the end of the bridge

Perhaps the most recognized of Hakuin’s paintings is of the blind men crossing a log bridge.  Symbolically, the shore to the right is the world we leave behind and the one to the left is the shore of enlightenment.  All paintings of the blind men tentatively feeling their way across are metaphors of our journey: gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bohdi svahagone, gone, gone beyond, gone to the other shore, yippee! In most of the paintings, Hakuin is kind enough to give us hope by connecting the end of the bridge to the far shore.  But in the classic Three Bind Men on a Bridge, he doesn’t.  The end of the log hangs in mid-air, tantalizing and foreboding. Hakuin wrote a poem on two of his paintings: Both the health of our bodies and the fleeting world outside us are like the blind men’s round log bridge – a mind/heart that can cross over is the best guide. It made me wonder.  Is our own mind/heart all we need?  Why does Hakuin put two or three of us on the bridge?  In my rendition above, I put the first blind man at the edge of the bridge where he has to consider his next option.  His staff is just past the log, likely telling him the end is at his feet.  His companion is coming along behind him – far enough away that if he makes it across and he has time to move on without having to know what happens to his companion. What bridge does his mind/heart need to cross? Thank you for practising, Genju Remember the Hakuin exhibition at the Japan Society in New York and other venues!

11 thoughts on “the end of the bridge

  1. It makes me think of the public service announcement in the London Tube stations: “Mind the gap. Mind the gap.”


    In the Lotus Sutra, it says, “Only a Buddha and a Buddha can attain enlightenment.” I’ve always understood this to mean that awakening needs at least two of us – we cannot do it alone.

    There! Bridge crossed!

    • You’ll have to wait for me for a few lifetimes though!

      Interesting discussion in sangha last night on sangha as a “cooperative” and Buddhism as the mission statement. We’ve been running sangha for 7 years every week with monthly all-day sessions. Wanna guess how many names show up on the volunteer roster? I lose faith, Barry. How do we row together to the other shore when it’s the same two or three people pulling on the oars?

      Maybe I will find the answer on the corner of street in Manhattan! 😉

      • We’ll wait together…what’s a few more kalpas among friends?

        I know first-hand the challenges of gaining full participation in the maintenance of a sangha, having spent many hours pulling weeds and wondering where everyone else was. And why weren’t others concerned about the dust bunnies in the corners? Did they not see them?

        When my mind goes off into this kind of thinking, I can sometimes return to the bodhisattva vow and very quickly this “checking” mind dissipates. At least, sometimes.

        One time a lightening strike hit a dead tree in a distant valley. The forest was soon ablaze with an intense fire. All the many animals were trapped – except for one small bird.

        The bird flew out of the valley to a lake, where it scooped water into its tiny beak. Then it flew back into the valley and opened its beak, letting the water fall into the fire.

        The bird returned to the lake over and over, each time letting a few drops of water fall into the fire. What else could it do – all its animal friends were trapped?

        As the story goes, the bird eventually became exhausted and, as it opened its beak and spilled water into the fire, the bird passed away and fell into the flames. And its small body was just enough to extinguish the last of the flames…

        …my pep talk to myself.

        • Kalpas! That was the word… Thank you, my friend!

          Dust bunnies? Ewww… We have rogue cookie crumbs that are revolting. There may be soon be coup that overthrows the wax drippings and the incense ashes who formed a minority government. My practie has been to quietly just do what needs to be done and not worry (try) about whether I’m embodying it well enough so everyone sees how embodied I am… so far: true self: 0 Ego 108! 😀

          As often happens, if we wait with equanimity for the waiting, someone steps into the gap and says, “Hey, Let me help.” I try to hold to the practice that we are blessed with practice. As you say, it works, sometimes.

          The quote is worth repeating here:

          “What if you could choose to live in a world where your ultimate success and happiness were guaranteed, yet during that life, this knowledge would be hidden from you – would you?

          “Just wondering, “The Universe”

    • Here I am 2 years later seeing this for the first time. And still the blind men have not reached the end of the bridge. If they continue to the end and congregate wondering what to do, perhaps the bridge will break.

      We all crawl along the bridge alone. Helping others or them helping us, still it is the same bridge. It has 2 ends. Stepping off the left or going back to the right, that is the question. Most go back. Stepping off, Ah…

        • It is human nature not to test the limits of the bridge, not wisdom. Wisdom would be to step off the end of the bridge into enlightenment. They wander back and forth within the limits of the bridge when Enlightenment is just over the edge. But, after all, their wandering and enlightenment are all within the same picture.

  2. Interesting discussion which I will dip my toe into. And perhaps this is stating the bleeding obvious (as Basil, in Faulty Towers would say) but perhaps we can travel together but we make the leap alone? And inevitably we may find some of our traveling companions push our buttons (the ones who don’t show up when there’s work to be done) and that is part of our path.

    When I look at the painting, my little mind thinks, oh you could just leap over that little gap at the end but then I remember the traveler is blind and has no knowledge of the size of the gap. An occasion for faith?? And perhaps that gap is much larger when you get there. And perhaps this is just me romanticizing the path??

    • (I’m chuckling because my daughter just returned from London UK and sounds like a cross between Monty Python and Fawlty Towers!)

      Thank you, ZDS. No question that leap is one of faith and done alone. And, of course, how we have negotiated across that log might determine whether we are pushed off too. 😆 I don’t think it’s wrong thinking to have expectations of others especially if they are in the context of a group intention. I’m putting this together with Barry’s comment: I think we are each in charge of our enlightenment process and the relational impact then is that we are less likely to roll the log bridge off its support.

  3. I love your painting and the metaphor that it represents, not only of a “bridge” that needs to be crossed, but the blind spots that create a “gap” to clearly seeing the “other shore.” For me, and maybe your little blind man at the edge, the “gap” that needs to be “crossed” at the moment is a deeply ingrained fear that truly “blinds” me from the other shore – to *seeing* the Truth, and understanding how I torture myself with the fear of the mind. And also, needing to take a leap into the unknown – no bridge – just jumping and falling off all known “structures” into the unknown….

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