Empty Cup

Perhaps you are familiar with the story of a scholar and a Zen master meeting over a cup of tea. The Zen master asks the scholar what he knows about Zen. The scholar, needing no further invitation, begins to reel off pages of literary allusions, footnotes, and parts of old lectures. As the scholar talks, the Zen master pours the tea. Finally, when the legs and feet of the scholar are thoroughly soaked he follows the trail of tea back to the smiling face of the Zen master. “Why, do you continue to pour when my cup is full to overflowing?” asks the scholar with some indignation. The Zen master then asks:

“How, can I teach you anything about Zen until you first empty your cup!”

Many of us know what it is like to be the scholar: to be full of knowledge and things to do, to have our calendars and heads full. We know the theoretical value of emptiness, but something stops us short of the act. We tremble at the thought of emptying our cup.

Another story from the Zen tradition provides a clue. Two monks are walking along a road together. One walks with great seriousness of purpose. The other simply walks one step at a time. They come to a river. A young woman approaches them. She bows, they bow. Then she makes her request: “O Noble Sirs, ” she says, “I cannot cross the stream by myself, would one of you carry me over?” The first monk crosses his arms and shakes his head NO! He knows the rules: monks must not touch women. The second monk bows so that the young woman can ride upon his shoulders. The three of them cross to the opposite shore and bow to each other again.

The two monks continue walking. The first monk is angry, he pounds his sandles into the earth. The second monk walks as before. Finally the first monk cannot contain himself any longer. “HOW COULD YOU?!” he bellows, “You know the rules about monks and women!” The second monk pauses and then bows to his companion. “My friend, ” he says, “I left the woman back there on the shore. Why do you still carry her on your back?”

Emptiness has something to do with letting go, turning loose. We must “lay down our burdens, down by the riverside”. We must risk turning loose the burden of our opinions, our knowledge, our rules of how things should be. Letting go of the burden of past and future, we enter the stream that flows through the open heart and the present moment and how, oh how, we open ourselves to new knowledge and understanding — then, the only limit is the sky and we progress more than we ever imagined, thus growing exponentially in our Art.