Friday, 27 January 2012

The empty tea cup of Zen

One of my friends loves 'Zen' very much. He has read extensively on 'Zen' and this habit of reading had led him to consider himself a very knowledgeable person in philosophical matters and prompted him to teach others whenever he found an opportunity.

One day he invited me to have tea with him. I went to his home at the appointed hour. After exchanging pleasantries, he placed two empty cups on the teapoy and started pouring tea from a kettle. He kept on pouring tea, though it was overflowing from the cup. I was silently watching him and instantly sensed that he was imitating the famous 'cup of tea' incident of Zen.

I could see he was trying to pose as the famous Zen master Nansen and teach me a lesson in Zen philosophy. But he could not understand that I am not the professor of the story. 

"What is the fun? The cup is overflowing. Why do you keep on pouring the tea?" I asked him.  

"When your cup is full, how can it hold my tea?" he questioned, as expected. He was just enacting the old incident again. I thought  the time is right to let him understand the truth.

So I told him.

'I know the Zen story you are referring to. Tell me. If my cup is really empty, where is the need for your tea?"

My friend was puzzled and had no answer.

The original incident happened in China. But this incident happened in India. This incident reflects the way of those who read books and assume that they realized everything. Such people may dupe the innocent, but their intentions are clearly seen and exposed in the presence of those who know better. Spirituality is never experienced through book learning. You can know the way from books. But it is the steadfast practice of a method for years that brings you the experience.

There are plenty of people who just read Zen or Osho or Ramana or Jiddu or some other spiritual master and assume they have come to know everything. These people have to understand that the great souls practiced sadhana for years and years before they started teaching the world. They never talked to the world during their sadhana. They started talking only after realizing the truth by experience. But those who read the books, never bother to understand this point.They just try to repeat like parrots the sayings of great sages.

There is a great difference between mere book learning and experience. Books never give experience, but experience can result in many books.Genuine spiritual experience can have many shades which are not seen in books. The book learners may understand the grammatical meaning of texts. But grammar seldom gives experience. One needs sadhana to convert a thing understood by the brain into experience. This is the difference between scholars and Sadhakas.

Jillellamudi Amma, a great sage of modern India, used to say ' Books never give experience, experience gives many books". Experiential knowledge always outshines bookish knowledge. Experience is ever new and book knowledge is dead and inert.

In the original Zen story a professor goes to a Zen master to argue with him. The Zen master, indicates to the professor by pouring tea in the full cup, that an overfilled brain cannot grasp a new idea. My friend tried to enact this incident again, thinking that I am not aware of this story. There are many people who after seeing movies are influenced by the movie stars so much so that they try to imitate them in real life and face unpleasant situations thereby. Spiritual book learners are no better than movie goers.We need not imitate others. We have to be ourselves.

Life is ever new. It always brings new situations and new flavors to our door step. That is why we never find any newness in an incident again and again.

It is true that an overfilled cup cannot hold anything more. But when the cup is really empty, what is the need to pour tea into it at all? An empty cup indicates an empty mind devoid of thoughts. When the cup is really empty of thoughts and samskaras, there is nothing more to achieve. There is no need to pour tea into it. The game is over. The empty cup may seem to be empty, in reality it is not so. It is filled by the whole space above it stretching up to infinity.

When you reach a state where you can empty your mind of all thoughts, you dont need any outer supply. Nature herself supplies you with ideas unceasingly. Sri Ramakrishna also used to say the same thing. " In a store of grain, as you pull the heap of grain forward, the grain that is lying in the back automatically comes forward into your reach." It is similar. One never feels the paucity of ideas, if one could connect to the universal storehouse of ideation.

My friend tried to imitate the Zen monk. But in spiritual life, no imitation is needed. One has to act as per one's experience. We have to stand on our own legs. Only then, we can have purity in our behavior. The Zen story of Nansen was original. This is just repetition of the old story. So this is fake. Even in a fake incident, it is possible to bring freshness, if you know the knack of experience.

There are many teachers in this world, who just read books and try to teach others. All the today's corporate gurus freely borrow from ancient literature, but very few quote the original source. Teaching from books is not difficult, it is very easy. Teaching from one's own experience is difficult. One has to struggle and do sadhana for years, to gain experience. First one has to do sadhana, then if necessary one can teach others. This is the correct sequence in spiritual life.

Show of scholarship always falls flat in front of genuine spiritual sadhakas. Humility finds a good friend in spirituality but haughtiness is automatically shown the door. It cannot enter the house of true spiritual wisdom.


  1. I have experienced this very often, and have often wondered what my response to it should be as a pursuer of truth. I frequently encounter people who are filled with the enthusiasm to share their understanding of things from where they stand in their journey. If I were to respond honestly that I know what they are trying to say, but I do not agree, it comes across as arrogance and might actually discourage them in their seeking. If I pretend to be surprised and excited by what they are sharing, I am dishonest. If I quietly listen and nod my head, I am smug. Humility is not an easy lesson to put into practice. Enjoyed this post. Still trying to understand some of your other posts.

  2. I remember the famous combination called the Gandant Birth. Cancer,Pisces and Scorpio end with their nakshatra. The zero over there is a state which yogis yearn for and some people are born with that state. Astrologers beat the bush by stamping the Gandanta as some fear some thing while in reality is an empty vessel with infinite energy.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.