Blind Men Crossing the Bridge
December 2, 2012 § 4 Comments
Hakuin Ekaku’s “Blind Men Crossing the Bridge” is often described as a visual representation of crossing over to enlightenment. All Buddhists are familiar with this metaphor of crossing over through the Heart Sutra’s end chant that may be interpreted as, “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone to the other shore, all hail.” Hakuin wrote in his commentary on the Heart Sutra that, “The Chinese translation for this is ‘reach the other shore’. But where is that? The place where the Treasure is lies near at hand—take one more step! Is there a soul on earth who belongs on ‘this other shore’? How sad to stand mistaken on a wave-lashed quay!”
A simple interpretation of Hakuin’s painting is that the blind men are moving from right to left and to reach the other shore they must make a leap of faith as the bridge does not quite reach all the way. It is atypical of a Buddhist master, however, to represent enlightenment in the dualistic manner of “this” shore and “that”.
If we were meant to believe the other shore was on the left of the painting would Hakuin ask in his commentary where this other shore is and who belongs there? If the “place where the Treasure is lies near at hand” would we expect it to be at the end of some almost bridge, separate from us and not near at hand?
Examining Hakuin’s painting we see that all the artistic tension is in its centre. The blind men are struggling to cross a bridge. One holds sandals in his hands while reaching out with his staff, another reaches out with his fingers, the third is crawling forward with his sandals tethered at the end of his staff for balance. Tension is added with the viewer’s knowledge that the men in their blindness will take that “one more step” and fall into oblivion.
In light of this tension; the left and right shore with the suggestion of pine trees, the mountains floating in air and Hakuin’s own calligraphy, these seem more like borders, frame or a vignette for the central image of the men struggling to cross the bridge. It is the centre of the painting that holds our attention, not the “other shore” that the bridge fails to reach but, we may ask, is this really a bridge?
A bridge is a crossing that works to connect one side of a chasm to another. But the log in the painting does not reach the other side, so it is more like a jetty or a wharf than a bridge. And in spite of the painting’s title Hakuin identifies this log as a wave-lashed quay when he laments, “How sad to stand mistaken on a wave-lashed quay!” So is the log a bridge or a quay?
Incongruities between Hakuin’s commentary and his painting can be resolved by understanding that this great Zen Master’s painting is an invitation to question and directly bring us face to face with reality. If a log can be a bridge and then again a quay, then things truly do not exist independent of our concepts or from each other. As the Buddhist says, all things arise together and have no independent self-existence. Form, is the form of emptiness.
But “Blind Men Crossing the Bridge” is more than a statement of Buddhist philosophy. It is a depiction of our own (thought) wave-lashed mind at those times when life presents us with chaos and change. When we can’t decide if it is right to step into the unknown or better to choose the safe and the familiar. When fear grips our next step.
To help resolve such dilemmas Hakuin presents us with a koan. “Is there a soul on earth,” he asks, “who belongs on ‘this shore’?”
The answer to Hakuin’s question is an expression that realizes emptiness is not separate from us, that it is here and now in the midst of form. “Blind Men Crossing the Bridge” is such an expression showing that, like blind men struggling to grasp emptiness that is all around them, we need only stop thinking in the midst of thinking and emptiness in form is realized.