A Cup of Tea: Zen Story


Once upon a time, there was a wise Zen master. People from far and near would seek his counsel and ask for his wisdom. Many would come and ask him to teach them, enlighten them with teachings of Zen. He never turned anyone away. 

One day an important man, a man used to command and obedience came to visit the master.

“I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.”

The tone of the important man’s voice was one used to getting his own way.

The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man.

Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?”

The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest.

“You are like this cup of tea, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”

A shorter version of this story featuring Zen master Nan-in is part of the delightful book, Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. The short story illustrates the beauty of Zen perfectly, reminding us that it is infinitely more rewarding to approach a new subject with the openness of a beginner’s mind – an empty mind.

The lesson to derive from this Zen treatise is that we need to approach something new with an empty mind without any preconceived notions about the subject. Whether it’s learning to play a new instrument or mastering a difficult yoga technique, it’s always better to empty one’s mind of preconceptions and approach the new subject with a fresh perspective.

Shunryu Suzuki, the renowned Zen master who popularised Zazen meditation in the West, summarized the essence of Zen perfectly with this quote:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

A Cup of Tea: Zen Story



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