A photo of The Gates, a New York City art installation by Christo and Jeanne Caudeby.

Moving Through the Three “Karma Doors”

Vanessa Zuisei Goddard on how understanding our gateways to the world — body, speech, and mind — is key in our practice of sila.

By Vanessa Zuisei Goddard

The Gates, an art installation by Christo and Jeanne Caudeby. Photo by Timothy Vogel via Flickr.

There’s a helpful formula to keep in mind when considering our actions and their effects on us and the world: what we think is what we say, is how we act, is where we live, is who we are. 

In other words, how we understand ourselves and the world shapes the self, which shapes the world, which shapes the self. Thus the importance of training our minds, as the Buddha counseled us to do. Thus the need to see clearly how what we think, say, and do affects not just our own lives, but everything we touch. This is why I like to think of sila or morality in terms of clear seeing rather than virtue. Instead of labeling actions as either “good” or “evil,” we can reflect that skillful acts arise from a matching level of insight, just as harmful actions are rooted in confusion or ignorance. By cultivating clear seeing, we can give rise to clear action, which results in a clear life. 

But how does clear seeing develop in the first place? The answer is slowly, as our understanding of cause and effect grows.

The Buddha said that all karma, volitional action, passes through the “three doors” (Pali: kammadvara, meaning “karma doors”) of body, speech, and mind, and moves out into the world. I can swing lightly through the door of speech, for example, and offer words of affirmation to someone I love. Or I can barge into their “room” swearing and screaming. I can knock softly on the action door through a kind gesture, a look, an act of generosity. Or I can kick it down, literally or figuratively, with an act of violence. I can open the door of thought, inviting into my consciousness both demons and friends and sending loving-kindness out into the world. Or I can close myself off to my own or others’ unappealing views, thinking this will keep me safe. Just as effect follows cause, the way we approach each of these doors will determine what we find on the other side. 

From this, we can see how important it is to understand and use well these gateways to the world. They require that we handle them with great awareness and care—kind of like the doors of an airplane. If you’re sitting in an exit row during a flight, you’d never dream of flinging open the door and rushing through it at the first sign of trouble. You’d study the operating instructions—ideally before the emergency begins—and follow the right procedure to keep everyone safe. Developing clear seeing is like studying the instructions to these doors of action. Moving through them well is following the right procedure, which we can do by pairing each door with one of the factors in the sila category of the eightfold path: right speech, right action, and right livelihood. What makes these factors “right” is simply their skillfulness, the quality that ensures our actions will help and not harm.

The first factor, right speech (Pali: samma vacca), can be summed up as speech that is true, kind, necessary, beneficial, and timely. Applying clear seeing to our speech, we can ask ourselves, Is what I’m about to say factual? (Do I know it to be true?) Will it help those I’m addressing? Is this the time to speak up? Does what I want to say need to be said? Do I need to say it? We generally speak so much yet say so little, using words to fill up space or shore up our fragile egos. Right speech, on the other hand, is neither mindless nor self-serving but pithy and loving. It asks that we use the right words at the right time, and, when no words are necessary, that we express ourselves with noble silence.

The second factor, right action (samma kammanto), encompasses the first three precepts of not killing, not stealing, and not misusing sexuality, but we can also think of it as actions that affirm life, that give generously, and that honor our and others’ bodies. Clear seeing shows us that these precepts operate on levels beyond the obvious or superficial. A look, a put-down, a dismissive gesture can all be forms of killing. We can steal time or space, we can pilfer an idea, and we can even rob another of their experience by denying or anticipating it. Besides overt forms of sexual abuse or misconduct, we can fail to honor the body through guilt, shame, denial, obsessiveness, and repression—all of which cause terrible suffering and splinter our sense of ourselves as healthy, sensual beings. Practicing right action requires that we look closely at our motivations and choose acts that honor instead of harm, affirm instead of deny, lift up instead of put down.

The third factor, right livelihood (samma ajiva), rests on a healthy balance of energy, resources, profit, and sustainability. The early sutras warned followers of the Buddha from engaging in professions that could create harm. Monks were not supposed to become soothsayers, palm readers, or sorcerers. Laypeople were discouraged from being soldiers, butchers, wine sellers, or arms traders. Today, our understanding of right livelihood must be much broader and deeper. It must be based on a clear understanding of ourselves, our minds, and our wants. And more than ever, it must take into account the effects of our work on that larger being: our planet. Take our use of artificial intelligence. Its hidden costs are enormous, but our current fascination with it prevents us from considering them as we should. ChatGPT alone uses half a million kilowatts of electricity to respond to roughly two hundred million questions from users each day. By comparison, an entire US household uses only twenty-nine kilowatts to power itself. To say that we need to carefully consider whether we need to ask a bot to research the lifespan of an octopus or help us write our résumé is true, but also a huge understatement. We need to be deeply concerned about the exponential effect of activities we might consider innocuous—both those of us who engage in them and those whose work has made them possible. Although it’s always been true that every action affects the whole, today certain actions have the power to destroy us.

The good news is that we, too, have more power than we think. We can remind ourselves that everything we do is connected and that our actions matter, greatly. We can decide to use words well, creating with them worlds we’ll want to live in. And we can vow to take care of the world we have now through our work, not assuming that the way we live today is the way we’ll live tomorrow. Our ability to understand and shift our actions and their motivations is all based on clear seeing, the linchpin of clear living.

Annie Dillard once said, “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” But there is more we can do. Cultivating clear seeing shows us we’re not apart from that light. We are, in fact, the beam.For reflection: Consider your own movement through the doors of body, speech, and mind. Are you treading carefully as you move from inside to outside, or do you on occasion rip a door off its hinge? What can you do to remind yourself to pause before each threshold and reflect on the most skillful way to take the next step?  

A headshot of author and Buddhist teacher Vanessa Zuisei Goddard.

Vanessa Zuisei Goddard

Vanessa Zuisei Goddard is a writer and lay Zen teacher based in Panama City, Panama, as well as the guiding teacher for Ocean Mind Sangha, a virtual community of Buddhist practitioners. Her books include, Still Running: The Art of Meditation in Motion, and the children’s book Weather Any Storm. She can be found at Oceanmindsangha.org