Empty your cup…

Most Martial Artists will have heard some variation on the “Empty your cup” at some point in their training career.  For those who have not, or would like a reminder, here are two of the many incarnations – Empty your Cup (long), A Cup of Tea (short).  Even if you are not a Martial Artist, you may have otherwise seen some form of the story in movies or television such as the Empty your Cup (video)  scene from The Forbidden Kingdom (one of my favourites).

The story can be found in various writings such as Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (a compilation of four books that includes 101 Zen Stories, referenced above) and through word of mouth from teachers to students.  You can see how different these two stories are, but the collective message is obvious and, arguably, intuitive: To open yourself up to learn, you must be willing to allow this knowledge purchase in the ledge of your mind; If you come replete with your own ideas and conceptions, you’ll miss the lesson.

Great advice.  I’ve told this story many times when training new students, and reminded myself of it many times whenever I’m learning from a new teacher.  Remember all of the times that you’ve looked for something and could never find it because you had it in your head that it was some place completely different?  How about those times that you have looked at an optical illusion and had to shift how you saw it to be able to see the other illusion?

Both are examples of ’emptying’ your mind, to some extent – which is an invaluable skill, in my opinion, for everyone in today’s world.

I would like to add a little to this interpretation though.  The root lesson makes a lot of sense, but what we should not forget in this equation is the allegory of the ‘cup’.  You are the cup, and knowledge is the tea – so, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I would like to walk through some amplifying interpretations of this story.

First off, if you come to a teacher in search of knowledge, when you’re cup is full then you will only have your tea when you leave.  For many, they are willing to believe that their tea is worth more, so they dismiss the value of other tea’s.  When this happens, you have to ask yourself why you went in the first place?  Did you go to learn, or did you go to try and show off?

Second, remember that you are the cup – everything that you put into the cup will have an impact.  In ancient China, the tea pot was seasoned by the tea that went into it – so much so, that the teapot itself would have tea poured on the outside to cause it to stain and take on unique designs from said stains.  If you never empty your cup, you can never put new tea into the cup.  You can continually use the same tea and still take on this uniqueness but, arguably, diverse tea backgrounds would make this uniqueness a comprehensive experience.

And finally (although I am sure that more allegorical lessons can be found in the story), how does someone empty their cup?  Who wants to waste good tea by throwing it out?  Experience the tea that you put in your cup – if you like it, take more and let the stain design your cup a little more.  If you don’t, then change teas.  Either way, drink the tea that you or your teacher puts in the cup!




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