Special Topics

The Meaning of Three Gate

Q: ​Why is the main entrance of a monastery called Three Gates, instead of Mountain Gate?

When entering a Buddhist monastery, we usually go through the main entrance called Sanmen (三門) which means three gates in Chinese. However, some may call it Shanmen (山門) which means the gates of the mountain. Which one is correct?

Three Gates for the Three Gates of Liberation

As the Chinese monasteries were often built in the mountainous region, the main entrance of a monastery was usually called Shanmen or “Mountain Gate” symbolizing the transcendence from the secular world to the great path of Bodhi, from the mortal human realm to the level of sainthood, from delusion to enlightenment. When one goes through the entrance, he or she enters into a mountain of treasures and shall not go away empty-handed. Buddhist practitioners visiting the monastery should leave their habitual tendencies behind and immerse in vigorous practices. However, in essence, “Three-Gates” as the name of the entrance fits more with this precious meaning.
Sanmen or “Three Gates” is usually set in a form of a decorated archway including three gates, which are the Gate of Emptiness, the Gate of No-Form, and the Gate of No-Vow (also known as Gate of Desirelessness ). They are three gateways to wisdom and referred to as Three Gates of Liberation which lead us to the “House of Nirvana.” If we wish to be liberated from vexations, sufferings, and karmic hindrance, we have to personally realize the truth of emptiness, no-form, and no-vow.

The three gates also represent wisdom, great compassion, and expedience, namely the three methods to free us from vexations. Also, they can represent faith, understanding, and practices.

A Symbolic Rather Than Substantive Structure

If the gates are set in the form of a hall, it would be called Three Gates Hall, with two sculptures of Kongōrikishi in it as guardians for the temple. In some places, the Three Gates Hall is used as the Hall of Celestial Kings with giant sculptures of the Four Heavenly Kings inside. Modern monasteries or temples located in the center of the bustling city may skip the structure of Three Gates and simply have a normal entrance like that of a common building.
Since the symbolic meaning of the Three Gates is more important, it is not necessary for a monastery to have three actual gates. People do not need to be surprised if some monasteries have only one rather than three gates as the entrance.