Illustration by Teresa Villegas
Happy New Year! I began thinking about the coming year and all the new ideas and journeys I want to put into place and experience. Interestingly enough, a zen koan came to mind from a book I read many years ago. It's been retold in various ways, and my retelling here is another addition among millions I'm sure. I like this story every time I read it or hear it again and again. It's a great reminder that in order to learn, we have to be humble, to empty our mind and make room for the new.
A Cup of Tea
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a student who came to inquire about something he wished to understand.
While the student was talking, the master began to make some tea.
Now this student was not a brand new student, but a senior student who had learned many things. He had knowledge and experience aplenty to draw upon.
But each time the master tried to explain something new to the student, the student kept trying to hold it up against his own notions of the way the world is and how it ought be, and he was unable to see the lessons in what the master was trying to teach him.
Finally, the master poured the tea into the student's cup and it began spilling over onto the surface below.
Immediately the student said, “master, you can not pour anymore into my cup, it’s overflowing and being wasted,” and the master replied "Yes I know."
The master continued ”I can't give you any new thoughts or ideas or perspectives on life's lessons until you clear out some thoughts that are already in your mind.”
Then the master paused for a brief moment, meeting the student's eyes with his own knowing look and calmly but sternly said "If you truly seek understanding, then first, you must empty your cup!"
The student pondered for a moment with a look of absolute bewilderment. Then a look of enlightenment came over him, followed by a smile, and a look of receptiveness.
The master started to explain again, and this time the student saw what the master was trying to say.