds of times with an eye to exactly how they presented before I was able to write a chapter such as this one. The entrance to Fruition through one of these doors is always completely unexpected.
I will explain the aspect that each characteristic lends to each door and then combine these to explain what actually happens. When particularly clear experiences of the three quick moments of the Three Doors occur, they can provide fundamental clues that can be used for further debunking the Three Illusions, as well as explaining where so many of the teachings that try to describe the true nature of things come from.
For instance, the impermanence door aspect has to do with mind moments (the particle model), arising and passing, vibrations, understanding that from which all this arises and that to which all this returns, understanding the source of all reality, the universe strobing in and out of existence, and that sort of thing. When the Tibetans talk of non-existence, they refer to the fact that all experience is utterly transient (the wave model) and thus abides or exists not at all but is constantly in absolute flux and ephemeral. The impermanence door aspect relates to realizing what is “between the frames” of the sensate universe (formations), and it tends to have a “dat.dat.dat-(gone)!” quality to it.
The suffering door aspect has to do with fundamental attachment, dropping attachment like a hot coal that one finally realized one was holding, really letting go, compassion, ultimate bodhichitta, the true love of God, being purged in the flames, renunciation, relinquishment, feeling the fundamental queasy tension in the illusion of duality for just a bit longer than one ever would normally, and that sort of thing. The suffering door relates directly to “the mind” releasing its fixated hold on the whole of relative reality and allowing it to fall away, leaving “awareness” to discover itself. Remember, these words in quotes do not refer to fixed phenomena or experiences. It can also feel like the sum total of existence is suddenly ripped away from us. The suffering door aspect tends to be the most unsettling or wrenching of the Three Doors, the most death-like.
The no-self or emptiness door aspect has to do with the teachings on the mirror-like nature of the mind, the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters (that oh so mystical and overlooked line from Genesis 1:2), God making man in his image, merging with a tantric image of a buddha, seeing one's Original Face, thinking of who created thought, and that sort of thing. It relates to directly observing the collapse of the illusion of duality, the collapse of awareness into the intelligence or cognition of the perceived. It is a bit like staring back at yourself (or something intelligent regardless of whether or not it looks like you) with no one on this side to be stared at and then collapsing into that image. The emptiness door aspect tends to be the most pleasant, easy and visually interesting of the three.
Each of these doors has to do with complete understanding of the ultimate aspect of relative reality, and thus realizing the ultimate nature of ultimate reality. Each door also relates in some way to completely countering one of the three fundamental defilements. The impermanence door relates to countering fundamental ignorance. The suffering door relates to countering fundamental attachment. The emptiness door relates to countering fundamental aversion. From a True Self point of view, the impermanence door relates to the permanence of ultimate reality, the suffering door relates to the compassionate nature of ultimate reality or ultimate bodhichitta, and the emptiness door relates to the fact that The Void is “what” we truly are (in True Self parlance at least).
When I use the word “fundamental,” I always mean something to do with basic illusions of duality or the gradual or sudden elimination thereof. Thus, I use the word “fundamental” when what I am talking about has nothing to do with specific content, emotions, physical sensations, mind states, psychological manifestations or understandings, or any other specific and limited categories of sensations.
I will now try to describe six possible combinations of these three aspects that create the actual experiences of the three doors. While there can be quite a lot of variation in the specifics of how these doors present, they will always fall into one of these basic patterns. As I stated earlier, these events are so brief and sometimes so unclear that persons who have been through them many times may not understand that they present in the way I describe them here.
When the impermanence aspect predominates and is combined with the emptiness aspect, then the whole universe strobes three times quickly with something staring back at us as a minor aspect of that universe, and then it seems that awareness collapses into the space after the third gap, perhaps turning slightly towards the thing that was staring back. When the impermanence aspect predominates and is combined with the suffering aspect, then the three strobing moments feel wrenching, and the plunge into the gap feels fundamentally violating, like exactly the wrong thing to do.
When the emptiness aspect predominates and is combined with the impermanence door, there are three clear and discrete moments of moving towards or sideways to (or perhaps focusing on) an intelligent seeing image staring back at us, except that there is nothing on this side. After the third moment, the illusion collapses in a very natural and pleasant way. When the emptiness door predominates with suffering as its second aspect, then a very strange thing happens. There is an image on one side staring back, and then the universe becomes a toroid (doughnut), and the image and this side of the toroid change places as the toroid universe spins. The spinning includes the whole background of space in all directions. Fruition occurs when the two have changed places and the whole thing vanishes.
When the suffering aspect predominates and is combined with the emptiness aspect, again, the toroid thing happens, except that it can be quite distorted or cone-like. The universe can rotate up or down and away from us, so that the primary experience is of an image falling from this side, though with the hint that it might be coming back around to this side. When the suffering door aspect predominates with impermanence present, then the three moments in which the universe is ripped away from us are distinct. When the suffering door predominates, the experience is always a bit creepy.
For those working on the higher paths, reflecting on the ways that the few moments before fruition have presented themselves can be very interesting and helpful. For those working on the last stage of awakening, I offer the following advice. The special ways that the doors can present can seem to imply the following: That there is a link between some special and intelligent spot on that side and some “transcendent this” that is unfindable. This is implied by the definable qualities of that spot and certain subtle sensations implying space. That there is some space around space, some transcendent super-space around the universe that we may try to rest in or imagine is here. This is implied by sensations with definable qualities. That there is some void-like potential that creates all of this and to which all of this returns. This is implied by sensations with specific and definable qualities.
Seeing that these qualities that seemed to imply something very special are actually just more qualities that we have misinterpreted as being a potential refuge reveals the refugeless refuge. Reflecting and investigating in this way, the last illusions may fall away and we may attain to the complete elimination of all fundamental illusions, or at least the next level of the fractal.