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  • Dharma Talk by Nomon Tim Burnett : The Three Doors of Liberation

Dharma Talk by Nomon Tim Burnett : The Three Doors of Liberation

  • Sunday, February 26, 2023
  • 11:00 AM - 12:00 PM

Guiding Teacher Nomon Tim Burnett speaks about the Mahayana Buddhist teaching of the Three Doors of Liberation.

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Talk Notes

Good morning, it's good to be here. I appreciated getting to listen to Ryushin Andrea's talk from last week when I was sick.

I want to share a few stories about books.

Many of us I suspect have followed various paths of inspiration through the written word and even in our high tech age there is something still about a nice solid paper book.

So what inspired me last year from Thich Nhat Hanh's copious writings were the two little chapters in our book on the Three Dharma Seals and the Three Doors of Liberation. But not in this book.

I found them published in a sweet little book on the theme of love, called How to Love, that includes some very personal notes from Thich Nhat Hanh about falling in love with a young nun when he was young himself in Vietnam during the war (spoiler: they never acted on it). I read this little book cover to cover which actually is a bit unusual: I have so many Dharma books around me all the time and when I lose traction in one I'm as likely to pick up another. It's a trait I've come to, more or less, accept about myself. And from time to time I do give myself some stronger encouragement to stick with a more difficult book.

And then when after inviting Desiree to be shuso knowing she's a long time Thich Nhat Hanh fan I thought she might use that book. But in her conversations with Ryushin they were inspired to cover more territory and we ended up working with the larger collection The Heart of Buddha's Teaching as you know. And I've been glad for the attention we got to give to the four noble truths and the eightfold path.

And then Mary was waving on the screen this book on the Eigthfold Path edited by Jikyo Wolfer who is a student of Eido Francis Carney in Olympia. Jikyo is a Dharma sister of Joan here [if she's here]. I know Jikyo from priest meetings and there was a period where I was exploring studying regularly with Eido myself.

This book, The Eightfold Path, is from a little press that Eido and Jikyo created called Temple Ground Press. They've done maybe a half dozen books where they pick a theme and invite women Zen teachers to contribute. And this one has an opening chapter by Judith Ragir who gave us a virtual visit in the Fall about her powerful and personal book Untangling Karma.

And that led me to what I'm pretty sure was their first effort called Seeds of Virtue, Seeds of Change which didn't have a particular theme. The blurb on the back says, "For the first time, 27 Soto Zen women priests come together to offer teachings in response to a call for spiritual insight and balance. This collection opens possibilities of deeper awareness for cultivating compassion during troubled times."

I'm pretty sure they were giving away extra copies at a Soto Zen Buddhist Association meeting years ago, but I have to admit it got lost on my bookshelf. Unopened.

Well last night I opened it and read & skimmed most of the book. There are many wise and powerful essays on Dogen's teachings, practicing with Vow, ancestors, fearlessness, equanimity, one on supportive meditation postures for women's bodies (with illustrations), spiritual longing in various forms, many wonderful essays. But the one that struck me most deeply on this first pass was an essay on not wanting to write an essay. So I want to share the opening of that essay. This is Etsudo Patty Krahl. Patty is half of the dynamic duo of Patty and Harold who started the Ashland Zen Center in Ashland, Oregon. I'll let Patty's dharma spirit speak for itself:

[ Seeds of Virtue, Seeds of Change p. 125 - middle of p.128 ]

The last chapter of Thich Nhat Hanh's we're studying for our wonderful class with Ikushun Desiree is on the three doors of liberation. It strikes me that this humble, even reluctant, passage from Etsudo Patty is a wonderful expression of these three doors.

The doors are emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness.

And here we're into the powerful wisdom teachings that emerged later in the Buddhist tradition with the great sages of the Mahayana. These teachings are mentioned in the Pali Canon, early Buddhist tradition, but only briefly as far as I can tell. They show up in much more detail later as Buddhism evolved and the emphasis changed. They are kind of like sign posts pointing to the ultimate reality in the two truth's teaching that we live in a world with depth and richness beyond what we can see and think about and conceptualize - the interpenetration of the relative and the absolute.

All three of these terms are pretty confusing as they encourage us to go beyond our usual way of thinking and affirm our boundless nature by trying to negate and cancel out our limited views.

Emptiness here means everything is emptiness of separateness. I may believe I'm separate from you or that my couch is separate from my butt when I'm sitting on it. Or that my being alive is separate from my soon being dead. But that's a mirage and it binds us up.

But, wait, your conditioned mind might say, your conditioned mind very reasonably should say, those things look different to me. I know it's a couch because it's made of fabric covers and cotton batting and wood, and I know my butt is a butt as it's made of skin and fatty tissues and muscle and blood and godknowswhatelse.

To those concepts and percepts are called signs in Buddhist perceptual psychology: nimitta is the Sanskrit for signs. A sign is some experience that you map onto something as you try to separate it out and put it in the right conceptual box. Signlessness is a-nimitta. "a-" here is a negation. It means "not" - so the awkward English translation signlessness doesn't means oh look I found something that doesn't have a sign, it means everything I think is a sign is really a not-sign.

So emptiness and signlessness are about the nature of existence. That it's not all how we assume it to be. And that this creates trouble for us as we interact with our lives in a world that we'd chopped up into separate things that aren't really separate based on signs of separation that aren't really signs.

And that's where the third door comes in: wishlessness. Thich Nhat Hanh chose the English word "aimlessness" but wishlessness or desirelessness are more common and, I think, more clear. And here again we have a confusing negation. The underlying Sanskrit is apraṇihita. Praṇihita means to reach for something, so it's about how we interact with reality. We reach for it. We want to hold it, know it understand it, sometimes we want to have it (desire), other times we want to get rid of it (aversion), but to do any of this we have to reach for it first. And as with signlessness the "a-" at the beginning of our 3rd Door of Liberation is negation - that wisdom practice is not reaching. It's opening the hand instead of closing the hand.

And yes all of this negation is confusing and maybe even upsetting. In Thich Nhat Hanh's chapter he says at first it's reasonable to find all of this frightening at first. We create a vision of the universe and how we fit in it as part of our growing up and these teachings seem to be taking that away. And, he says, practicing with all of this is the path to real peace. Peace that's not dependent on something, not dependent on things "going well", not dependent on "good health" or having plenty of money for retirement, or on having a wonderful romantic partner or whatever else it is that we hook our happiness to. Whatever else we praṇihita onto.

And so I love the express from Etsudo Patty so much about the practice of not being caught by limited views and grasping that the 3 doors of liberation are about:

[re-read middle of p. 125]

And then she quotes a poem. Later in the essay we find out this is a poem by a student who is dying of a sudden onset of cancer in his 40's.

[re-read poem bottom of 125 into 126]

To thinking about the three doors of perception as practice a little bit more before I stop.

Emptiness and Signlessness point to the practice of curiosity and seeing beyond first blush, first impression. That's a good place to start. Notice how quickly, so quickly, we judge and separate and interpret and assume. The precepts have some wonderful pointers to this also. Don't praise self at the expense of others is one. The mistaken separation between self and other is pointed to by emptiness just for starters. And the material for praise and blame are the these signs that our mind grabs onto.

But even more than first blush. I've been reconnecting in fits and starts these last several years with my love for natural history. For not just being in nature but understanding the biology and ecology of what's around me. Another book I've had on my shelves for years, 30 maybe, is this one on Northwest Trees. It's a lovely book. A chapter on each of the prominent Northwest native trees with incredible botanical illustrations of each one. In each chapter I'm learning, sometimes new sometimes re-membering, how to identify each species and all of it's characteristics. And how it functions in the forest ecosystem. Some of this is very familiar: Douglas-Fir (which isn't really a "fir") is more drought tolerant and faster growing so it moves into a recently burned or cut over hillside much more quickly than Western Hemlock which is slower growing. But Western Hemlock is much more shade tolerant than Douglas Fir so it's seedlings can slowly grown in the increasing dimness as the forest grows but the Doug Fir seedlings can't. And so we have this predictable succession of species. Often the centuries Hemlock wins out, it's a Climax Species of Western lowlands forests. At least until the next big disruption and the cycle starts over again.

What I love about this the most is the moments of insight into these bigger stories that happen sometimes when I'm in these forests as a dharma naturalist pilgrim. First I have to actually be noticing the forest around me, not just lost in thoughts and plans and ideas. Then I have to tune in enough to identify what's around me. And to say "oh look some of these big forest trees are Douglas Firs and some are Western Hemlocks" and then to notice, wow it's the middle of the day and it's pretty darn dim down here. To be more aware of the elements that go into that peaceful quiet, in-the-forest feeling - one of them is that dim forest-filtered light. And then to notice hey look at all of those little conifer seedlings among the ferns and in between the trees those are all hemlock babies. And then to reflect well, not babies, they are probably 10 or 20 years old, growing slowly and patiently in the low light.

So I'm seeing a bigger pattern. It's such a wonderful feeling. I'm sure everyone here knows these kinds of moments of awakening to a bigger view. It's a component of the Buddhist idea of awakening but of course that's much more. And I'm seeing across time too. I'm seeing the past with a sense of how things must have gone for this to be how it is. And I'm seeing the future, well multiple futures. Futures where on of these big old Doug Firs falls down creating an opening in the canopy that these young hemlocks will fill in, eventually replacing that Doug Fir with a big Hemlock. And other futures where this whole valley burns or the Forest Service sells a logging lease and people come with big machines and mow all of this down so I can have 2x4's at Home Depot for my next home repair project. And if I stay tuned in there's also joy and suffering and everything. Everything. Right here in this moment of walking in the woods with my mind and heart open.

This is wonderful and this is included in the three doors of liberation. And this practice encourages us to go even deeper. The Northwest Trees book is all about the concepts and names and signs and patterns. The reality of true awakening is to see even beyond this.

I was picturing the Ridley Creek trail that we're now taking each year to get up to Mazama Meadows and our zendo hiking shelter there in the annual Mountains and Rivers backpacking sesshin. And halfway up the slope there is a giant. An enormous Doug Fir that we stop to do one of our ritual stops by. Chanting Dogen's words and a dedication to nature while we hold the practice of silence otherwise. This last time we were there I put my hands on that big mother tree and just felt. I don’t know what I felt but I felt something. Something deeper than the ideas of trees and forests and people and planets. Something of the flow of the energy of life maybe.

So this practice of the three doors of liberation doesn't mean forget all concepts and signs and desires and just bliss out. Concepts and signs and desire is included. And we follow those signs to the doors that can open in the heart of our true life beyond signs and concepts and desires. We enter those openings into something beyond what-we-think and what-we-know. Another way of talking about nirvana that Ryushin brought up last week. Nirvana has this quality of stopping, and in that stopping is not nothing, is not something. It's so very hard to talk about. Maybe for now we can just say profound and dynamic peace as today's approximation.

Thank you Etsudo Patty for just being yourself in your own expression of the three doors of liberation. Thank you Desiree and Chris and all of the regulars here for holding this Sunday late morning time of practice. Thank you to my teachers: human teachers and forest teachers. Thank you.

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