The True Bridge? Studying and Teaching Zen

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A monk asked Zhaozhou, “For a long time I’ve heard about Zhaozhou’s stone bridge. Coming here, I only see a simple log bridge.”

Zhou said, “You only see the simple log bridge, but don’t see the stone bridge.”

The monk said, ”What is the stone bridge like?”

Zhao said, “Carries donkeys, carries horses.”

Zhaozhou is both a province in ancient China with a famous bridge and an important Zen teacher who not only lived to 120 but whose mu koan opened the way for many in this generation. According to Wikipedia there was and is a famous bridge in the area: “Ānjì Qiáo; literally: ‘Safe crossing bridge’ is the world’s oldest open-spandrel segmental arch bridge of stone construction. Credited to the design of a craftsman named Li Chun, the bridge was constructed in the years 595-605 during the Sui dynasty (581–618). Located in the southern part of Hebei Province, it is the oldest standing bridge in China.”

The monk here is clearly not a Zen tourist. He plays with place and person, artifice and the true, and a means in the buddhadharma for crossing over and the teacher sitting before him now. The Ānjì Qiáo safe-crossing bridge was already a couple hundred years old at the time of this dialogue but the monk didn’t really come to sight-see.

He came to meet the true Zhaozhou and what he finds is a broken-down old man – a simple log bridge. The characters that are frequently translated as “simple log bridge” 獨木橋 also have the figurative meaning of “difficult path” – not a safe crossing after all. But a crossing from one shore to the other nonetheless. A bridge that doesn’t reach the other side, or at least comes up just short enough to jump the gap, isn’t a bridge at all.

Zhaozhou responds by flavorlessly becoming the monk. Dogen Zenji called this “identity action.” Katagiri Roshi called it “putting others in your shoes.”

“You only see the simple log bridge, but don’t see the stone bridge.” Zhaozhou, the bridge and the ancient mirror. reflects whatever comes before it, giving the student nothing other than what the student brings. Nothing else is necessary to realize our essential nature and to do the steady work of bridge walking.

The monk sees that Zhaozhou is indeed the real deal and asks what that’s like. Zhaozhou says that this bridge is there for all – the stubborn and ruddy as well as for the swift and elegant.

Most translations have something like “It lets donkeys cross, it lets horses cross.” The original 渡驢渡馬 could also be read as more active – “Carries donkeys, carries horses.” And this is more in line with the process of teaching where the teacher is engaged in the student’s process, where the teacher’s body, heart, and mind is what connects this shore and the other shore and the student makes use of it, spanning the same illusory chasm. So the teacher actively connects and the student actively crosses over. 

Two points about this. First, passivity on either the teacher or the student’s part won’t carry. The teacher bridging and the student moving makes the bridge a bridge, makes the teacher the teacher, and the student the student.

Second, the teacher as bridge metaphor shows no sign of the teacher using the process to exercise his/her will over the student. The forms of practice (zazen, walking, bowing, meeting) are not about the student’s will being broken, demonstrated by compliance with the teacher’s will. More on this in this talk, “A Shadow Side of Zen and Seeking Essential Nature.”

The bridge is there for crossing over. Indeed, the teacher’s vulnerability and propensity to be overlooked is highlighted by the koan as well. As students, we might travel far and yet not even see the passage way right before our very eyes.

So Dogen wrote, “The body is manifested.  The Dharma is unfolded and there is a bridge in the world for crossing over. The virtue returns to the ocean of all-knowing wisdom. This is unfathomable. Please accept it with respect and gratitude.”

Yuanwu (1063–1135), the Blue Cliff Record commentator, caps it all in a note not translator in the Cleary version: “True? Hah!”

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