A Cup of Tea

By: Lao Shr Sam Ilardo

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a collection of Zen writing compiled by Paul Reps, is one of my favorite books. I re-read it so often the book’s pages are frayed from my constant use. One of the Zen stories that I continually think of from this book is the following parable called “ A Cup of Tea”:

“Nan-in, a Japanese Master during the Meiji era received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitors cup full and then kept pouring. The professor watched the cup 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”?

It was obvious to the master from the start that the professor was not so much interested in learning about Zen as he was in impressing the master with his own opinions and knowledge.

Like the professor, in Tai Chi, we must empty our cup to learn. We have to unlearn many things to learn Tai Chi. We must relearn how to stand, how to breath how to walk and how to move the body as one unit. Prior to studying Tai Chi, I had studied Isshin Ryu Karate for many years. Many principals are the same but there are many subtle differences. For example, in the Isshin Ryu forward bow stance, the back foot is straight rather than a 45-degree angle. When I was first shown the Tai Chi bow stance, my first inclination was to question the use of a 45-degree angle. Isn’t a straight foot more natural? Don’t you walk with a straight back foot? Isn’t Tai Chi all about harmonizing with nature? After a few classes I “emptied my cup” and accepted that this style requires the back foot to be at a 45-degree angle. It took me years to unlearn to angle my rear foot to 45 degrees. Now the 45-degree angle feels natural and more rooted, and a straight foot feels awkward.

More important than the Tai Chi example is do we empty our cup in every-day life. How many of us are biased by our prejudices, opinions and experiences. In my role as a financial consultant, when I ask why someone does something in a certain way, I will inevitably hear, “that is the way we have always done it”. I will tell them the empty your cup story and many times they will be open to another approach.

My farther always told me that you learn more from listening than talking. I would say more importantly, you learn more from listening with an open mind, not one that is already full of your own opinions. It is amazing how much you can learn and grow if you just “empty your cup.”

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