We shall not cease
And the end of all
Will be to arrive
where we started,
And know the place
for the first time.
Emptying Your Cup - by Nonin Chowaney
The master listened patiently and then began to make tea. When it was ready, she poured the tea into the scholar's cup until it began to overflow and run all over the floor. The scholar saw what was happening and shouted, "Stop, stop! The cup is full; you can't get anymore in."
The master stopped pouring and said: "You are like this cup; you are full of ideas about Buddha's Way. You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can't put anything in. Before I can teach you, you'll have to empty your cup."
This story is and old one, but it continues to be played out in our lives day-by-day. We are so enamored of our own ideas and opinions and so trapped by our conditioning that we fill ourselves up to the brim and nothing can get in.
The third ancestor in china, Seng Ts'an, said, "Do not search for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions." If we empty ourselves out, let go, and cease to hold on to our views, the truth will come to us.
We Westerners, who cherish our opinions, find this difficult, for we have been brought up to value the rational thought processes above all else; this attitude is deeply embedded in us, for it goes all the way back to Aristotle and forms the basis for much of our way of life, at least as it is taught in our secular public school system.
But Seng Ts'ans's way -- empty yourself of opinions and truth will come to you-- also finds voice in Western culture, not in the mainstream, but in the lives and writings of assorted sages and saints. The Seventeenth-century Catholic poet Angelus Silesius put it this way:
The deep peace and fullness that comes from living a spiritual life is not a matter of accumulating knowledge. If we empty our, insight and understanding will come. If not, we go forth into the world with our own ideas and opinions and we see the world through this filter.
Zen Master Dogen put it this way in Genjo Koan:
What this means is that when we approach things carrying our conditioning, ideas, or opinions, our perceptions are colored by them. This is the "burden of oneself" we carry. Unless we can empty ourselves and enter the moment free and open, our perceptions are clouded by delusion, and we can't see things clearly.
For example, if you are female and your mother has repeatedly told you, "Don't trust men; they're only out to use you," based on her bad experiences with the opposite sex, it may be difficult for you to approach a man openly, with an empty cup. If you have been used by a man and have had your mother's opinion reinforced, it will be even more difficult. Conversely, men carry much of what our fathers and uncles told us about women, what our own experiences have been, what we've read, and what advertising presents us. This becomes part of ourselves. It takes a great effort to unload this burden and see a woman, as she is when we meet her. To see with the eyes of a sentient being is to see through this filter of the self.
To see with Buddha's eyes is different. The second part of Zen Master Dogen's statement reads, "Acting on and witnessing oneself in the advent of myriad things is enlightenment." The myriad things (all beings) come forth as they are and confirm ourselves as we are. We learn from all beings what we are when we allow them to come forth as they are and see ourselves in their light. Then, as Angelus Silesius says, "God visits us;" we are no longer incomplete but full, with nothing lacking, in Buddhist terms, "awake." Then we see with Buddha's eyes.
If we see with Buddha's eyes, everything is fresh and new, for we receive things with a free and open mind, empty of preconceptions. My master, Dainin Katagiri, had a way of approaching each encounter freshly, open to what was happening at that moment, with no carry over from what had happened in the past. Whenever I re-connected with him after a bad interaction, I never felt that he was still carrying anything. This was one of his greatest strengths.
Children are also like this. I worked for a time in the early seventies in a residential facility for children with behavioral problems. Sometimes we had prolonged negative interactions with young children. I frequently had to physically restrain eight to twelve-year-olds for up to an hour to keep them from hurting themselves or others when they were acting-out strong emotions. After the episode was over, I'd be sitting in the office gathering myself and, as if nothing had happened, the child would walk in and ask me to go out and play ball.
How many times have we seen children arguing and screaming at each other one minute and playing nicely, the best of buddies, the next? They can drop one moment's mental state and move on to the next with little carry-over. In our practice, this is called emptying the cup, cultivating an open mind, one that is able to meet every moment and be filled by it, rather than remaining closed and filling the moment from our own side. This is something we lose when we get older, and something we cultivate in our practice of zazen.
In the story we began with, the master showed the scholar how ideas and opinions about Buddha's way fill our cups and, as a result, we are unable to absorb true teaching when we encounter it. This teaching can come to us in the form of a living master who embodies it in everyday life. When encountering such a teacher, you should, in the words of Zen Master Dogen:
The teaching can also come to us through any being, sentient or otherwise. If we are open to it, if our cups are empty, the water will fill them; if not, the water will flow onto the floor and be lost.