Empty your Cup
THE JAPANESE MASTER NAN-IN GAVE AUDIENCE
TO A PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY.
SERVING TEA, NAN-IN FILLED HIS VISITOR’S CUP,
AND KEPT POURING.
THE PROFESSOR WATCHED THE OVERFLOW
UNTIL HE COULD RESTRAIN HIMSELF NO LONGER:
THE CUP IS OVERFULL, NO MORE WILL GO IN.
LIKE THIS CUP,
YOU ARE FULL OF YOUR OWN OPINIONS AND SPECULATIONS.
HOW CAN I SHOW YOU ZEN
UNLESS YOU FIRST EMPTY YOUR CUP?
Zen is full of gibberish to give one a blow; a blow that not only makes one suddenly realize the futility of holding one’s concepts and theories, but also suddenly makes one empty of them. One’s concepts and formulas are considered priceless, but in reality they are nothing more than decorated gibberish. So Zen uses such stupid gibberish to cut other gibberish. Words are cut through words.
Growth through word is the only growth known ordinarily. Growth through awareness is spirituality
Words are needed of course, but up to the full cup, beyond that it is waste. Master over-pours to show the futility of extra words.
Tea here refers to listening. Listening here may refer to listening to words of spiritual wisdom; or listening further may mean to aware of the happenings every moment – to be meditataive.
People have interpreted this story as not to rely on word at all; however, even to understand that words are futile, some words are required. The basic meaning is that master gives certain words that are required by student; the student drinks them and then the cup is empty. The master fills the mind of student with tea and the student drinks and then the cup is empty; no longer craving for more tea (words). Ordinary tea will create habit, but the words (tea) of master dissolve the need for any further tea (words).
Do not be at war with few words. What is pointed here is the need to avoid one’s fullness, one’s ego. Once that is emptied through spiritual ways then the work is done. When the cup is getting emptied, one is oneself getting emptied. When the cup is totally empty, there is no need for anyone to show Zen. The empty cup reflects Zen – meditation.
Through words Master is pouring his state into the cup of student. The real state is not the tea; the real state is that which comes by drinking that tea. The word is not the thing; true. Still the thing is seen by going behind the words; going towards the essence of words. For that also words are required.
Tea (listening) is just the medium, the state that comes from drinking that tea (listening) is the real thing. We should not get attached to words to generate that state, as then we are simply falling into dangerous, incurable addiction. This real tea is like amrita paan giving param shanti forever.
Words are like boats used to get to other shore, once there we leave them. Buddha used to say “Bhikkhu, empty thy boat”. Because with too much burdened boat one will drown. One may be greedy to full the boat much more than required; so that one can enjoy the materials after crossing the river. Well, but the point is that one will not be able to reach only due to such greediness. An ignorant may not be aware of such a situation. But the master knows. The master wants to see the boat crossing the river. Then there is no way such a master will further burden the boat. Remember Buddha does not say to leave, destroy the boat. That would be suicidal. The boat is not a problem. That boat is part of solution; it is our best tool. But through overuse we can abuse that tool because of our insecurity.
Wisdom words are like chlorine tablets which cleanse the impurities of water and then dissolve itself. There is no need to throw away water because of impurities. Just clean it and then should be enough.
Shravan (listening) and mananam (Reflection) are important preliminary steps for nidhidhyasana (Contemplation) to happen. Unless one listens, one cannot reflect. Listening is not merely through words. And tea here does not merely suggest words. Any moment carefully observed, seen, without any motive would lead to listening.
Generations after generation of traditions are sometimes simply passing the tea without anyone drinking it. That is to say they are not going behind the words; they are not living the truth suggested by words. Hence the same words are repeated through generations. If someone drinks the tea then words would no longer be same; then there would not be this much reliance on commentaries of some acharyas. Many of them just hear the words; get attached to the words but do not listen. Listening is more than mere hearing; it is more like seeing, feeling and absorbing – where through words a state is reached which is beyond words.
Listening is an art which we miss the most.
After a church service on Sunday morning, a young boy suddenly announced to his mother, “Mom, I’ve decided to become a minister when I grow up.” “That’s okay with us, but what made you decide that?”
“Well,” said the little boy, “I’ll have to go to church on Sunday anyway, and I figure it will be more fun to stand up and yell than to sit and listen.”
Professors are like that. They hear words not learn, but yell them back at their hapless students. They never listen; if they do their living would start speaking.
Professors are generally the ones who have come to know things to teach and not to imbibe in life. In order to teach they have to profess, claim that they know philosophy. Such claimants are fools who are fooling others. The real ones are those who live Zen; whose life becomes a mystery for ordinary people – a mystery that need to be solved and hence people invent philosophy. And sometimes saints talk the language of philosophy to help common people. In actuality, they are just interested in showing Zen, not in talking about Zen.
Only when a master is unconscious he will use more than needed tea (words). Such master will keep on filling the cup which leaves no occasion to drink it. The purpose of listening the words is defeated through more words!
One hears words to get rid of worldly attachments and gets trapped in word attachments! That is one form of extreme. The other form of extreme is to say that words are not required at all. Zen is not against using words to signify something; it is against word attachment. Spiritual wisdom should become part of day to day living without intervention of so called wise-words. Similarly day to day actions can be used to signify something which is beyond words; which even wisdom words are trying to say.
So many times we see Zen masters employing actions of day to day life to say something significant. Masters may use words or day to day actions to signify something. In this process to get attached to words or koans as this is to miss the point. The other end of the extreme would be say no words or koans like this are required. To be in meditative state without any instructions through words or actions is not possible.
Anything learned in the world fills one’s cup. Spiritual knowledge is also then likewise taken by most. The one who is not much into spirituality is fine; there is still a possibility. For the one who knows spirituality through words only; the one who is filling one’s cup beyond the necessity through spiritual studies is on a dangerous path for oneself and world. Hence the need for such drastic lessons.
This is to show that spiritual knowledge is unlike other worldly knowledge where one accumulates. Spiritual knowledge is totally reverse of worldly knowledge as here one gets rid of all accumulations. One is nothing more than accumulation; thus it’s a matter of emptying oneself that is important. One cannot empty oneself through one’s own efforts, because then ego will still remain subtly and much more strongly. One just need to temporarily be empty of oneself by remaining empty of one’s concepts and judgments when one goes to a master or when listening to a master or when one is trying to understand whatever is told by a master. Then the master can show the real Zen.
The empty cup stands for empty mind. The cup should not be broken. That would be destruction of mind. Spirituality is not irrational, it is beyond rational. Yog is defined in Patanjali Yoga Sutra as Chitta Vritti Nirodhah. Yog is not chitta nirodhah. Only the unwanted things that we keep on carrying in the mind have to be get rid of.
An empty mind does not mean no mind. Empty mind means pure mind; a mind that reflects the Supreme Sun in all clarity. Accumulation of the mind makes it dirty; so it cannot reflect the Sun properly.
Subconscious mind is filled with half experienced or partially experienced moments of conscious mind. This subconscious is the left over tea that we have kept in the cup. It is stinking now. Need to get rid of that in order for Zen to be seen.
Normally people live on their opinions. We believe them to be correct because we have tied ourselves, our existence with those opinions. This is ego, which needs continuous food of further opinions to sustain it. This is what keeps us away from emptiness.
In an empty cup whatever is poured should be drunk without much delay and also meditatively. Whatever situations comes the mind is needed to respond to them. Once responded then there should not be any residual left over.
Empty means really empty. There cannot be any claimant to emptiness. That claimant would then be ego; the presence of ego suggests there is still no emptiness. The cup does not claim either fullness or emptiness. It is the content of the cup that claims the individuality, the fullness; a fullness that in reality is limitedness, a separateness. That is a mirage of fullness because such fullness is never really full as it still wants more and more to fulfill. And beware if there is a claimant to the emptiness then that also is this individuality that has acquired some theoretical spiritual knowledge and is hankering for fullness through emptiness.
Empty hands we came, empty hands we shall go. In between why do we attempt to fulfill ourselves? That emptiness with which we came is the real fullness. No one has reached God with something in hands; all have to be empty to reach THAT.
Inviting the friends to his wedding anniversary party, the host explained, “We are on the eleventh floor of A wing. When you reach my door then press the bell with your elbow.”
“But why should we use the elbow to press the bell?” asked a puzzled friend.
“You aren’t going to come empty hands, are you?!”
If one want to experience freedom in the midst of this life then the message is clear: empty thy hands; empty thy cup.
It is really strange truth that those who experience emptiness are really full. And those who feel they are something are actually empty within. Not only that, such half empty vessels make too much noise.
On seeing the people gathered around the accident site, a woman went towards the crowd and saw the victim. She was pushed back by a man who said, “Please let me do my job. I have passed a first aid course and had excellent marks in the course.”
The woman looked around as the man grappled around for a couple of minutes, then tapping on his shoulder said, “When you get to the point of calling a doctor, I am here, ready.”
Zen traditions give lot of importance to tea drinking ceremony. The tea has to be taken and cup has to be emptied. How we do that is of utmost importance to Zen masters and hence an elaborate ceremony centered on tea drinking. Nan-in is showing to the professor that tea drinking in not a mere superficial ceremony to drink tea. It is much more to Zen. Had he been aware he would have understood something beyond logic in this illogical happening. But he could not. He had to stop Nan-in. Had he a little ripened then he would not have stopped Nan-in. Tea would have kept flowing; he would have got in Zen; into meditation; his mind – his cup would have remained empty. He would just leave without saying anything further; for he would have got it.
Just as tea drinking is not a merely life formality, so too Zen shown through words or actions is not something to be gurgled out by professors to earn a living.
This koan says a lot about the process of spiritual knowledge transfer. This was the way through which the master used to come to know about the quality of student coming for instructions. Instructions are being given; without words; through actions from normal life. If the student does not get it, he has even been pointed out the flaw as to why he did not got it. The master showed what is Zen and the master also showed why the student is unable to get it and also showed the way towards getting it. All these without saying anything; for the Zen that can be said is not the real Zen. Zen can only be shown through living it.