(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on Oct 16, 2017.)

Bridges over nothing at the entrance of Longxing Temple in Zhengding, Hebei Province

One of the many benefits brought to society by Buddhist monks was the building of bridges. In the simplest terms, the building of a bridge was an act of compassion.

Imagine the days when the only way to cross a river was by ferry--or, when the water was rough or the river swollen, to go many miles to an easier crossing. In such places, a bridge was essential, and brought great comfort to the locals.

Secondly, to engineer such a project, especially if pilings needed to be placed in the water, required skill and training, and monks were often better educated than the general populace.

In addition, bridges could be costly, and monks were able to generate cash by performing ceremonies or providing medical and other services, as well as draw on the resources of their temples. Local magistrates were even known to order specific monks to raise funds to build bridges in their communities.

We find many accounts of travelers in pre-modern China describing bridge projects undertaken by monks.

But beyond all these practical considerations, bridges had a symbolic function. The world as we know it, with all its suffering and confusion, is termed samsara in Buddhist teachings. That other state, of unending bliss (or perhaps extinction, or release from suffering) is known as nirvana. And between the two stands a river which must be crossed.

And so the teachings of the Buddha (the Dharma) are called a bridge; the acts of compassion by the Buddha's followers (the Sangha) are also bridges; and the very followers themselves, especially those who achieve the status of Bodhisattvas, are also called bridges.

Perhaps this is why so many temples feature bridges at the entry, sometimes crossing nothing at all. While these may just be decorative, they also have a symbolic function, as they carry the pilgrim or visitor across from this world into the Buddha Realm of the temple.

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