“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 [Uttar Pradesh, India], 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. The inscription claims it’s from Jesus. Which scripture would that be, though, assuming that’s correct? I don’t know.

Petrus Alphonsi (died after 1116, long before the inscription was carved in Fatehpur Sikri) included a similar quote in his “Disciplina Clericalis,” although he attributes it to “a philosopher.” (Thanks for a commenter below for that information.)

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.

13 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…

    1. 2. Teaching in Sidon

      In entering Sidon, Jesus and his associates passed over a bridge, the first one many of them had ever seen. As they walked over this bridge, Jesus, among other things, said: “This world is only a bridge; you may pass over it, but you should not think to build a dwelling place upon it.”

  2. Found this one. Mahayana Buddhist. This saying seems tied to North India.

    You are like a traveler in this life. So don’t build a castle where you are just passing by.
    ~ Padampa Sangye

    1. Thanks. Where’s that from? I’ve found the following attributed to Patrul Rinpoche, but not in many places: “You are a traveler in this life, don’t make a castle wherever you are resting for a while.”

  3. A medieval author, Petrus Alphonsi, preserves a saying much like saying 42 in his Clerical Instruction: ‘This world is, as it were, a bridge. Therefore, pass over it, only do not lodge there.’ A very similar saying attributed to Jesus is preserved in the form of an Arabic inscription at the site of a mosque at Fatehpur-Sikri, India.” (The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus, p. 87)

    Alphonsi was a medieval Jewish physician who was born in Islamic Spain and converted to Christianity before moving to Western Europe. It is likely that the quote is an elaboration on the above quoted Gospel of Thomas logia, which would have been known to early Islamic authors in contact with the Syriac Christian tradition from which extra-canonical accounts like the Gospel of Thomas originated (or, the quote itself was simply part of the sayings tradition that would contribute to the compilation of the Thomasine Gospel and from there go on to inspire Islamic tradition that would later transmit to India). This sayings tradition is known today as the agrapha (ἄγραφον) – extracanonical sayings of Jesus attributed to oral tradition, the Church Fathers, or sources like the Gospel of Thomas or similar.

    1. Thank you for that information. The quote at Fatehpur Sikri is mentioned in the article, but it’s good to have another reference to it.

    1. Hi, Endy. Yes, the quote is found in the Urantia book, but that was written in the 20th century, hundreds of years after its first appearance.

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