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Emptying the Cup

A Zen master of great renown was visited by a young philosopher who had traveled from a distant land to meet him. The master agreed to see him because the philosopher came with high recommendations by his teachers. The two sat under a tree to converse and the subject hastily turned to what the master could teach the young philosopher. Recognizing the flame of youth, the master smiled warmly and started to describe his meditation techniques. He was cut short by the philosopher, who said: “Yes, I understand what you are talking about! We did a similar technique at the temple, but instead we used images to focus!”

Once the philosopher was done explaining to the master how he was taught and practiced his meditation, the master spoke again. This time he tried to tell the young man about how one should be attuned to nature and the universe. He didn’t get two sentences in when the philosopher cut him short again and started talking about how he had been taught meditation and so on and so on.

Once again, the master patiently waited for the young philosopher to end his excited explanations. When the philosopher was quiet again, the master spoke of seeing humor in every situation. The young man didn’t lose any time and started to talk about his favorite jokes and how he thought they could relate to situations he had faced.

Once the philosopher was done, the Zen master invited him inside for a tea ceremony. The philosopher accepted gladly, having heard of how the master performed the ceremony like no other. Such a moment was always a privileged one with such a man. Once inside, the master performed flawlessly up to the point where he started to pour the tea in the cup. As the master was pouring, the philosopher noticed that the cup was being filled more than usual. The master kept pouring tea and the cup was soon full to the brim. Not knowing what to say, the young man stared at the master in astonishment. The master kept pouring as if nothing was wrong, and the cup started to overflow, spilling hot tea on the floor mattresses and the master’s hakama. Not believing what he was seeing, the philosopher finally exclaimed: “Stop pouring! Can’t you see the cup is already full and overflowing?”

With those words, the master gently placed the teapot back on the fire and looked at the young philosopher with his ever-present warm smile and said: “If you come to me with a cup that is already full, how can you expect me to give you something to drink?”

Apprenticeship Patterns Chapter 2. Emptying the Cup

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