The first time I saw this Japanese ink painting, I was smitten, captivated by its simplicity and the intriguing subject of the work – three blind men attempting to cross a bridge suspended precariously high above the ground.
Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768) has been hailed as the most important Zen master of the past five hundred years. Among other things, he invented the koan, a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution used to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning (example: “what is the sound of one hand?”). Hakuin was also the most significant Zen artist of the 18th century, creating several thousand works of painting and calligraphy, including this painting.
Hakuin painted several versions of this theme, some with two blind men, while others, three. In all cases, the scene is similar: mountains float in the distance, a few pine trees dot the scenery, and the blind men – deftly depicted by a few short dashes of ink – are struggling to cross the bridge from right to left. But there is a yawning gap between the end of the bridge and left shore that makes the crossing even more challenging than it already is, all of which symbolizes the arduous task of reaching the Buddhist state of enlightenment.
Study the painting carefully and you can almost empathize with the struggle that each of the blind men are going through. The first man 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. In other words, the challenge seems to get harder and harder as they inch towards toward the other side. And as mentioned earlier, the bridge does not quite reach the shore, so the viewer is left guessing in suspense: will they all make it across?
The idea of a perilous bridge remained with 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 that walk over it.” Yet words alone cannot match the palpable anguish of the blind men he portrays so well. It is truly a masterpiece.