Blind Men Crossing the Bridge, a visual koan.

April 12, 2015 § 2 Comments

Hakuin Ekaku's painting titled, "Blind Men Crossing the Bridge".

Hakuin Ekaku’s painting titled, “Blind Men Crossing the Bridge”.

Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1769) is known for having revitalized the Rinzai school of Zen through his use of the koan system. A koan is a story or question that is meant to take the Zen student beyond mere intellectual discrimination and dualistic reasoning. The question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is an example of a koan Master Hakuin created after finding that many of his students were having trouble with the koan “Mu”. Mu, or Joshu’s Dog, is the first koan in the book, The Gateless Gate.

Hakuin Ekaku is also known for his many works of art including the above shown “Blind Men Crossing the Bridge,” a scene he painted on more than one occasion. This painting is one of three with three monks on the bridge.  Others had as little as one monk, or as many as nine.

“Blind Men Crossing the Bridge” is typically described as a representation of trying to cross over into enlightenment but considering Hakuin’s deep interest in the koan system, it may also be interpreted as the Zen student’s struggle with the koan. The grasping and clawing at the air is a symbol of intense effort. The blindness represents ignorance of one’s true nature. The bridge itself may be said to represent the koan. Yet if we make these simple comparisons and go no further we would miss the meaning imbued in the bridge that ends in mid-air. To understand this meaning, the mind of the student must be revealed.

The mind of the beginner student is just like our own in that it interprets the world conceptually and in dualistic terms. Put simply, things are either a or not-a. They are either here or there. They are now or then, big or small, hot or cold, etc. In the physical world this conceptual orientation can be quite successful in dealing with most things in life and in resolving many of our daily problems. With it we can drive to work each day or land a spacecraft on a comet. Yet the usefulness of the conceptual mind in dealing with these things masks its limitations.

The koan unmasks the limitations of conceptual, dualistic thinking. It does this not with a simple presentation of something nonsensical but with a statement or question that invites the student to go beyond conceptual thought.

In Koan 40 of The Gateless Gate, for example, Hyakujo places a water vase on the ground and asks his monks, “Who can say what this is without calling its name?” This question invites a non-conceptual response and the chief monk responds with, “No one can call it a wooden shoe.”

If, at this point in hearing the koan you examine your inner state, it will likely be found to be the same as that of any beginner Zen student. Hyakujo’s question and the chief monk’s response will have left your mind blank. If you then try to figure out the “correct” response, you will have missed the mark and fallen back into conceptualizing.

In Hakuin’s “Blind Men Crossing the Bridge,” the exact moment the mind becomes blank is the point where the bridge ends in mid-air. There, the limits of conceptual thinking have been reached and the Zen student must realize a new way of being to continue on his or her way.

Koan 40 ends with Isan, the cooking monk, tipping over the vase with his foot and leaving the room. Through direct action, he reveals himself while showing how the conceptual mind sometimes prevents our seeing the obvious or, so to speak, the bridge that continues past the point where it appears to end in mid-air.

Hakuin does not paint the bridge continuing on to the other side because to do so would be just another conceptualization. Instead, he leaves the painting blank for us to use as a visual koan to still our conceptual mind and discover our formless, true nature.


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