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A Cup of Tea

September 9, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Is it possible for us to look at a story like this that we may have heard a hundred times before in a new way?  Is it possible to be as surprised by it as we were when we first heard it?  In a way, that is the secret of our Zen practice—to experience each moment not as a continuation of the one before it, but as a never before and never again opportunity for awakening.  So, let’s see what we can do.

First, let’s imagine the scene.  A university professor of a subject like philosophy or Buddhist studies travels out of the city into the countryside, perhaps to a mountaintop monastery to find out about Zen from someone who has spent his entire life practicing.  He may have had an intellectual understanding of what the Buddha had taught, but he was looking for something deeper, something more intimate.  He was looking for experience or maybe it is more accurate to say that he was looking for a new way of experiencing his life.

He’s led through the gates, through the manicured grounds, to the place where the abbot meets all inquiring students.  When he opens the door he finds the teacher, sitting upright in full robes, who invites him to take a seat on a meditation cushion facing him. The image of the Zen master  stops him in his tracks.  In a sense, he is staring at reality, face to face—perhaps for the first time. The professor awkwardly bows and takes his seat, full of dreams and expectations. 

The Way of Tea is expressed in four Japanese characters: Harmony, Respect, Purity and Tranquility and so the master,  out of deep consideration for his guest, does whatever he can to make his guest feel at ease.  He prepares tea in a way that he learned from his teachers, using earthen bowls instead of highly decorated porcelain.  Everything the master does is in a specific order first introduced by a Zen monk in the fifteenth century.  The master’s attention to every detail subtly changes the professor’s sense of time and space. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that time and space are replaced by a feeling of presence and deep relaxation.

But then, the master keeps pouring the tea, even after it reaches the rim of the earthen bowl.  Perhaps the professor is burned by the hot tea. Instantly,  the harmony, respect, purity and tranquility of the moment  before vanishes.  The guest is now in turmoil.  What is the master doing? What should he do?  Should he say something, or take his cup away? Should he get up and leave? To quote a line from a Bob Dylan song: something is happening, but [he] doesn’t know what it is!  His mind is no longer filled with the static expectations with which he entered the room.  Nothing is static.  He is alive with questions. 

In the midst of this turmoil, the host tells him “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”  If the master had said that at the beginning of their meeting the professor would not have understood it in the immediate, urgent way that he did after being burned by the tea.  The master had used skillful means to create the causes and conditions necessary for his guest to receive this basic and fundamental teaching of Zen.

In this sense, everything in our tradition is designed to create the conditions for us to practice.  The way we bow, the way we sit as well as the black robes we wear, the architecture of the Zendo, the chanting of sutras, and a great many other forms have all been given to us as conditions for us to be able to make contact with our original nature.  And sometimes these conditions are as invisible to us as the generations of Buddhas and ancestors that surround us when we take that first backward step and turn the light to shine within.

Our task, our obligation, is to be open enough to these conditions so that they can sink as deeply into us as our breath.  When we sit in the morning, we need to take the “inner posture” of zazen so that we can open ourselves to the possibilities of the moment.  Just like the professor, we need to be “burned” by the awareness of all our dreams and delusions.



From → Zen Buddhism

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