The Third Vow: Entering All Dharma Gates

Kuden Paul Boyle

Forest City Zen Group

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.

The term “Dharma-gate” is a translation of the Sanskrit term, Dharma-paryaya. This is explained to mean “the Buddha's Teaching, or the gate of truth, or the gate that enters into the truth, or the gate to the enlightened state”.1 The truth, of course, can be seen to refer back to the second Vow, of accurately seeing your experience, rather than being fooled by how they appear in your consciousness.

“Boundless” means that there is no border, and the wording of this Vow is paradoxical because a gate is by definition something which creates a boundary. In my opinion, the word “boundless” is key to how we understand and practise the Third Vow.

At one level, the Third Vow is about entering the gate of the Buddha’s teaching. When we make an effort to study Buddhist teachings, we become more and more familiar with them. They begin to become the framework by which we see the world and our life.

There are many Buddhist teachings. For example, there is the Nikayas, or the Pali Canon at one end of spectrum and, Zen koan collections at the other end of the spectrum, as well as, of course, numerous commentaries. Mahayana Buddhism has its own collection of sutras, such as the Prajnaparamita Sutras, as well as other sutras, commentaries and philosophical works.

I used to think that this Vow was about mastering all Buddhist teachings and the impossibility of it, just as the First Vow is about liberating all beings. We can think of that as boundless in the “horizontal” direction. Engaging the Buddhadharama “horizontally” isn’t a bad idea. When we first start, it pays to learn about different teachings and see what resonates with us. More recently, however, I’ve begun to think of the Third Vow in what I call the “vertical” direction. That is, go deeply into a single teaching or a small number of teachings and assimilate them at a very deep level. Of course, there is no limit to how deep we can go with one teaching or a small number of teachings.

There are different levels of understanding the Buddhadharma. The first level could be considered the intellectual level. I think it is important to understand what the teaching is saying and that usually requires some intellectual effort. However, this is really, in Buddhist terms, only the first, superficial level of learning. Sadly. many people stop here and believe that they “know” something about the Dharma. For me, the second level of delving into the Third Vow is to verify the teaching through your direct experience. In studying Buddhist teachings, there needs to be a balance between intellectual understanding and direct experience which verifies the teachings. Suzuki-roshi said:

Intellectual understanding is necessary, but it will not complete your study. This does not mean to ignore intellectual understanding, or that enlightenment is entirely different from intellectual understanding. The true, direct experience of things can be intellectualized, and this conceptual explanation may help you have a direct experience. Both intellectual understanding and direct experience are necessary, but it is important to know the difference.2

I think the attitude or approach conveyed by Suzuki-roshi in this quote is a good orientation for working with the Third Bodhisattva Vow.

This direct experience might be an experience of sitting zazen and then something happens which opens up a deeper level of meaning of the teaching for you. Or, you might be picking up a piece of garbage which has fallen on the floor, and some realization floods into you. It can also be a more gradual realization. You might read a sutra the first time and have very little idea of what the sutra is talking about. Then, five years later you re-read the same sutra and it you understand parts of it based on previous zazen experience. Then after 10 more years, you read the sutra again, and the meaning is even more clear simply because you have had a regular meditation practice. After 20 years, you re-read the sutra again and even deeper levels of meaning become apparent. It is not because you studied the same sutra in a scholarly fashion for all this time. Rather, it is that you have become steeped in practice, and as Dogen in Yui-Butsu-Yo-Butsu (Buddhas Alone, Together with Buddhas) Shobogenzo, writes,

Because it is realized by buddhas alone, it is said [in the Lotus Sutra], “Only a buddha and a buddha can thoroughly master it”.

Basically, what this means (in my opinion) is that only a realized person can truly relate to the teachings given by a realized person. This is because they have shared similar experiences. Delving deeply into the Dharma leads us to the same or similar place as other people who have delved deeply into the Dharma. This is one way we can approach fulfilling the Third Bodhisattva Vow.

In Genjokoan, Dogen wrote,

Accordingly, in the practise-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it--doing one practice is practising completely. Here is the place; here the way unfolds. The boundary of realization is not distinct, for the realization comes forth simultaneously with the mastery of buddha-dharma.

I think this passage is relevant when reflecting on the Third Vow. Here Dogen emphases the depth and thoroughness of practice rather than simply accumulating intellectual knowledge of Buddhist teachings. The Way unfolds when we engage fully, in a boundless way, some activity. The “meeting one thing” or “doing one practice” doesn't mean to do something only once, but rather it means to engage with “just this” at each and every moment. Each moment fully engaged is “meeting one thing”; each moment fully engaged is “doing one practice”.

In contemporary North American Zen, I’ve heard the term “dharma gate” sometimes being used to denote a difficult situation. So, we can read the Third Vow, “Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them” in light of this meaning. Our lives are never perfect. There is always that something which sticks in our craw or gets under our skin. It might be an issue at work, or an issue with our family, or a particular inter-personal relationship. The Third Vow is reminding us that these less than perfect circumstances give us a real opportunity to practise – to make our practice real.

We suffer because of how we have posited the relationship of ourselves with regard to our “problem.” We suffer because we have set up a subject-object duality and have invested some belief that the nature of this relationship is absolutely true and cannot be changed. This is me, here, and this “me” is perceived to be lacking something. Very often we have no control over the object. It is something (or someone) we want (or want to avoid). The more we perceive the subject-object relationship in an antagonistic or adversarial way, the more we suffer. The key is changing our relationship to the situation or person. We include and accept rather than exclude.

When we first start practice our “dharma gates” might be some pretty significant issues or problems. As we practice over the course of several years, our lives settle down and maybe we don’t have such big problems in our life. At that point, our daily dharma gates are of a much more subtle nature. Probably an outside observer would say that we don’t have any obvious problems. Yet, we face some subtle internal difficulty. We might get to the point where we see every moment is its own dharma-gate – that a dharma gate doesn’t need to be a problem, rather it is just a moment in which we can realize emptiness and impermanence. Whether it is a big problem, a subtle problem, or just another moment of practice, entering the dharma gate means changing our relationship to that moment, and keep doing so moment after moment. Moment by moment practice is boundless because there is no boundary between our “Zen practice” on the cushion or at a Zen centre and our life as a whole. We see everything as practice. In this approach to the Third Vow, “boundless” means that we realize the dependent nature of our experience –that there are not inherently isolated desirable or undesirable objects which impinge on our consciousness. All objects of mind and our notions of self are simply dependent arisings.

The Diamond Sutra also gives us guidance on how to practise the Third Vow. One of the recurrent themes of the sutra is that we may call something by a name, but that does not mean anything beyond a nominative designation. The actuality of a phenomenon is different from how we think about it conceptually or the name we give to it. It doesn’t occur to a Bodhisattva, the notion, of “I am a Bodhisattva”. For example, in Chapter 9 of the Diamond Sutra,

What do you think Subhuti? Does a Stream-Enterer think ‘I have attained the fruit of stream entry.’? Subhuti replied, ‘No, World-Honoured One. Why? Streamer-Enterer means to enter the stream, but in fact, there is no stream to enter. One does does not enter a stream that is form, a stream that is sound, smell, taste, touch, or object of mind. That is what we mean when we say entering the stream.

In this passage a Bodhisattva sets an intention to do something, but does not identify with, or create an identity around some notion of “I am doing such and such” or “I have attained such a state”. It is not something which comes in through our six senses. There are no fixed marks or indicators that we can reference in our work as Bodhisattvas.

This connects to the Third Vow’s use of “boundless”. If we posit, “I seek to attain some different state”, we are clinging to a notion of self, and our practice isn’t Bodhisattva practice. The Diamond Sutra points to boundless practice when we drop the notions of self and other or some conception of present state in contrast to some goal or state we want to attain. We just do. Bodhisattvas just go on bodhisattva-ing.

The Diamond Sutra points to a more subtle way to engage the Third Vow, Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them is to come to realization that “boundless” means just that – there was never any boundary. Of course, we can’t just intellectually decide, “Oh, yes, right, there was never any boundary or gate holding me back”. No, the Third Vow is pointing to the actual direct experience of realizing “boundless” aspect of our life, and this takes continuous effort and practice.

If you read Zen literature, you will inevitably come across these similar pithy phrases like “effortless effort” or “the methodless method”. It makes no sense intellectually, but it can be experienced. This experience teaches the body rather than the mind. The deep learning in our lives is done by our bodies and this is the level of learning to which the Third Vow points.

One of the collections of Zen koans is called the Mumonkan, or the The Gateless Gate. The title resonates with this level of understanding of the Third Vow. When someone first reads a koan, it may make no sense intellectually and there seems to be some barrier which which blocks the person’s understanding. As the person penetrates the koan, the gate or barrier to their understanding drops away.

Ultimately, I think the Third Bodhisattva Vow is our vow to realize non-duality. We realize that duality is the overlay we add to an experience. The Third Bodhisattva Vow isn’t about gaining something it is about losing something. We vow to lose our attachment to dualistic perceptions and narratives. This doesn’t mean we never have dualistic ideas, but rather, we are less attached to them and take them less seriously.

To say there was never any barrier is a statement describing the absolute. In terms of Yogacara’s “three natures”, this is the absolutely accomplished nature. I think Zen literature sometimes spends a little too much effort in descriptions of the absolute with pithy phrases like “the gateless gate”. It may give some people the idea that this type of experience can be taught and learned, or that if they somehow adopt a “non-dual” worldview that they will be liberated from suffering. This is completely wrong. The gateless gate cannot be practised or learned. As Hong-zhi, put it, “The empty field cannot be cultivated or proven.” Hong-zhi also says in another practice verse:

The field of boundless emptiness is what exists from the very beginning. You must purify, cure, grind down, or brush away all the tendencies you have fabricated into apparent habits. Then you can reside in the clear circle of brightness.

Here, Hong-zhi is showing us the way to practise the Third Bodhisattva Vow. I think it is important to point out that the phrase “from the very beginning” does not refer to some cosmological beginning. Rather, it is pointing to the very first moment of the sense gate picking up some sensory stimulus. In the chain of our cognition process, the “perception” does not become karmically loaded until about the middle of the process. This where our work is – after our karma begins to affect our perceptions. We work on becoming aware of our conditioned responses and we wear them down and becoming less entangled with them. The Buddhist wisdom teachings regarding the skandhas, ayatanas, dhatus, and pratyaya samutpada are all tools we can use to guide us in this work. As Zen practitioners, our zazen is our primary practice. If you have a regular zazen practice, you may have an experience of “Hey, I’m just making all this up.” You become aware of your narrative – that is, the meaning you are ascribing to your immediate experience and that it is something you are creating rather being a property of the phenomenon. Many people mistake their narrative about their life for their actual life. These narratives are often full of dualism and are fertile ground for generating suffering. A regular zazen practice wears down the attachment we have to our narratives. When the stranglehold of our narratives begins to loosen, we see for ourselves that the boundaries were never there in the first place, except by our own construction.

In addition, our zazen practice can go deeper than our self-narratives. We can experience the mental impulses or waves upon which the narratives depend. How deep can we go into this immediate experience? I don’t know. Maybe for practical purposes, we can assume we will never hit the end. So, our deep and subtle work is boundless in this regard. This is the work of our Third Bodhisattva Vow.

So, what’s the point of all this? Do we just practise then die? At a personal level, yes, that appears to be it. However, Zen practice is also Bodhisattva practice. The Bodhisattva also practises for the benefit of others. As we gain experience in practice, we can start to share our experience, strength, and hope with others. Most times we have no idea how our activity benefits others, or even if it has any benefit at all. Nevertheless, we do the practice, we share our practice, and maybe, just maybe, we help someone or inspire someone to take up the Buddha Way. Our effort ripples through other lives and then maybe that helps other people who, in turn, share their own experience, strength, and hope. The effects of our efforts cannot be known or calculated. In this way our practice also becomes boundless. Thank-you.


2Not Always So, Shunryu Suzuki, p. 99

Copyright Kuden Paul Boyle, 2018