Can We Violate Just ONE of the “Three Gates”?

Steven Barnes
8 min readApr 30

Is it possible to violate just ONE of the Three Gates?

PRACTICALLY speaking…yes. Ultimately…perhaps not.

In conversation with my ex-Military Right-wing friend, I realized that I couldn’t trust him to admit he was wrong about core positions, even if it was in black and white right in front of him.

He also attacks verbally. I tested to see what the MEANING of the attempted insult might be, by answering in kind. It stung him. He didn’t like it. Oh, ok, THAT’S the meaning. He was trying to bully me.

At one point the Three Gates came up, and he said that he uses them in his personal life, but not as a soldier. That makes sense, because in war, it is “true” that cruelty is efficient and effective…within a range. Killing but not torture, for instance: no voluntary increase in the amount of suffering necessary to accomplish a goal. Soldiers I’ve known who stepped over that line, who had to do things that violated their sense of honor and decency, that were nonetheless viewed as necessary in a particular pressure situation, seemed more ruined by their experience. Haunted.

Only at war, he said. But even though he has retired, he still defines himself primarily as a soldier, and considers us to be at war, culturally.

It would be foolish not to consider the implications: He will violate Honesty, and Kindness if he considers it Useful.

I have to assume he’s willing to lie. But I asked myself the question: is cruelty an indication of a person who is willing to lie? Is it reflexive, that the presence of one is evidence of a tendency toward the other?

I don’t know. But I decided to look at the question both inductively and deductively. What sort of view of the universe would be suggest that Honesty and Kindness are the most Efficient/Effective means of action? That dishonesty is ultimately the root of cruelty, and also ineffective long term? That cruelty is only possible for those who fail to grasp certain truths of reality, and also ineffective long-term?

What view of reality suggests that it ISN’T just that the Three Gates are a test of character, but ultimately a path to the most effective way of living? That’s a pretty high bar. I’m not wise enough to have any certainty about anything, but wanted to lay out the “spiritual tensegrity” between them, just to see if I could make it make sense.

Steven Barnes

Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, ecstatic husband and father, and holder of black belts in three martial arts.