Empty Your Cup, then Wake Up

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 on pouring. The overflowing 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 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; that’s why you are here. But if you are there, then you are full—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.

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, argument. 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. Truth cannot be found in words, through arguments or by logic.

In fact no one can tell you the truth; at best, they can tell you how to find it for yourself. 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 identities, ideas, views, your heroic fabricated stories about yourself; you believe in them and preach them to others.

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 the dust of opinions, egotism; thus everyone who is full of opinions and ego is bound to be stupid and dull, incapable of reflexion.

We all know the feeling that “No one knows me as I really am. If they could only understand me rightly, they would give me more credit, more respect. In fact they would love me and dedicate their lives to me! But they are so dull, so full of their own stories and nonsense that they cannot see what a great being I am.” Guess what: everyone feels this way! And everyone who knows you feels the same way about you.

That’s why professors of philosophy are almost always stupid. They know too much about words and ideas. They are too full of themselves, too heavy to actually know anything about life. They are so heavy with mind that they can’t have wings to 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.

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 see the renowned Master and receive some fresh answers he could take back to his university 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 same questions: questions of life, meaning, purpose and freedom. There are always more questions than answers, thus new answers are valuable in the philosophical gossip market, the idle talk of professors.

But Nan-in would not give him any answers. To be obsessed with knowledge, with questions and answers, with gossip and idle talk, 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 here with many questions, because the mind gives birth to questions. Mind is a question-creating mechanism. Feed anything into it and 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 and astounding quality of the ocean.” — Uposatha Sutta [Udāna 5.5] What does the sea taste like? 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, emptiness: 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 subtle, compassionate Japanese way of saying, “You are fatigued and dull, 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 bubbling sounds, the professor also was continuously chattering, babbling within his busy mind. 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, hearing the noise of the professor’s mental conversation with the ghosts of his thoughts, 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—could not be given because there was no space, no emptiness to receive it. As a great teacher, Nan-in must have wanted the Buddha to become a guest in this professor’s house. But the guest cannot enter into the house; there is no room. The house is 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 finally when the time was right and 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 a drop! 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 absolutely 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, heavy concerns about ambition, fame, prestige and so on. Of course, being unenlightened, 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 your 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 cultured 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 perhaps to a disciple  who already developed the proper receptivity. By over-emphasizing fullness, he pointed out the value of emptiness. This is Dhamma language, the subtle disclosure of experiential 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 so full of fabrications, so stuffed with nonsense that 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 this, it’s still just words and ideas. You have to do the work, you have to discipline yourself, deny your ‘self’, control your mind to become tranquil enough to observe yourself, to see how you cheat yourself of your real life in the service of this fictitious ‘self’. Only when you become dispassionate can you empty yourself enough to have the insight that leads to awakening; all we monks can do is use words and create situations that guide and hopefully encourage you. Have a cup of tea!

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Published by

Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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