Emptying our Teacups and Teachers

I gave this talk on April 22, 2023, at the Greater Boston Zen Centers Spring Sesshin held at the Providence Zen Center. A recording follows the text.

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?

As I read a text like this for the first time, my mind usually begins doing its sorting thing, quite naturally and imperceptibly. It immediately notes key words, like “teacher,” “professor,” “inquire,” and “Zen” and the standard concepts they represent. It makes standard associations among these concepts and other features of the text. Finally, it reaches a conclusion in light of these associations, in the form of the major point the text seems to convey.

Our everyday minds rely heavily on default settings and heuristics. The mind sifts phenomena according to categorizes and patterns. Actually, it’s not just passively perceiving and interpreting our experience. It’s playing an active role in constructing it. Our everyday minds shape reality, literally filling in “data gaps” with what we expect to perceive and then responding to that construction as if it were a solid object wholly external to us.

Most of us likely think, for example, that the route from our eyes to our brain is one-way; that our eyes register comprehensive visual data and send it to the brain, which then combines it with other sense data and memories to reach a conclusion. That’s not true. Most of the signals in our visual system travel the other way. The brain is telling our eyes what to see.

This functioning of everyday mind serves us well for many purposes much of the time. Returning to our text, there is nothing wrong with seeking insight and utility in the point the teacher-character in a story like this seems to be making—and arriving at the standard conclusion about it. I do think the teacher-character in this story (and in many other Zen stories) is making an insightful and useful point.

Yet it’s important to be aware of how our everyday mind works, because meeting constructs—meeting our pre-existing ideas about anything or anyone—is not meeting the thing itself. In reality, there are no things to meet. There is only meeting and the fleeting opportunity to shape experience.

For some time now, it’s been my practice to keep sitting with a text a bit longer—days or weeks, if I have time—noting my early cognitions, but not latching onto them immediately as the only take-aways, or even the main ones. When I can do this, a kind of softening often occurs, and a previously unseen opening may appear, offering something new; some fresh way of experiencing the story. The characters, and happenings, and even the seemingly obvious point of the story often become less solid, more permeable and yielding, more like the cells in a living organism and the mutually supportive interchange between them; or like living things in a thriving ecosystem. The seemingly solid elements of the story begin to decompose.

As I sat with this story about the professor who calls on Nan-in for a week or so before sesshin, my attention eventually settled on, and I began to center in, the tea and the teacup. What is this tea? What is the experience of tea? What is this teacup? What is the experience of teacup?

The tea flows from the spout of the teapot, crashing into the bottom of the teacup, rushing up and tickling its sides. The tea settles in the cup as it fills, but soon it’s escaping over its edges. The teacup seems so solid and still as the tea it can’t grasp or ultimately contain keeps flowing.

But the teacup, solid as it seems, actually is no more graspable or containable than the tea; the tea no less solid and still than the teacup. Both comprised of elements. (Imponderable elements. Like the word Zen, I don’t really know what the word element means as I use it. Does anyone?) Elements in constant flux, some, like those posing as teacup, just appearing to us to stand still. All these elements, part of this vast, flowing tea-river we inhabit.

Tea and teacup—at once constructs and ultimately real. Visitor, teacher, and teaching, too. Teacher is not only a construct but also a real role that comes with real responsibilities and real opportunities to be usefully present to others. Teacups really make it easier to drink tea.

My first readings of the story render the characters in it as little figurines in fixed positions, with fixed positions. A visitor who is too full of herself and her own ideas. A teacher who who offers a wise and insightful teaching, cleverly communicated. Or, looking at it from a perspective 180 degrees opposed to that, a teacher who is a bit too clever and theatrical and a visitor who could be forgiven for finding little value in this encounter.

It’s not that my first take on a story like the one we’re exploring here is wrong. It’s true that Zen and other contemplative practices invite us to empty our teacups of some of our ideas to make room for the intimate experience of life itself. It’s just that my first interpretation is just that, an interpretation. Even our best ideas—including ideas about emptying our teacups, and about emptying teachers and teachings, and about emptying our stories—are still just ideas, no matter how insightful they are or how much they seem to improve upon earlier ideas.

We can and should cultivate and share new ideas, about Zen practice and everything else. We can and should discard old ideas that no longer suit our purposes for more useful ones. And we also should remain alert to our tendency to reify and fetishize ideas, even our new and improved ones. We can refill our cup after we think we’ve emptied it, making it too full again. In fact, we tend to do this repeatedly.

Always there is more to a story than meets the eye; more to be seen and felt if we can enter the story and abide in and remain present to all that’s emerging and yet-to-emerge. Always more of the whole to be encountered and integrated. That “more” often includes what we have abandoned; often we must rediscover, refigure, and reclaim what we’ve rejected. We must transcend it and then (re)include it, as the philosopher Ken Wilber says.

There’s always more to this, because this is not an idea. If we think the story has ended, and that we’ve now got the point—if the space we think we’ve emptied becomes too full of something else, even, perhaps especially, “Zen”—we’re missing the point.

And the tea.

May our cups runneth over.