“Life is a bridge. Don’t build a house on it”

Someone called Nizar asked me about this quote today:

“Life is a bridge. Don’t build a house on it.”

This is often just called an “Indian proverb,” but several books, including “Human Life and the Teachings of Buddha” (1988), by Mandar Nath Pathak, attribute this to the Buddha. In “Buddha and the Rasava” (1958), Kumaraswamiji offers an extended version, which he also attributes to the Buddha:

Life is a bridge, build no house upon it; it is a river, cling not to its banks; it is a gymnasium, use it to develop the mind on the apparatus of circumstance; it is a journey, take it and walk on.

A version of this saying (“Life is a bridge. Cross over it, but don’t build a house on it.”) is attributed to the late Sri Sathya Sai Baba.

It should be pretty obvious to anyone familiar with the Buddhist scriptures that this is not a canonical quotation. The directness of the metaphor and the wording are completely off.

The earliest use of this maxim that I’ve found so far is in “The Bridge-Builders, and Other Poems” (1908), by H. Harrold Johnson:

“Life is a bridge: pass over it, but build not houses upon it.”—Old saying.

No further reference is given.

The English Buddhist writer Christmas Humphreys used essentially the same quote in several of his books. For example in “Studies in the Middle Way: Being Thoughts on Buddhism Applied” (1940), he has

“Life is a bridge: pass over it, but build no houses on it.”

This he attributes to Akbar — presumably Akbar the Great, or Akbar I, who was Mughal Emperor from 1556 until his death in 1605. But elsewhere Humphreys says this is an old Chinese proverb.

In the biographical work, “Clendon Daukes, Servant of Empire” (1951), written by Lady Dorothy Maynard Lavington Evans Daukes, we read:

We also visited Fatehpur Sikri, that deserted city of a byegone age, built of red sandstone by the Emperor Akbar. We mused over the Arabic inscription on the great gateway: “Life is a bridge, a bridge that you shall pass over. You shall not build your house upon it.”

According to the Wikipedia entry on Buland Darwaza, the Persian inscription says:

Isa (Jesus), son of Mary said: ‘The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the world endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.’

So Akbar was not the author, but was passing on a quotation, although where it’s from, I don’t know.

The Buddha did use metaphors regarding bridges: sometimes emphasizing their fragility, as in when he talked of blotting out the conceit “I am” as the wind demolishes a fragile bamboo bridge, and sometimes emphasizing their utility, as when he talked of crossing “the flood” by means of a bridge while others scrambled to get frail rafts together.

If you like it, share it!
Share on TumblrShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Share on FacebookEmail this to someonePin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponTweet about this on Twitter

4 thoughts on ““Life is a bridge. Don’t build a house on it””

  1. I recently visited Taj Mahal and I’ve been told one of the inscriptions to be exactly this phrase. So it could be attributed to Akbar’s grandson. But it could be a quotation from Coran. To be checked…

  2. The quotation below which i copied and pasted from above is NOT what Jesus said. HE said “come out of this world” entirely different picture than the world being a bridge. Jesus said in John 14:16″I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In other words, HE is the bridge (HIMSELF) and HIS way ALONE is the way to the Father for HE is ONE with the Father. The understanding of “ONE” is an eastern “Hebrew” analogy of a “first born male child” being the same as his father in what he does, what he says, how he does things. In this content one will find absolutely NO difference and in fact an EXACT image…

    Isa (Jesus), son of Mary said: ‘The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the world endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.’

    1. Well, it’s certainly not the Jesus of the New Testament, but there are other Jesuses, such as that of the Gnostic Gospels. In this case it’s the Jesus of the Koranic tradition.

    2. Your last comment was simply deranged, Jacob. I’d publish and comment on it if I wasn’t too busy “serving my lord and master, Satan,” as you put it.

      Your future comments will be directed to spam for automatic deletion, incidentally.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *