Dharma Data: Roads and Bridges

The constructing of roads and bridges, the building of rest-houses and the making of provisions for travellers has always been an important and popular expression of Buddhist generosity. The reasons for this are not clear. Perhaps it is because the Buddhist life is seen as analogous to a journey, samsara to raging river that has to be crossed and Dhamma to a means of crossing. The first exhortation to aid the traveller’s way is to be found in the Pali Tipitaka. In the Anguttana Nikaya, the Buddha says that those who build causeways and bridges will make much merit for themselves. King Asoka took this as a cue to have roads straightened and repaired, to have them lined with trees and to have wells dug at regular intervals along them.

Numerous records from the Buddhist period in India mention similar good works. A 15 century Tibetan saint built an iron chain suspension bridge that was still in use in the 1950’s. In medieval Japan building roads and bridges as an act of piety became almost an obsession. Monks and nuns were forever touring the country collecting funds for such projects and usually the whole community participated in the actual construction. A document dated 1276 concerning the construction of a bridge over the Midori River says: “People of high and low estate crowd on either bank, bickering constantly. People and horses vied to board small boats that then capsize, drowning their passengers”. The monk who built his bridge says he did so because : ” When we see a dangerous situation, we must make it safe, for the Buddha has compassion for people”. Before the rise of the modern states with public works departments, the Buddhist enthusiasm for building roads and bridges had a significant role to play in developing trade, communications, the spread of ideas and generally lessening of the hardships of life.