July 1, 2012
The contrast between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges reminds me of an old Zen story, which I heard from Clarke Strand, one of my teachers in Zen. One weekend many years ago, a Zen temple in upstate New York had organized a public reception to raise awareness and attract interest. Near the entrance to the temple is a small bridge going over a rivulet. At the entrance to this bridge was a wooden sign with an old haiku, translated from Japanese thus:
Across this bridge
No One goes
On a pale autumn’s evening.
Apparently, sometime on the first morning of this weekend event, the temple’s office received a phone call from a confused visitor: “if no one can cross the bridge, how can we get in there?”
It turns out, of course, that the haiku’s message is a cornerstone of Zen’s teaching rather than a prohibition. As Clarke explained it, “No One” is not a null set, not a non-entity. “No One,” in fact, is the One we seek when we practice Zen or meditation or (I would add) a physical exercise practice such as long distance walking. Metaphorically, “no one” can be seen as the natural person within you who has been repressed or denied by his culture, his society and its authorities, or even by the ego within himself. Or “no one” can be sensed more generally as the undiscovered self, the dormant inner which has been neglected amid the press and ambition of the obsession with the outer. “No One” is the person who lives and soars beyond the pale of conflict, acquisition, comparison, distraction, complexity, and contention. “No One” doesn’t care if the crossing is ugly or lonely or narrow or neglected or stark and austere. In fact, “No One” prefers it that way; “No One” focuses more on the inner act of crossing than on the view or the entertainment to be had amid that act. This is the sense of the I Ching’s urgent declaration, repeated throughout its text, that “it furthers to cross the great water.”
This brings me back to the appeal of the Manhattan Bridge over the Brooklyn: it doesn’t ask whether you need to be seen, entertained, diverted, or crowded; it merely asks, “do you need to make a crossing?” I like that, because “crossing the great water” is a universal task, a deeply pragmatic undertaking, something that calls upon the entire energy of your being. Such a crossing is solitary only in appearance, because when you move with all of yourself, you activate forces both within and around you that are undetected by normal, external awareness.
So there is plenty of company, after all, in the seemingly more solitary path of the metaphorical “Manhattan Bridge Crossing.” And this could be a source of the improvement I sense in Michael Moore’s health; it is certainly a source of the improvement in my own. For when you engage the total energy of “No One” in your crossing, you can discover a level of fulfillment, meaning, truth, and even a form of ecstasy that is the foundation and nurturing spring of true and enduring health.