stories of Zen: a cup of tea

Number 1 of the 101 Zen stories that form the first part of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps, can only be described as a classic among classics. Among other appearances, for instance, I remember this story as being part of the opening scenes of the movie 2012.

Nan-in, a Zen master, was (in this version) visited by a university professor, who wanted to talk about Zen. Nan-in served tea, continuing to pour tea into the cup even after the cup is full. The professor could no longer restrain himself, commenting that the cup was full and no more tea would fit. Nan-in said, ‘Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’

I had forgotten until recently rereading that Nan-in’s visitor was a university professor, and being a university professor myself, I recognize that this full-mindedness is something of an occupational hazard.

But this isn’t the core of this particular story. Rather, the core is the question, how do we learn new things? We spend our lives learning, formally and informally, through structured schooling and independent work, and as we learn (naively) we construct a model of the world. That model then can become the lens through which we see the world.

Beginner’s mind is a phrase that that captures this idea, at least for me. What does it take to retain at least some of the perspective of a beginner, a novice, as we increase our own understanding. How can we bridge the inevitable distance that grows between us as beginner and us as experienced practitioner or as expert.

I’m finding this particularly difficult at present, on one of the projects I’m working on. It’s the paper I wrote about recently, which I’ve been working on for too long, and it’s becoming difficult to maintain the perspective that I feel would be most helpful to work through some of the remaining areas for attention.

Unfortunately, or inevitably, I think that the lesson buried in the story is that the only way to get around this issue of full mindedness is to practice, to actively remain aware of the issue and actively keep space in our minds so that we can take a different perspective.

~ by Jim Anderson on 3 May 2021.

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