Three Gates Meditation
An attempt at explaining what is beyond explanation
It is always good to know why we do the things that we do. Why do we meditate the way we meditate? We practice Three Gates Meditation because we thereby become acquainted with our peace, clarity, and nature. We practice to train the mind.
Some, who have a more emotional propensity, may view the Dharma as religion. Those with a more intellectual inclination, may view it as philosophy. Others, with a more practical leaning, may think of it as a way of life. However, no matter how we regard the Buddha Dharma, all of it is essentially mind training. We are trying to cultivate a mind that is both wise and compassionate, that sees things both as they are and as they appear. Buddhism is not otherworldly. It is not an escape from reality. It is an openness to reality just as it is. If we are not training the mind, we are not practicing the Dharma.
Bodhicitta is the mind that aspires to enlightenment (relative bodhicitta) and the mind of enlightenment (absolute bodhicitta). It is both the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all, and the perfectly enlightened mind that benefits all sentient beings. True concentration (samadhi), then, is the practice of aligning the mind that aspires to enlightenment with the mind that is already enlightened from before the beginning, the ever-present Buddha Nature.
In the Mahavairochana Sutra, the Buddha affirms: “If, seeking after Buddha Wisdom, we penetrate into the enlightened mind (bodhicitta), we will quickly realize great Buddhahood in the very body given by our parents.”
The Three Gates, namely “body, speech and mind,” hold the full experience of the “emptiness” of Buddha Nature, void of all impurity and full of every possibility. They establish a sound basis on the path to enlightenment. The Three Gates correspond to the trikaya (three forms of the Buddha: dharmakaya, the Form of Truth; sambhogakaya, the Form of Bliss; and nirmanakaya, the Manifest Body). The Three Gates are also forms of the Three Jewels: the purity of enlightened action, enlightened speech, and enlightened thought.
The Practice of The Three Gates
Nagarjuna said: “It is through the teachings of Vajrayana that we can attain enlightenment in this very existence. This teaching explains the way of samadhi that is either neglected or ignored in other teachings.”
The activities of Body, Speech, and Mind (the Three Gates) are present everywhere in the universe. Natural phenomena such as mountains, oceans, and sentient beings express the truth described in the sutras. The universe itself embodies and cannot be separated from the teachings. Therefore, when we practice mudras with the body, recite mantras with the voice, and dwell in meditation with the mind, we align with the Buddha Nature that exists within ourselves and the universe.
Gestures, called mudras, express the pure activity of the body. Because the Primordial Buddha is the source of all, Buddha Nature exists in us. If we are a manifestation of Buddha Nature, then we exist within the Buddha. These mudras identify the practitioner with Buddha Nature.
The gate of speech expresses the pure activity of voice through mantra recitation. Mantras are formulas of invocation, not of external entities, but of aspects of our own Buddha Nature. By reciting mantras with clear understanding, we manifest the truth. Mantras are not magical; they merely but powerfully remind us of our Buddha Nature. For this reason, the true meaning of the mantra will awake us from the sleep of samsara.
The gate of mind is the pure mental activity expressed as the wisdom of the Buddha, the activity of mind permeated throughout all beings and all phenomena. When we set aside our opinions and wrong views, we directly see the truth with the mind’s eye. This is the wisdom of the Buddha.
Step by Step
Before every meditation, we recite an Aspiration Prayer, because the mind must be told what and why we are doing what we intend to do.
May what I’m about to do yield favorable results. May it give me the capacity to benefit others. May it help me overcome ignorance and limitation. May it clear away all obstacles on the path. May it lead me to the union of wisdom and compassion. OM AH HUM SO’HA
Then we develop stability of the body: we assume the full mudra of Buddhahood in our posture. While the body is moving, uncomfortable, slumped, or tense, the energy cannot flow properly, and the mind becomes either agitated or dull. So, the first thing that we cultivate is the stability of the body. In assuming this posture, we replicate the full mudra of the Buddha, and thus reclaim our essential non-difference with our True Nature. We do this in seven steps:
- Legs stable and comfortable, hips slightly higher than the knees (if sitting on a chair, the ankles should be slightly forward of the knees). Bodhicitta is unmovable, unaffected by cognitive and affective obscurations, and the winds of karma.
- Spine elongated; chin slightly tucked in. Bodhicitta is righteous and humble.
- Shoulders level, neither hunched forward nor pushed back. Bodhicitta does not take sides, nor does it fall into the four extreme views (being, nonbeing, both, neither).
- Arms hanging loose at the sides, without any tension. Bodhicitta does not strive.
- Hands on the lap, left below, right on top; thumbs touching lightly in the center. Bodhicitta does not grasp.
- The tip of the tongue rests against the front of the palate, and the lips form a gentle smile. Bodhicitta is quiescent and content.
- The gaze is unfocused, directed forward and slightly down. Bodhicitta does not favor or condemn, but has infinite compassion for all.
After we develop stability of the body, we maintain vigilance of the posture and move to the next step, which is to align our energy, to modulate our breath. We breathe continuously, without stops or starts, and maintain the free flow of the breath to recognize that life is continuous, always flowing, incessantly moving. We breathe softly, smoothly and evenly to allow life to flow without trying to control it, without making things go our way. When the breath is not flowing smoothly and regularly, we become emotionally agitated.
When we consider any emotion, we notice that it is often accompanied by a particular pattern of breath. It is quick and shallow when we are afraid; it is fast and hot when we are angry; when we are sad, it is halting and interrupted. Every emotional state has a corresponding pattern of breath. We want to make the breath steady, continuous, deep, and long —the breath pattern associated with peace and equanimity.
Breath has three stages: abdominal, thoracic (chest), and clavicular (upper chest). In meditation, we only use abdominal and thoracic breathing, as clavicular breathing tends to raise the shoulders and hamper the stability of the body. (Clavicular breathing is only meant for emergencies; we only need to fill that upper part of the lungs when conditions require an extra intake of oxygen.) We want the breath to be deep, but not too deep, because if the inhalation is excessive, there will be a natural stop, and we want to establish a steady flow.
We settle the breath in three steps:
- Breathe continuously, without pause or interruption, as the Buddha’s life is never broken or interrupted, but flows unceasingly and inexorably. The breath of bodhicitta is mantra, that which protects the mind: OM AMIDEVA HRIH (in condensed form, OM AH HRIH) evokes and manifests bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment.
- Breathe softly, smoothly, and evenly: without noise, without forcefully pushing or pulling the breath; and without favoring the inhalation or the exhalation. Bodhicitta’s energy is gentle and manifests no preferences. In every circumstance, appearing and disappearing, coming and going, in life and in death, the mantra is effortlessly established.
- Breathe deeply, relaxing the abdominal muscles completely. The life force of bodhicitta is profound, peaceful, and unperturbed. The mantra recites itself.
After we establish a stable posture and free-flowing breath, we develop mental concentration. Even with stable body and breath, we could be going way off in our minds: reviewing shopping lists, rehashing conversations, making plans, imagining future problems, and getting lost in thought. To settle the mind we focus attention on the tip of the nose. The nose is akin to the heart in its shape, and the heart is the seat of the mind. By focusing first on one nostril, then the other, then both simultaneously, we allow the mind to recognize unity, diversity in that unity, and unity in that diversity. This calms the mind’s tendency to choose sides, to choose between one or many. We focus attention in four steps:
- Direct attention to the tip of the nose, feeling the movement of the breath at the tips of nostrils. Bodhicitta’s relationship with all sentient beings and phenomena is non-dual —that is, it is not divided into the categories of subject and object.
- Direct attention to the left nostril, feeling the air as it enters and leaves that nostril. And yet, there is a clear and unmistaken perception of duality, of subject and object.
- Direct attention to the right nostril, feeling the air as it enters and leaves that nostril. There is penetrating insight into the three natures: the imaginary, the dependent, and the truly established.
- Direct attention to both nostrils simultaneously, feeling the air at the base of both nostrils. Bodhicitta sees everything as it is (absolute reality) and as it appears (relative reality) simultaneously, without division and without confusion, perceiving unity in diversity and diversity in unity. All distinctions are affirmed and reconciled in the enlightened mind.
Once we have developed focus, we must learn to place our attention where we want it, and to remove it from where we do not want it. How many times have we found ourselves obsessing over a thought that is unpleasant, or repeating the words to a silly song, or mulling over a desire that we know is not beneficial? We must learn how to focus our attention where we want to place it. Uncontrolled eye movements, as in the dream state (REM), scatter attention. That is why we do the Eight Gazes —we learn to place our attention where we want it, and move it when we want to move it. The eye movements are very slight, and should never be forceful.
The Eight Gazes illumine the eight consciousnesses. The eye is closely allied with light; it reveals, like a window, the mental state. Reclaiming and manifesting our Buddha Nature, we direct the gaze to illumine these eight consciousnesses, which are the basis of the eight undesirable destinies:
- Gazing forward and upward, bodhicitta illumines the storehouse consciousness and temporary nirvana.
- Gazing up and to the right, bodhicitta illumines the afflicted consciousness and the demigod realm.
- Gazing to the right, bodhicitta illumines the consciousness of sight and the human realm.
- Gazing down and to the right, bodhicitta illumines the consciousness of taste and the ghost realm.
- Gazing down and to the left, bodhicitta illumines the consciousness of touch and the infernal realm.
- Gazing to the left, bodhicitta illumines the consciousness of smell and the animal realm.
- Gazing up and to the left, bodhicitta illumines the consciousness of mind and the god realm.
- Gazing forward, bodhicitta illumines the consciousness of sound and the six intermediate states: the bardo of this life; the bardo of meditation; the bardo of dream; the bardo of dying; the bardo of the luminosity of the true nature; and the bardo of becoming.
As we practice, the storehouse consciousness becomes the mirror-like wisdom; the afflicted consciousness, the wisdom of equality; the mental consciousness, the wisdom of discernment; and the five sensory consciousnesses, all-accomplishing wisdom. Their integration is the wisdom of Suchness.
Once the realms are illumined, the 9 voiced mantras (3 OM, 3 AH, 3 HUM) project pure Body, pure Speech, pure Mind onto the three classes of beings (sentient, living, and inanimate) in the three worlds (desire, form, and formless) and the three times (past, present, and future).
- Attention on the forehead; inhale fully; exhale fully, silently reciting OM while humming in a low-pitched tone. Bodhicitta purifies the bodies of the three classes of beings of the three worlds in the three times.
- Attention on the throat; inhale fully; exhale fully, silently reciting AH while humming in a high-pitched tone. Bodhicitta purifies the speech of the three classes of beings of the three worlds in the three times.
- Attention on the heart; inhale fully; exhale fully, silently reciting HUM humming in a naturally pitched tone. Bodhicitta purifies the minds of the three classes of beings of the three worlds in the three times.
Physically, humming oxygenates the sinuses and by extension makes us more alert. Also, because we follow a progression from the forehead to the throat, and then to the chest, humming brings the attention to the heart, the seat of the mind. Most importantly, humming reminds us that we are not cultivating selfishly and independently of others, but in communion with past, present, and future practitioners. Meditation is not something that we do by and for ourselves, but something that we do with and for all sentient beings. It is bhavana, cultivation, not passive enjoyment.
Then we rest, because we have aligned our aspiration bodhicitta with our absolute bodhicitta. We can go no further. Just rest. It’s all done. Up to this point, Three Gates Meditation is a mental workout. What happens after a good physical workout? It is easier to rest the body. After the “workout” part of our meditation, it is easier to rest the mind. We rest in the nature of the mind, which is empty and luminous. Does that mean we will have no thoughts? No. It means that we rest and do not follow or reject the thoughts. We do not engage; we do not flee or fight. They appear, they remain briefly, and they disappear.
It is certainly possible to do this. We dream hundreds of dreams when we sleep, and we do not engage with most of them, so we do not remember them. We only remember the ones that we engage with because they were interesting, scary, exciting, or unusual. It is the same when we are awake. Most of the thoughts that we have all day long, we simply let go. If we pursued all the thoughts that we have each day, we would go mad. When we rest in the empty luminosity, we just acknowledge thoughts when they arise and let them go.
We listen attentively but without straining, and we may hear the mantra HRIH, the sound of our own Buddha Nature piercing the veils of wrong views and afflicted emotions, the current of Boundless Life coursing through the entire universe. We may see the various manifestations of Boundless Light, the ineffable wisdom of enlightenment, dancing before our eyes. And yet, we may not hear or see anything. We rest; we do not strive. The experience is perfect, just as it is.
When we “rest in the empty luminosity of the mind,” bodhicitta manifests the presence of the Buddha in and for all sentient beings; bodhicitta brings enlightenment to samsara. Bodhicitta enters us, and we enter bodhicitta, for the benefit of all.
After we conclude, we recite a Dedication Prayer, telling the mind why we did what we did.
By the merit accrued through all my virtuous acts, may all be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May all embrace happiness and the causes of happiness. May all abide in peace, free from self-grasping. May all attain the union of wisdom and compassion. OM AH HUM SO’HA
Three Gates and the Six-Branch Vajra Yoga
Three Gates Meditation is a gift from our Lamas so that we who live in such agitated times can attain the same result as they once did in the peace of their remote mountain monasteries, practicing the Six-Branch Vajra Yoga. The Six Branches are re-presented (presented anew) in Three Gates Meditation.
Vajra Yoga consists of the branches of Withdrawal, severing attachment to phenomenal perception; Concentration, uniting emptiness and luminosity; Interiorization, drawing the vital force into the central channel; Retention, uniting the vital force and pure form; Recollection, manifesting immutable bliss and pure form; and Stabilization, merging with the enlightened body.
When our Lamas developed the Three Gates practice for our time, place, and circumstance, they imbued it with their merit. This was not a supernatural act. They infused the method with power by practicing, testing, attaining the result, and transmitting it to us.
In the First Branch, we withdraw our attention from external stimulation, that is, from the imaginary or constructed nature (parikalpita) that we project onto reality. In Three Gates practice, we methodically place the body in a neutral state, which is the mudra (gesture) of Buddhahood, free from all fabrication.
In the Second Branch, we spontaneously and directly perceive the nature of the mind, realizing the characteristics and functions of the dependent nature (paratantra). In Three Gates, we steady the breath, which is the mount on which the mind travels.
In the Third Branch, we draw the life force into the central channel and focus awareness on wisdom energy (jnanavayu), spontaneously and directly perceiving fully established nature (parinishpanna), which is non-different from True Purity. In Three Gates practice, we move our perception of the breath from left to right, and then direct it to the center, manifesting true wisdom: unity in diversity and diversity in unity.
In the Fourth Branch, we spontaneously and directly manifest the dharmakaya, the Form of Truth, True Being. In Three Gates practice, we observe that the non-dual Truth penetrates infinite space in every direction, illumining the eight consciousnesses and eight unfavorable destinations.
In the Fifth Branch, we spontaneously and directly manifest the sambhogakaya, the Form of Glory, True Bliss. In Three Gates practice, we manifest the Buddha qualities by sounding the nine pure sounds, purifying the three classes of beings in the three worlds and the three times.
In the Sixth Branch, we spontaneously and directly manifest the nirmanakaya, the Form of Compassion, True Permanence, that we may re-present (present anew) the Buddha and His enlightenment among all sentient beings.
Thus are all stains removed, and bodhicitta fully manifests. In Three Gates practice, we rest in the pure luminosity, the union of emptiness and bliss.
The various classes of meditation are emblematic of the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma: some aim at pacifying the restless mind, others at attaining glimpses of reality, and still others at manifesting that reality. Three Gates Meditation accomplishes all three purposes.
There are four gradations in the one vehicle of the Dharma, the Buddhayana. The various classes of meditation (within classes, there are different methods) correspond to the vehicles of the Hearers (sravakayana), Solitary Realizers (pratyekabuddhayana), Bodhisattvas (paramitayana), and Buddhas (vajrayana).
Sravakayana methods of meditation aim to pacify conduct; recognize the emptiness of self; and establish mindfulness of the body, feelings, consciousness, and mental phenomena. Pratyekabuddhayana methods aim to develop insight into dependent origination and to recognize the emptiness of self and the emptiness of phenomena.
Paramitayana methods of meditation instill loving-kindness, compassion, rejoicing, and equanimity; deepen the recognition of the two emptinesses; and cultivate generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom).
Vajrayana methods seek to manifest Buddha Nature. Among those, there are the generation and completion stages of Yidam Yoga (Tib: lha’i rnal ‘byor; Skt: devata-yoga), in which practitioners visualize and identify with various Forms of Buddhas and dissolve them into emptiness, and those methods of directly recognizing, recollecting, and manifesting Buddha Nature. Three Gates Meditation is such a method.
Nothing about Three Gates Meditation is the way it is merely because that is “our” distinctive method, “our” special dispensation. It is a method that works, one that repeatedly will bring us to a meditative state. Yet, we readily concede that it is not the only method.
However, if we do not follow a method of meditation, we will have to depend on external situations and conditions. Many people can only have a “good” meditation when everything is calm and going well in their lives. When things become difficult and agitated, they cannot meditate. If we follow the Three Gates method, we will be much less dependent on external circumstances, and we can repeatedly go into a meditative state regardless of external conditions.
If we practice Three Gates with certainty and enthusiasm, we will recognize the empty luminosity of the mind. With repeated recognition, we will become familiar with the empty luminosity. Eventually, we will actualize this empty luminosity, and will bring it into our everyday life.
Remembering the Buddha is the mind aspiring for enlightenment, relative bodhicitta. The more we practice mindfulness of the Buddha in Three Gates Meditation, the more we can recognize, remember, and manifest the mind of enlightenment, absolute bodhicitta, our Buddha Nature.
This is why we do what we do.