The Bridge

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


THE BRIDGE


 The poet has said, "There are those who hold life like a precious stone, hither and thither turning it to see the rich light play in its mysterious depths; and other men to whom life seems like a bridge by which they passed to things that lie beyond." In so passing they mark the transition of worlds, of states, of continental integrities. They pass in space and in the time that marks their lives, the span of which echoes but a portion of a circle in its arch. They pass in the mind alight with the fire of daring, along the beams of the expansive force in nature.

 The idea of the bridge in myth and legend is seen by some as a shadowy replication of the bridges that man developed to accommodate the acquisitive flow of worldly life. But if ideas beget forms, the bridge of myth must be a symbolic reflection of an archetypal, ideational bridge in the collective consciousness of man from the most ancient of days. Just as the idea spans the realms of consciousness, so too the symbol reappears upon myriad levels of graded strata. Nature bridges endlessly though few ponder the cosmic and psychological correlations. It is notable that Sir Samuel Brown, inventor of the modern suspension bridge, was inspired by the sight of a spider's web hanging across his path as he took his morning walk, deep in concentration upon the idea of bridging the Tweed.

 In Nordic lands the earth and heavenly Walhalla were believed to be spanned by a rainbow bridge. Over the diaphanous arch passed the warriors killed in battle whom the Valkyries carried on their horses to their well-earned rest. Over its slender bow strode the gods as they sought communication with mankind. In the Gylfaginning it is asked: "What is the path from earth to heaven?" and the answer comes: "Have you not been told that the gods made a bridge from earth to heaven which is called Bifrost."

 A bridge of the gods crossing to the other world symbolically accommodates the passage of the brave in numerous traditions, taking on many guises. The great felled Oak of Siberian tribes describes the milky way along which pass the souls of those "killed without sickness." In Chinese mythology the gods descend to earth on the 'Floating Bridge of Heaven' while the souls of the Japanese ascend to heaven upon the eight planks of the Buddhist bridge Yatsu-hashi. Thus the span of worlds is bridged in symbol systems of thought and glyph. Even in song the rainbow passage to another world is poignantly suggested in the lyrics: "Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high. There's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby."

 The mythic bridge often opens onto the underworld, and like the Finnish Tuonen silta, leads to judgment of the soul. In the Zoroastrian and Magian traditions there are many references to Chinavar, the 'Bridge of the Separator.' It is a straight road to the other world on which angels demand a strict account of each man's actions. If the evidence weighs in favor of the petitioner, he may pass, but if it does not, he must fall from the bridge. This crossing is depicted by the Arabs as "finer than a hair and sharper than a sword," bordered by thorns and briers, while beneath it gapes the abyss of hell. It requires a journey of three thousand years, and those with heavy debts may take eight times that long. The view from the wooded bridge of the fiery river below is described by Dante in the Inferno, and in this as well as other traditions there is a guard or gatekeeper who denies passage to the unworthy.

 The word 'bridge' comes from the Teutonic brig and is related only in idea to other Indo-European expressions such as pont, ponte or puente. Pontifex Maximus was the title given to the Pope by those Catholics who saw in his office a bridge leading to salvation. With more occult significance, 'bridge' is the name given to that narrow arching part of a violin over which the strings must pass to carry their vibrations to the rest of the instrument.

 If that which is above in ideational realms is mirrored in the creative efforts of man, then bridges built upon the earth are worthy of study in all their elements. The arch, so often used in bridges, reflects a great fundamental geometry.

      The sunlit stream upon its bosom takes
      The inverted shadow of a bridge on high,
      And thus the arch in air and water makes
      One perfect circle to the gazer's eye.
      So 'tis with life; the things that so appear
      Are fleeting shadows on time's passing tides,
      Cast by the sunshine of a larger sphere
      From viewless things that changelessly abide.

Thus Plato taught in the Academy that human life and thought have their ideal counterparts in the archetypal world. This complementarity of spiritual and material life is symbolized in a perfect circle with a horizontal diameter. Thomas Paine, who turned his attention to bridge building in the early nineteenth century, focussed his creative genius upon the arch and said; "The principle I took to begin with and work upon, was that the small segment of a large circle was preferable to a great segment of a small circle." He dreamed of building spans that would unite distant shores and suggest a portion of a circle that could ultimately encompass the entire globe.

 Arches constantly press outward against their abutments which must receive the expansive thrust. They rely upon the lateral transmission of compressive forces for their strength and stability. Often bridges are built with several arches which require piers to be established under water. The footing of the pier must be placed on bedrock, and its construction often requires a 'de-watering' of the area. In the process of human development there are many counterparts of these elements. Man attempts to leap forward in thought, pushing against the foundations of his present knowledge. To insure success in this endeavour, the arc of his mental trajectory must reflect an understanding of the material vestures of consciousness. The securing of the piers within the water symbolically permits him to gain a stable platform amidst the dangerous astral currents that engulf the careless mind.

 There are myriad psychological analogues to bridge building which suggest the tensile flexibility of this symbol. If the suspended span of a cantilever bridge is of light and highly compacted material, it can achieve a very great length. If the thought-forms we project are derived from akasic matter, they will extend out through space, linking securely with other forms in that universal realm. Cantilever and suspension bridges are particularly interesting in the mode of their construction. They utilize 'falsework' which is built up to support permanent beams and cables as they are being extended across the span. The suspension span is built by the use of temporary links while 'skyhooks' are often used as overhead booking points to stabilize temporarily the final eyebars and stiffening trusses. Many of our sincere mental efforts are 'falsework' providing a framework as we inch our way over an unknown span in our search for truth. Often, sadly, the 'falsework' is mistaken for the real bridge. Its complicated mental constructs can lend an illusion of having spanned the abyss of ignorance. But, like all temporary frameworks, it can only bear the weight of the workmen. Subjected to live loads, it will collapse and retard the process of building the real bridge. 'Falsework' is necessary, and man needs 'skyhooks' or relative truths to guide his development, but in the end he must abandon them in order to rest upon the truth itself.

 One may well ask what is bridged? What chasm or river torrent can match the courageous profile of the narrow span? Perhaps Death itself, who awaits the mistaken step of one who strives for immortality; or the water of primeval chaos that can psychically engulf the fallen pilgrim. The ancient Greeks and Romans attributed evil to the torrents beneath a bridge and took magical and religious precautions in its construction. The stakes in crossing the symbolic bridge and returning are high indeed, for the man who undertakes to do this while alive and in a body can win immortal life. This is the 'paradoxical passage' into the body of the great Primeval Mother to rescue the innocent daughter and return again to the world. Many are the legends of the hero who descends along a bridge "narrow as a thread and sharp as a knife blade" to rescue the pure maiden. The noble Sir Gawain bridged the torrents under water to gain the love of a beautiful princess entrapped in the realm below. Such tales describe a passage into the womb of Mother Nature who strives to swallow up any who cannot outwit her craft. The Great Mother yawns as an abyss in consciousness and must be spanned and mastered by the piercing quest of the enlightened mind. Out of the great oblivion, the daughter of Chaos must be awakened and drawn forth into co-existence with the magus mind. Perhaps the most beautiful rendering of this noble venture is found in the Ramayana where Hanuman, the monkey king, vows to Rama to build of himself and his own kind a bridge to rescue the innocent and pure queen Sita. Hanuman speaks:

      O'er the deep sea where monsters play
      A bridge, O Rama, will I lay;
      For sharer of my father's skill
      Mine is the power and mine the will.
      Command the Vanar hosts to lay
      Foundations for the bridge today.

Across this sacrificial bridge of man's lower nature strode Rama and all his forces to subdue the monstrous Ravana, misshapen remnant of an ill-used age. Thus Buddhi was drawn forth and the ensnaring coils of chaotic astral forces were overpowered by the Divine King.

 The bridge is truly the key-point of transition in the mind just as it is in human history. It is at its crossing that people camp at the boundary of a new land. Through its triumphal arches conquering armies pass, and upon its span men wage their fiercest battles. Before crossing to the other side the inner and outer opposition rises up and uses every force to defeat the passage. Indeed there are agencies opposed to the existence of the bridge itself. In Eddie mythology the evil sons of Muspel struggle to destroy the rainbow bridge. But the real foe of the bridge within is the lower nature of man. The fearful personality may try to negate the bridge, sensing the presence of the toll gate at its entrance where all accounts are added up.

 Every man has within him a bridge and though he may not know its end, he must become aware of every detail of its nature in order to realize its full potential in consciousness. If it is strong it will enable the strings of higher consciousness to carry their vibration to the rest of his nature. It will enable his passage back and forth from the realm of ideas to that of action. Great virtue is needed to realize and cross this bridge; virtue in the sense of knowledge. There is a mathematics to the process and the internal and external stress factors must be understood thoroughly. The expansive and contractive forces working in all the 'materials' of man's nature must be discovered and blended to produce the maximum tensile strength. The sevenfold rainbow bridge of man's potential nature must be harmonized and brought to bear the ground of universal ideation. Just as the concave and convex sides of a material are compressed together to provide greater durability, so too the double-sided nature of man's virtues-cum-vices must be pressed into service. The lateral expansion must be strengthened by vertical trusses, a continual binding from above below and back again. Great care must be taken to ensure that the pressure will be equally borne by all the parts, and to avoid a gap in communication between the architect, the builder and the material he uses. The cosmic design perceived in the mind must inform every atom of man's material vehicles and bind them to the over-arching plan. Great external forces may rush against the painstakingly constructed span just as the wind whipped the famous Tacoma bridge which twisted under the gale, each gust thus altering its point of assault, introducing forces which accentuated the twist until the great bridge was ripped apart. In launching out across the chasm, man must anticipate the combative forces and maintain in his inner nature a resilient sense of balance until the point when he has crossed the bridge.

 The bridge that lies within man's nature is the antaskarana or antar (within) karana (acting). It is the "subtle inner instrument of man's being" which can be exercised in all circumstances of life to build a self-conscious link between higher and empirical worlds, rendering every context sacred. Man gathers his virtues at this bridge, drawn up "between two causes" and prepares to "sacrifice the personal to Self impersonal and thus destroy the 'Path' between the two – Antaskarana." But like the warrior who flees the enemy forces, he can only afford to destroy the bridge when he is safely within the stronghold. If we burn our bridges prematurely we will have crossed to the other side only in a delusive sense while our consciousness remains ever behind. There is no rung in the ladder of knowledge that can be skipped.

 The warrior, secure in the stronghold of his inner being, has crossed over a drawbridge which he pulls up to repel his pursuers. But if he wishes to return to those on the other side whom he may benefit, he can lower the bridge and show them the pathway to the stronghold. Some of the most primitive bridges were constructed by shooting an arrow, attached to a line, across a chasm. But at least one intrepid climber would have to descend into and ascend out of the abyss in order to receive the line. The weaving back and forth of subsequent arrows and lines would eventually create a span strong enough to bear the weight of many men. Thus one courageous soul can open the way for those who would follow and, like the merciful warrior who crosses back over the drawbridge, reflect the divine compassion of those who breathe in accordance with universal moral law. That this law is reflected in every process of nature is magnificently symbolized in the great bridge of primordial manifestation described so beautifully in The Stanzas of Dzyan.

 FATHER-MOTHER SPIN A WEB WHOSE UPPER END IS FASTENED TO SPIRIT, THE LIGHT OF THE ONE DARKNESS, AND THE LOWER ONE TO MATTER, ITS SHADOWY END; AND THIS WEB IS THE UNIVERSE SPUN OUT OF TWO SUBSTANCES MADE IN ONE, WHICH IS SVABHAVAT.

It is within the realm of refined human consciousness that the full bridge, from above below, can be realized, crossed and extended even when the two have become the One.