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Empty the Cup, Then Wake Up

October 28, 2013

I have heard:

Once the great Japanese Master Nan-in gave audience to a Western professor of philosophy. Serving tea, Nan-in filled his visitor’s cup, and kept pouring. The tea filled up the saucer, spilled over into the tray, and still Nan-in kept pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could restrain himself no longer: “Stop! The cup is already full, no more can go in.”

Nan-in said: “Like this cup, you are too full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you the Buddha’s teaching unless first you empty your cup?”

Like the professor, you want to learn something about the Buddha’s teaching; but if you are there, then you are full. You are filled with own self. Even if you feel that you are empty, then you are not empty at all: you are still there. Who is feeing empty? Only the name has changed: now you call yourself ‘emptiness’.

Only when you are not are you actually empty, can the tea of the Buddha’s teaching be poured into you. Of course when you are not, there is really no need to pour the tea. When you are not, when you are truly empty even of yourself, the whole existence begins pouring, showering beauty from every direction. Only when you are not, then you effortlessly become full.

The story tells how a professor of philosophy came to see Zen Master Nan-in. It was very compassionate of Nan-in to grant him an audience. Of course the professor must have come to Nan-in for the wrong reasons, because philosophy means intellect, reasoning, thinking, doubting, argumentativeness. And that is the perfect way to fail, to be unenlightened, to close yourself off to the Buddha’s teaching.

Doubt, skepticism, argument are barriers, ego-boundaries. If you argue then you are closed, and also the whole mystery of enlightenment is closed to you. Whenever you argue, you must assert. Assertion is aggressive, violent; truth cannot be known by an aggressive mind, it cannot be discovered by violence or disclosed by force.

You can come to know truth only when you relax, surrender and empty yourself. And not only was the professor of philosophy full of himself—you are the same. Everyone carries their own assumptions, attitude, philosophy and preconceptions; everyone is a professor, because you profess your ideas,  your views, your heroic stories about yourself, and you believe in them.

You have your opinions, concepts and egotism, thus your eyes are dull, they cannot see; your mind is stupid, it cannot know; your heart is closed, you cannot feel anything beyond selfish desire. Ideas and egotism create stupidity because they make the mind full. And how much tea can a full cup hold? Ideas and egotism are like dust on a mirror. How can a dusty mirror reflect? Your intelligence is covered by opinions, egotism, dust; thus everyone who is full of opinions and ego is bound to be stupid and dull, incapable of reflexion.

That’s why professors of philosophy are almost always stupid. They know too much about words and ideas to actually know anything about life. They are too full of themselves, too heavy. They are so much in the mind that they can’t have wings, cannot fly in the sky. And neither can they have roots in the earth. Thus they remain trapped by abstractions, neither grounded in the earth nor free to fly into the sky.

And remember, you are the same. There may be a difference of quantity, but every unenlightened mind is qualitatively the same, because mind thinks, argues, collects and gathers knowledge, and becomes dull. Now you are full with ego and philosophy. The more philosophies and ego you have, the farther you are from enlightenment. If you gather the dust of philosophy, innocence is lost, you become closed; the mirror of the mind becomes dull and stupid.

Only innocent children are intelligent, are capable of learning. If you can retain your childhood, if you continuously cleanse the mirror of the mind and reclaim your childhood, you can remain innocent and intelligent. An enlightened mind is a non-philosophical mind, an innocent, intelligent mind. The mirror is clear, no dust has gathered; every day a continuous cleansing goes on. That’s meditation.

The professor of philosophy came to visit Nan-in. He must have come out of curiosity, to receive some fresh answers he could take back and use to impress others. People who are filled with questions are always in search of new answers. But there are only so many fundamental questions, and all answers must be in response to those questions: questions of life, meaning, purpose and freedom.

But Nan-in would not give him any answers. To be obsessed with knowledge, with questions and answers, is foolish. Nan-in could have given him a new mind, a new being, a new existence in which all questions are answered, because Nan-in was not a stupid professor but a Master.

You must have come to this book with many questions, because the mind gives birth to questions. Mind is a question-creating mechanism.Feed anything into it, out comes a question, and many more questions follow. Give any answer to it, and immediately the mind converts it into many questions, many doubts. You are filled with questions and answers; your cup is already full. No need for Nan-in to pour any tea into it, you are already overflowing.

You do not need any new answers. All questions and answers and arguments are useless, a waste of time and energy. The only answer that matters is the method of self-transformation given by the Buddha. And that one answer solves all questions. Philosophy has many questions, many answers—an endless, exhausting and ultimately fruitless search. The teaching of the Buddha has only one answer; whatever the question, the answer remains the same. The Buddha said: “The ocean has a single taste: that of salt. This is the sixth amazing & astounding quality of the ocean.” — Uposatha Sutta [Udāna 5.5] You taste seawater anywhere, and the taste remains the same.

So your questions are really irrelevant. Whatever you ask, the Buddha gives the same answer. But that one answer is the master key: it opens all doors. The Buddha has only one answer, and that answer is meditation: how to empty yourself of your ‘self’.

The professor must have been hot and tired after walking to Nan-in’s cottage. He must have been in a hurry. And Nan-in, observing him, must have said, “Wait a little.” Mind is always in a hurry, always in search of instantaneous overarching realizations. For the mind to wait, to be content with little, is almost impossible. It wants the answer, and wants it now!

But Nan-in was an Oriental; his ways were indirect and subtle. He was also enlightened; he would not give an answer, he will give an experience. Nan-in must have said, “You look tired. I will prepare tea for you. Wait a little, rest a little. Let’s have a cup of tea, and then we can discuss whatever you like.”

In Oriental culture, especially high Japanese culture, a criticism is never stated directly; to do so is to lose face. So Nan-in created a situation where he could deliver his message without loss of face either for himself or his guest. ‘Please have a cup of tea’ is a very compassionate Japanese way of saying, “You are fatigued and dull, almost asleep. You need to wake up.”

Nan-in went into his kitchen, put the water on to boil and started preparing the tea. But he was well aware of the professor. Not only was the water boiling, the professor also was boiling within. Not only was the tea kettle making sounds, the professor also was chattering continuously, babbling within. The professor must have been getting ready, thinking over what to ask, how to ask, from where to begin. Having brought many thoughts from his colleagues and students, many questions, he must have been in a deep monologue.

Nan-in must have been watching, smiling within, knowing well that this man is so full that nothing really valuable can penetrate him. The only answer that matters—realization of emptiness—cannot be given because there is no space to receive it. The guest cannot enter into the house; there is no room. As a great teacher, Nan-in must have wanted the Buddha to become a guest in this professor’s house. But his house was already full!

Out of compassion, the Buddha always wants to become a guest within you. He knocks from everywhere, but the door is locked. And even if he breaks the door, there is no room. You are so full with yourself and rubbish from school and family, and all types of useless nonsense you have accumulated over many, many lives, you cannot even enter into yourself; there is no room, no space. You live outside, alienated even from your own being. Even you cannot enter within yourself; everything is blocked. No wonder you sit down to meditate and nothing happens!

Then at the right time when everything was ready, Nan-in poured the tea into the cup. The professor was uneasy because he was full of expectations—ideas from other people about the proper way to pour tea. You are not supposed to spill it! But Nan-in kept on pouring and the cup was overflowing; soon it would be spilling on the floor. Of course, in England when serving tea, that is the absolute most incompetent thing you can do. So the professor shouted, “Stop! What are you doing? Are you mad?”

A professor will always accuse an enlightened person of being mad. The professor is a reasonable man, has so many rules, so many expectations, so many voices talking in his head telling him what to do, right and wrong, ambition, fame, prestige and so on. Of course, being an unenlightened man, he thinks the way to success is to follow the rules. And now this Zen madman is breaking the most fundamental rule of serving tea, pouring it all over the floor! “By God, what would Mother say?”

Nan-in was saying by his actions, “No, you are the one who is mad. You are so alert to observe that the cup cannot hold any more, but why are you unaware of your own self? You are overflowing with opinions, doctrines, philosophies, scriptures. You know too much already; I cannot give you anything. You have come here in vain. Before coming to me you should have emptied your cup, then I could pour something very good into it.

“You are not only mad, you are also a coward. You are so addicted to ‘being’ and ‘somethingness’ and ‘fullness’ that you cannot allow the cup to be empty even for a single moment. The moment you see emptiness anywhere, you compulsively start to fill it. You are terrified of emptiness; you are intimidated because emptiness appears to you like death. You will fill it with anything, even with shit, but you will fill it. Idiot!”

Of course, as a civilized Japanese, Nan-in would never bluntly chastise an honored guest, even a barbarian Westerner. So he created a device, a situation, an experience by which he could communicate indirectly what he would never say openly, except to a disciple. By over-emphasizing fullness, he pointed out the value of emptiness. This is Dhamma language, the subtle disclosure of truth by the Enlightened Ones.

Real emptiness means there is no cup, no ‘self’ left even to be empty. All the walls have disappeared, the bottom has fallen out; all that is left is an abyss. Then the Buddha can pour truth into you. Much is possible—in fact more than you can even imagine now—if you allow it. But to allow is arduous, because first you will have to empty yourself of your ‘self’.

Nan-in was saying to that professor: “Bow down, surrender, empty your mind. I am ready to pour the tea of emptiness, the Buddha’s teaching.” The professor had not even asked one question and Nan-in had already given the ultimate answer, because really there is no need to ask the question. The question always remains the same.

Whether you ask or not, the question is always about suffering. The question can take many forms but deep down it is one: the anxiety, the anguish, the meaninglessness, the futility of this life—so much hardship and suffering, never knowing who you really are, and why? You want to know, but you are full. You cannot absorb even a drop of truth.

The Buddha’s teaching is that the ‘self’ of which we are so proud, and on account of which we endure so much, is a fiction. He describes in detail how and why we fabricate the self, and how it causes the suffering that ruins our lives. He also describes how to attain the emptiness—nibbāna, coolness—that means the end of all preventable, self-caused suffering.

But even after you understand all these things, it’s still just words and ideas. You have to do the work, you have to observe yourself and see how you cheat yourself of your real life in the service of this fictitious ‘self’. Only you can empty yourself enough to have the insight that leads to awakening; all we can do is use words to create situations that guide and hopefully encourage you.

Have a cup of tea!

  1. marinoklisovic permalink

    I want to share my experience and understanding. We are obsessed with our precious POVs and opinions, which allow us to have our precious sense of self. We want to have it and defend it at all cost. We use it to navigate in this society, just like the Roman legions would carry those tall flags with eagles.

    I thought I am not like that (or maybe just a little) but I am (a lot). Once I tried to drop this desire in meditation an saw an ENORMOUS chunk of awareness becoming available to me again. I got this desire from early age while watching family fights. I also saw how, having no desire for arguing, I would become insignificant in other people eyes and I didn’t want that. I also saw myself becoming really alone in this world, having lost all attention, and that was terrifying.

    This desire for arguing is a big trap and very deep. We have invested a lot of interest in arguing with other people. Sounds silly and useless but it really is so. It is a trap because think that winning other people will ring us spiritual advancement. But it wont. We can have hundreds of wins under our belt and have no spiritual advancement.

    • Yes, this is right. We have an enormous investment in ‘being somebody’. When you get a chance, study the Mūla-pariyāya Sutta carefully. There is a great analysis and explanation of it in Chapter 3 of Wettimuny’s book. It goes deeply into exactly how we create the sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ that cripples our consciousness.

  2. Amazing and beautiful. Never seen anything like this before. Very true.

    My deep respect .

    • Thank you, Jan. I am trying to express my personal realizations of the Buddha’s teaching in a forthright and open way, avoiding typical stilted, formal religious language. The Dhamma, after all, is just what is, the way it is, and why it is the way it is. The Buddha’s teaching is completely phenomenological. We should be able to see the Dhamma, like the Tao, everywhere and in everything. And we should tell it like it is.

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