three locks, three keys, three doors

Entering the great hall

We are in a great hall. Before us are three giant doors. Each door is sealed with a giant lock and thick chains. At our feet are three giant keys.

We inspect the three locks. They are: clinging, aversion, ignorance. These are the qualities we have that make us wish things were other than they are. They are the cause of dukkha; suffering, or the inherent unsatisfactoriness of things. If only we could get rid of these locks, if only we could unshackle these chains!

Dismantling the locks

We inspect the three keys at our feet. They are: aniccā (impermanence), anattā (non-self), and nirvana. These are the way things are. We come to attain the three keys simply by noticing life. We aren't able to find anything that lasts. We aren't able to find anything completely independent from anything else. And when we experience life directly, without concepts, without any things at all, we encounter the ground of being, nirvana.

There are two ways to get past a lock. We can gently pick it, or we can violently smash it. Our keys are magic: they are at once very fine and very heavy. Each is well-suited for picking one of the locks, and smashing another.

Consider aniccā, impermanence. When we are in pain or in grief, we can find comfort that it won't last forever. We can gently pick the lock of aversion with aniccā. But when we are happy, having fun at a party or in love, we want those feelings to go on forever. Aniccā smashes clinging. This too shall pass – notice how those words are comforting or confronting depending on what this is.

Consider anattā, non-self. Anattā picks the lock of ignorance. Not-knowing is compatible with the realization that there is no knower, and no separate thing to know. Anattā smashes the lock of aversion. When we don't like something, we separate it from ourselves. I absolutely hate her! The truth of anattā does violence to this view, and collapses the distance between who we are and what we hate.

Finally, consider nirvana. Nirvana, non-conceptual direct experience available to us here-and-now, picks the lock of clinging. Who doesn't want to experience nirvana? Nirvana smashes the lock of ignorance. So long as we're ignorant to what's right in front of us, waking up is impossible. How embarrassing!

Locks and keys are made together. They depend on each other. If you have the key, you can unlock the lock. But what if you don't have the key?

If you closely examine the lock, explore it with all the finesse of a lockpick, you'll be able to construct the key. In this way, the three locks aren't merely hindrances; they're also blueprints for the keys, opportunities to understand the way things are. By thinking of clinging, aversion, and ignorance only as poisons, we make it easy to miss the truth that they contain their own antidotes.

Walking through the doors

The three doors are: suññatā (emptiness), animitta (signlessness), and apranihita (aimlessness). When we walk through these doors, we see the way things are and we are liberated from dukkha.

The key of aniccā opens the door of suññatā. "The beautiful flower does not become empty when it fades and dies. It is already empty, in its essence."

What is now manifesting as a dandelion was earlier manifesting as earth and might later manifest as a wish and some breeze. If emptiness is difficult to grasp, consider readiness. Imagine all the facets of a diamond, any of which is ready to shine in the sunlight.

The key of anattā is a little more versatile and opens two doors. Aniccā opened the way to suññatā through the dimension of time; anattā opens the way to suññatā through the dimension of relationship. When we learn to see that our happiness is tied up in and not apart from the happiness of others, when we see ourselves as facets of the diamond of happiness, we open suññatā by anattā.

Anattā also opens the way to animitta, or signlessness. The consequences of non-self are that any sign, any concept, any idea is inherently incomplete.

Wherever there is a sign, there is deception, illusion.

Signlessness is essential to the frustration of writing or speaking about experience. The struggle to find just the right word is no use; whatever we say, that's not it. Using Pali helps here, if you have no familiarity with the language. And note that the Pali words themselves are usually communicating negation or subtraction; they either begin in a- or describe a lack: extinction, emptiness. Of course the moment we pronounce those absences, we're on the wrong track all over again.

Nirvana opens the way to the first two doors. The ground of being is empty and signless.

Nirvana also opens the way to the door of apranihita, aimlessness. There is nothing to attain. When we are where we need to be, we stop thinking about where to go. When we rest in the present moment, we let go of any notions of attainment, achievement, opening, unlocking, doors.

Turning around

I studied logic in school. My favorite proposition was this one:

P & ~P ⇒ Q

Read aloud, this means: "If some proposition P is true, and the negation of P is true, then Q is true."

This is known as the principle of explosion. In Latin it is known as ex falso (sequitur) quodlibet or EFQ. “From contradiction, anything is possible." Q pops out from nowhere and is true! Q could just as easily be “dandelion” or “diamond” or 🦖.

Each of the three doors explodes logic in its own way. Suññatā tells us: P ~P. Wherever we make distinctions, we are mistaken. Animitta tells us: “P” ⇒ ~P. Where we create signs, we are mistaken. Apranihita tells us something like: ⇏ Whenever we go somewhere, we are mistaken.

Walking through any of the doors reveals the liberating truth of the principle of explosion: EVQ. Turning around we realize there are not three doors but one door, not one door but no doors. Looking behind us we see that there are not three keys but one key, not one key but no keys. That there are not three locks but one lock, not one lock but no locks.


Published by nick barr (nick) 3 weeks ago on Saturday the 16th of November 2019.

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