In the Tipitaka (or Pali Buddhist Canon), the crossing of a river is frequently used as a metaphor for the spiritual journey. In the Kulāvaka Jātaka, the Bodhisattva (a being that compassionately refrains from entering bliss in order to save others) is depicted as a civic-minded villager who removes large stones from the surrounding roads, cuts down trees that might break wagon or chariot axles and who constructs bridges, watering places and rest houses for the convenience of travellers. Therefore, building bridges, paying for their construction and repairing them seems to have had a particular attraction for early Buddhists. There are a number of Mayanana Sutras (later Buddhist texts) that mentions the virtue of building bridges. One text maintains that good merit can be gained by “maintaining ferries to help people cross rivers” and “constructing bridges so that the ill and weak can cross rivers."
In fact, building bridges as a religious practice became very popular in China and Japan. A Chinese work called the Sichuan tongzhi, tells us about a monk who says: “At first I thought that the greatest source of merit came from carving wooden statues and clay images of the Buddha. However, one day I realized that the true ‘ladder and boat of merit’ was to help other people and other beings." Chinese sources that refer to bridge construction by monks or devote lay people frequently mention that they did it out of ‘pity for the difficulties of the people’ or out of compassion ‘for people who drowned in boats attempting to cross the river’.
These historical facts are a beautiful illustration of how our daily actions can become imbued with meaning and spiritual significance. There are many ways in which we can become bridge builders within our family, our community and our country. It starts with the simple act of making life a little easier for others by assisting them to overcome obstacles. Alternatively, it can be in greeting our next door neighbor who speaks a different language and goes to a church, mosque or temple we don't know.
Helping others cross the river, we ease our own crossing. This is the message of the Buddha.
With Metta (loving-kindness),