31. The Three Doors
Insight practice is all about understanding the three characteristics to such a depth that we may see beyond the three illusions and enter ultimate reality through one of the three doors, which is a metaphorical way of describing the few moments before a Fruition. Stages twelve through fourteen and subsequent attainments of Fruition at that level of awakening present a radical and complete understanding of the three characteristics at the level of formations, that is, at the level of the whole sensate universe, lasting three or four moments of one-tenth to a 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, at least two of which are combined in practice to produce the experience of entering Fruition. The third characteristic is generally considered to be inferred from the way the other two present, but sometimes aspects of that third characteristic will be experienced directly.
Regardless of the way a specific door manifests, it reveals something completely extraordinary about the relationship between “the watcher” and “the watched” that it would take a very warped, non-Euclidean view of the universe to explain, though I will try shortly. One way or another, these fleeting experiences cannot easily be explained in terms of our normal, four-dimensional experience of space-time, or within our ordinary subject/object experience.
One way to distinguish a door to Fruition 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 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 quiet simplicity 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 a 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 the latter are not necessary, just interesting, memorable, and educational. Another perspective would say that the three doors always happen at the level of the psychic powers, as seeing with wisdom is listed as a power, in fact the highest of the powers. The strength of our 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 could write a chapter such as this one.
Plenty of people have failed to notice the previous sentence and thought that they would likely have similarly clear experiences. When I say that I had to go through them hundreds of times to compile this list, with only a small fraction of those yielding the nuggets of dharma goodness that I serve up below, I mean it. Do not expect that you will necessarily be able to notice all of these with this degree of clarity any time soon or perhaps ever. I must reluctantly admit that fine phenomenology expressed in clear writing seems to be a particular talent of mine, and it turns out that this is not that common even among excellent, learned, disciplined, talented, and awakened practitioners.
The practical point is that, should you not have those particular skill sets, do not fret or fear, as they are certainly not required to get the benefits of these practices. Far more common than being good at noticing the fine points of how these happen is being able to go through the three doors, regardless of whether you can describe them as occurs here. If you too care about being a phenomenology junkie, resolutions to understand how the doors occur and investigating them obsessively as I did for many years of strong practice will likely help. I don’t necessarily recommend it, though neither would I ever discourage someone from pursuing it. Regardless, enjoy the afterglow that follows going through these doors and don’t worry too much about it.
I will explain the aspect that each characteristic lends to each door and then combine these to explain what 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 come from that try to describe the true nature of things.
Each of the doors turns on its head something about attraction, aversion, and ignorance, and finally gets to do the skillful thing that they were unskillfully trying to accomplish. Attraction wants to plunge into and stay with the pleasant parts of reality, to merge with them, and the no-self door actually does this. Aversion wants to get away from the unpleasant parts of reality, and the suffering door actually does this. Ignorance is a tough case, as it wants to detune from reality and do something else, and the impermanence door actually does this.
More specifically, the impermanence door aspect has to do with mind-moments (the particle model), arising and passing, vibrations, understanding that from which all arises and that to which all returns, understanding the “source” of all reality, the universe strobing in and out of existence, and so on. When the Tibetans talk of the lack of a substantial way of existing or lack of an unchanging mode of being, 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, as if all of space has stuttered three or four times in very rapid succession (about a quarter of a second or less for the whole thing) and disappeared. It is the fastest of the three and tends to be the most surprising.
The suffering door aspect has to do with fundamental attachment, dropping attachment like a hot coal that we finally realized we were holding, really letting go, compassion, ultimate bodhicitta, the true love of God, being purged in the flames, renunciation, relinquishment, and feeling the fundamental queasy tension in the illusion of duality for just a bit longer than we ever would normally. The suffering door relates directly to “the mind” releasing its fixation on the whole of relative reality and allowing the whole of it to fall away completely, meaning away from where we thought we were. It can also feel like all existence is suddenly ripped away from us. In this, as with the other doors, the mind followed a phenomenon to its final and complete disappearance and didn’t do the strange, blinking-out, glossing-over thing that it typically does regarding this gap between moments.
The suffering door aspect tends to be the most unsettling or wrenching of the three doors, the most death-like. It is always a touch creepy. People are often not expecting “creepy” as a key aspect of the entrance to something of such importance as a Fruition, so that can sometimes confuse practitioners who notice this aspect and leave them wondering what happened. They may possibly dismiss the experience as being something less than the perceptually flawless and amazing thing that it is.
The no-self door 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 overlooked line from Genesis 1:2), God making man in his image, merging with a tantric manifestation and thus cognizance of a Buddha or “guru” which you realize in that moment is of the same nature as your own cognizance, seeing our “original face” (from the classic Zen koan), thinking of who created thought (à la Rumi), etc. It relates to observing directly 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 it looks like you) with no one on this side to be stared at and then collapsing into that image. Sometimes there is just the collapse without any obvious image for those without strong visual tendencies.
The no-self door is the opposite of the suffering door, in that everything comes this way (rather than everything going that way). The no-self door aspect tends to be the most pleasant, easy, and visually interesting of the three. It is slightly slower than the others, maybe a half of a second for all three to four moments of it. One unusual variant of the no-self door I have noticed only rarely is that it feels like the whole of space contracts suddenly into a single point at the seeming center of awareness and then everything immediately vanishes.
Each of these doors has to do with complete understanding of the ultimate aspect of relative reality, and thus with realizing the ultimate nature of ultimate reality. [Note that “ultimate” and “relative” are not defined here in the same way as the higher philosophical tenet systems of the Mahayana.]
Each door also relates to completely counteracting one of the three fundamental defilements. The impermanence door relates to counteracting fundamental ignorance. The suffering door relates to counteracting fundamental attachment. The no-self door relates to counteracting fundamental aversion.
When I use the word “fundamental”, I always mean the Three Illusions of duality and their gradual or sudden elimination. Thus, I use the word “fundamental” when what I am talking about has nothing to do with specific content in the form of conceptual thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, mind states, psychological manifestations, or understandings, or any other specific and limited categories of sensations, since the three doors work with whatever is going on as their content.
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 significant 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 surprising that those who have been through them many times may not discern that they present in the way I describe them here.
When the impermanence aspect predominates and is combined with the no-self aspect, the whole universe strobes three times quickly (possibly with something staring back at us as a minor aspect of that universe, if you are prone to visuals), and then it seems that awareness collapses into the space after the third gap, perhaps turning slightly towards what was staring back (if we noticed this occurring). 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 and startling, like exactly the wrong thing to do, as we notice each pulse of the pulling away.
When the no-self 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. Again, not everyone will have the strength of visualization to notice an image on that side falling into this one and may just notice the falling-into part. After the third moment, the illusion collapses in a very natural and pleasant way.
When the no-self door predominates with suffering as its second aspect, then a very strange thing happens. There may be an image on one side staring back, but even if there isn’t, the universe becomes a toroid (doughnut-shaped), or occasionally a sphere, and the image and this side of the toroid switch places as the toroid universe spins. It may spin sideways (horizontally), or it may spin vertically (like head over heels), and may also feel like a hood of darkness suddenly being pulled over our heads as the whole thing synchronizes and disappears, or like everything twisting out of existence. The rarest no-self/suffering variant is hard to describe, and involves reality becoming like a doughnut whose whole outer edge rotates inwards such as to trade places with its inner edge (the edge that made the hole in the middle) that rotates to the outer edge position, and when they trade places reality vanishes. The spinning includes the whole background of space in all directions. Fruition occurs when the two have switched places and the whole thing vanishes.
For all the no-self door variants, there is not always an image of something staring back, as that typically involves stronger concentration. Some no-self variants can have sort of a swinging or rocking sensation that can occur for a few seconds before they occur, like space and attention were starting to swing together around us.
While from a certain point of view, we could say that concentration can’t get any stronger than it is in Conformity Knowledge or the entrances to the three doors, it is also true that those with stronger concentration in general will have clearer and more dramatic experiences of these doors. Some people also just seem to be more wired to appreciate the fine points of what is happening with the doors in general. Repetition and resolutions to perceive the doors clearly also may help practitioners appreciate these fine points.
When the suffering aspect predominates while combined with the no-self aspect, again, the moving toroid phenomenon 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 aspect predominates, the experience always feels like something was violated or wrong with what happened, like something essential was torn from us, at least until there is finally no sense of a “me” from which to have something torn.
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 more mature phases of awakening, I offer the following advice. The special ways that the doors can present can tempt us to the following subtly incorrect conclusions:
• 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. In fact, all these qualities are just textures, more qualities, and all are empty of permanent abiding or any special or privileged position or status as a unique point of intelligence or awareness.
• 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. In the end, no such thing can be found, and all such notions and impressions must be investigated clearly as they are.
• That there is some void-like potential that creates or gives rise to all of this and to which all of this returns. This is implied by sensations with specific and definable qualities. Again, no such thing is really there.
Seeing that these qualities that seemed to imply something very special are actually just more qualities that we have misinterpreted as being a potentially permanent, abiding refuge can reveal the refugeless refuge. Reflecting and investigating in this way, the last illusions can fall away and we can attain the complete elimination of all fundamental illusions, or at least the next level of the fractal.
It is also crucial to notice what happens as experience and the illusory sense of a separate experiencer become re-established in the fraction of a second when Fruition ends and sensate experience restarts. In this brief period of perspective re-establishing itself, we again can fall into believing that a sense of perspective and duality are the same thing. We can get lost in the fact that the eyes, ears, body, etc. clearly have some built-in sense of vantage point, that thoughts related to the mental impressions of phenomena generally occur in the region of the center of our heads, that the sensations that make up intentions generally seem to occur “here” and the actions they result in often occur “there”, and buy into our mental models of ourselves without recognizing those as the simple sensate phenomena that they are.
However, it is critical that we notice that these functions that create the sense of perspective imposed by our biology are not the same as fundamental dualistic perception. They are simply the way the system works, the mechanics of this mammal, and need not imply that there truly or actually is some center-point, some doer, subject, or agent. People can easily fall into the notion that perspective itself is the problem, when actually misperceiving the sensations that make up the ordinary sense of perspective is the problem. Contemplating these points deeply in practice can be quite helpful.