Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768) has often been called the most important Zen master of the past five hundred years. Among other things, he invented the koan “What is the Sound of One Hand?” Hakuin was also the most significant Zen artist of this period, creating several thousand works of painting and calligraphy. While traditional Zen subjects had generally been limited to Zen figures, landscapes, and occasionally symbolic plants such as orchids or bamboo, Hakuin exploded the range of subject matter to include a wide range of new themes. One of these is “Blind Men Crossing the Bridge”—trying to cross a dangerous log bridge can be seen as a visual representation of crossing over to enlightenment. This is a familiar metaphor in Buddhism, such as the chant at the end of the Heart Sutra: Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha (Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone to the other shore, all hail).
In his commentary on the Heart Sutra, Hakuin wrote, “The Chinese means ‘reach the other shore.’ But where is that? Take one more step! Is there a soul on earth who belongs on ‘this shore’? How sad to stand mistaken on a wavelashed quay!”
Hakuin painted the theme of blind men crossing a log bridge at least eight times, with the landscape elements reduced to a minimum. Curiously, one painting has nine blind men, one has five, three have three, two have two, and one has only the sketch outline of a single figure; this once again demonstrates how Hakuin continued to change and experiment in his art.
In this depiction of three blind men, the shores are simply depicted on the right and left edges of the painting, mountains float in space above, and on the right a few strokes of ink suggest pine trees pointing toward the figures on the bridge. The blind men are suggested only by very simple short dashes and dots of the brush, yet they seem fully alive.
The blind men start from the right and seem to be struggling harder and harder to cross the bridge. The first holds his sandals in his hands as he reaches out with his staff, the second puts his staff in his belt and reaches out with his fingers, and the third crawls forward with his sandals tethered at the end of his staff for balance. To make the situation more difficult, the bridge does not quite reach the other shore. Will they all make it across?
The subject of blind men was not new to Buddhism, but previously had often been presented in a more negative way. For example, here is a “capping phrase” (which could be applied to a koan) from traditional Zen:
One blind man tugs many blind men;
Pulling each other into the fire-pit.
In the Mumonkan collection, koan #46 has a verse by Wu-men (Jp: Mumon) that is more complex in its analogies.
The eye in the forehead is darkened,
The pointer on the scale misleads us;
Throwing away body and spirit,
The blind are leading the blind.
Although the first two lines seem negative, is “throwing away body and spirit” a possible Zen activity? If so, the blind leading the blind may have some positive connotations. In this depiction of blind men on a bridge, Hakuin added his own doka (Buddhist waka) poem in the upper left, using the traditional Japanese five-line form of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables:
ukiyo mo zatô no
wataru kokoro wa
yoki tebiki nari
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
The idea of a perilous bridge maintained its importance to Hakuin through the years. In his sermon “Awakening from Day-Dreaming,” he writes, “The bridge which takes us across our floating world is dangerous for the feet which walk over it.” Yet words alone cannot be as powerful as when combined with a painting; in Hakuin’s portrayals of blind men trying to cross a log bridge, he created images that can resonate with us all.
Stephen Addiss is an author, painter, calligrapher, and art professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. He is coauthor of The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin, with Audrey Yoshiko Seo.