Dharma Gates

What Are They, and How Do You Find One?

Buddhist temple, Burma
Ancient temple of Burma. © Boaz Rottem / Getty Images

It is said there are 84,000 dharma gates, or sometimes dharma doors, which is a fancy way of saying that people come to Buddhism in countless different ways. But what exactly is a "dharma gate" (or "door")?

One formal definition of "dharma gate" is that it's a school or tradition of Buddhism, but no one I know uses the phrase to mean that. In usage, a "dharma gate" could be --

  • A life experience or teaching that inspires one to enter Buddhist practice
  • A lesson
  • Anything that opens one's heart to the truth of the dharma
  • A kensho or satori experience

And so on. A dharma gate could be taking monastic vows. It could be a particular sutra or practice. It could be just about anything -- the right word at the right moment that turns a life around.

What Is Dharma?

The word dharma has multiple meanings. It can refer to the teachings of the Buddha, but it also can mean the true nature of reality, natural law, the factors of existence, and several other things.

Read More: What Is Dharma in Buddhism?

However, a scholarly or intellectual study of the Buddha's teachings generally wouldn't qualify as a "dharma gate." Why not? A true dharma gate opens us to the possibility of enlightenment, or awakening to the true nature of reality. This requires engaging with the Buddha's teaching on an intimate, experienced level.

A purely intellectual approach will teach one facts about Buddhism, but that's not the same thing.

Dharma Gates Are Boundless

One version of the Bodhisattva Vows contains the line "dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them." This could mean that dharma gates are infinitely large or infinitely numerous.

One could argue for either interpretation.

But it's also sometimes said that dharma gates are rare and subtle. They may be everywhere, but few of us see them.

The Buddha's parable of the blind turtle speaks to this. The Buddha asked his disciples to imagine the world covered entirely with water. On the surface of the water floats a single yoke. A blind sea turtle lives in the depths of the water and comes up for air only once in one hundred years. What are the odds the turtle will poke his head through the yoke? Whatever those odds are, the Buddha said, are about the same odds that any of us will achieve a human life and encounter the dharma.

One might argue that the odds are improved in the Internet Age, of course. Still, it's not something to take for granted.

What Brings Us to the Dharma?

Some of you may be reading this out of curiosity or because you've been given a homework assignment. But if you are considering Buddhism as a spiritual practice, or have already taken the refuges, if you're like most people an experience or circumstance set you on this path.

That experience or circumstance is one example of a dharma gate. It's possible this website serves as a dharma gate, also, for some people.

If you seek out a Buddhist teacher and sangha, they also are dharma gates. If you engage in Buddhist practice you will encounter one gate after another.

This experience or circumstance possibly caused you sorrow or unease. The Buddha himself began his spiritual quest when he was struck by the realities of sickness, old age and death. But people come to the dharma all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons.

The important point is that dharma gates are everywhere, once you learn to recognize them. Don't hesitate to enter them.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Dharma Gates." ThoughtCo, May. 27, 2015, thoughtco.com/dharma-gates-449581. O'Brien, Barbara. (2015, May 27). Dharma Gates. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/dharma-gates-449581 O'Brien, Barbara. "Dharma Gates." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/dharma-gates-449581 (accessed December 13, 2017).