A Bridge to Nowhere

How Zen

July 06, 2012

I have recently finished reading a new set of kōans for programmers. I have long loved reading kōans in general. I like their paradoxical stories, even if I don’t necessarily achieve enlightenment while reading them.

Given the nature of my personality, today I thought of the idea of writing “anti-kōans.” Just like what Despair.com has done with (de-)motivational posters, I wondered, “How could you come up with kōans that bring home a lesson, a real, valuable lesson, but about something that is not necessarily positive or enlightening?” Below is my first example, something I call a “grōan” (pun intended). I am thinking of writing a series of them called “The Hateless Hate” (based on The Gateless Gate – get it?)

A bridge to nowhere

Once the prince came to Jiǎogēn, the humble monk tasked with making sure all foot, rider and wagon traffic moved on the kingdom’s roads as quickly and directly as possible. The prince declared his vision for a new bridge, which would become the main bridge by which the many merchants, pilgrims and others in the kingdom would cross the dangerous, raging river to reach the imperial city, replacing the sturdy, if old and rather ugly stone bridge that was used now. The dream of the new bridge that the prince described to the monk was indeed impressive. It was to be built entirely of spider silk, renowned for its strength and versatility, and would be the envy of all rival kingdoms near and far.

“Surely it will take many years to construct such a worthy edifice, especially considering the need to use materials unfamiliar to any of the kingdom’s craftspeople, requiring them to learn new skills,” thought the monk. Caution would obviously be warranted, since if the bridge failed it would send whoever was on it – merchants, visiting dignitaries, perhaps the king himself – plummeting to their deaths in the rapids below. Therefore, Jiǎogēn asked how much time would be available to create such an impressive structure.

“Three months,” answered the prince.

“Three months?” replied the monk, unsure that he had heard correctly. “Surely you mean three seasons? Or perhaps even three years?”

“Three months. It must be ready in time for the opening day of the large summer fair in the city. It will be the showcase of our power to all around.”

“But in just three months time, we might just possibly be able to gather enough spider silk to build a simple rope bridge,” protested the monk.

“The treasury has been instructed to allow you to purchase whatever you need. You will have your silk.”

“And none of our engineers are familiar with working with spider silk,” continued Jiǎogēn.

“Here are some scrolls describing how monks in other kingdoms have been able to build simple ladders using such silk,” replied the prince. “A ladder is just like a bridge – a bridge between different heights instead of different sides! Such examples must be similar enough to be useful to you. And I have great confidence in your ability to take these descriptions of such puny attempts and expand them far beyond simple toys and build a bridge impressive enough to make our kingdom famous far and wide!”

“But even if we can purchase all the silk we need, and even if I can draft every worker in the countryside, and even if I can decipher these arcane scrolls and extract any useful lessons from them, three months gives us barely enough time to build such an edifice. There won’t be time to make sure it can withstand the massive amount of people, animals, carts, chariots and wagons that will be crossing it to enter the city for the opening of the festival!”, cried the monk. “How can we possibly open the new bridge if it hasn’t been given a fair trial? Who will test it?”

“The travelers are aware of their role,” calmly answered the prince, as he strode from the room.

Upon hearing this, Jiǎogēn became benighted .