Zen Story of the Week – “Empty your cup” – What Does It Mean?

Today’s Zen Story is one of the most famous, known as “Empty your cup”. The story is undoubtedly very ancient. This 19th/20th Century version comes courtesy of the blog “The Stone Mind“:

“Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

So what can we learn from this brief tale?

This story comes with the trademark Zen brevity. Many Zen teachings are two line stories, proverbs and koans.

No extended philosophical treatise here!

The story seems to be telling us that the main barrier between us and enlightenment is our own “opinions and speculations”. In order to learn and experience reality, we must first drop our pre-existing ideas that we have brought to the table.

Its worth noting that the person who comes to the master is a professor – learned, knowledgeable, intelligent. But the wise master gives him a profound teaching.

This aspect of the story reflects the deep suspicion in Zen of book learning.

So what is wrong with reading books?

Nothing is wrong with it, per se. Its rather the attachment to the ideas that books tend to produce, a strong sense of ego, derived from the knowledge of other people’s ideas.

Zen is much more about intuition, a direct immediate grasp of reality, of Satori (sudden awareness or Enlightenment) rather than having many words, concepts and ideas from books.

Zen is not about second hand knowledge.

Zen is about seeing for yourself.

“Come and see,” as Jesus of Nazareth says in the New Testament.

The Christian word for the emptying out of our mind is “humility”. The Bible says God “gives grace” to the humble. This grace is, I imagine, the same that the Zen Master would give to his professor student once he had emptied his cup!

I’m reminded here of the line by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki in his seminal book “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind”:

“In the beginners mind the possibilities are many. In the expert’s, they are few.”

The writer of “Empty your cup” is urging us to have a beginner’s mind, a “blank slate”.

So what is Zen, exactly?

The essential profound teaching of Zen is that we don’t need to gain anything to experience Enlightenment; after all, out truest self is our “Buddha nature”, our divine nature. What we have to do is not “gain” stuff, but drop it.

Drop our illusions, opinions, pre-conceptions about how life should be. And embrace reality as it is. Trouble is, so ingrained are these patterns of thought is that it takes years of meditation to begin to chip away at our “false self”.

Which brings me to the main point of the “Empty your cup” story, which I think that most people miss.

Many people see this story and think that the professor should “empty” his cup, in order to be filled with the Zen teaching. But that would be just more words, more ideas.

The truth is this: Zen IS the emptiness. The master would say he has nothing else to teach. Just to be empty of self. So you can fill up with…the Universe.

That’s it.




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