Zen story: a cup of tea


zen tea cup chan

As some of you know, I love a good zen story, and this one is one of my favourites – not to mention that it is a classic.

Since I’ve started teaching and sharing this realisation, I can doubly appreciate how important this teaching is. So many seekers come loaded with their preconceived ideas, and it makes the simple essence difficult to pierce through. This version of the story is taken from the wonderful book ‘Zen Flesh, Zen Bones’ compiled by Paul Reps, and is the first of the Zen stories given – and with good reason too. Here is it:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the 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?’

Empty your cup completely, then insight can arise by itself, naturally and spontaneously. Empty yourself completely.


4 thoughts on “Zen story: a cup of tea

  1. Thought you would find this work of mine of interest.

    One Tea Cup & Two Exact Opposites

    One day, two Zen disciples got into an argument about what Zen is and what Zen isn’t. They went to their Zen teacher, who was sitting and drinking a cup of tea. The disciples told their teacher about their dilemma. The teacher said, “The wisdom you seek, is in this half empty tea cup.” The teacher placed the cup down, got up and walked away. The two disciples stood and argued and argued. Then, the first disciple said, “Zen is in what is there.” The second disciple said, “Zen is in what isn’t there.” Finally, the teacher came back and asked, “What have you discovered?” The first disciple said, “You were correct my teacher, and this disciple is wrong. The tea cup is half full, it reflects gratitude and allows us to create using that which is there.” The second disciple said, “You were correct my teacher, and this disciple is wrong. The tea cup is half empty, reflecting humbleness and allowing us to create new things from the empty infinite space of possibility of that which isn’t there.” Finally, the disciples asked, “Which one of us is correct?” The teacher smiled and said, “Both of you.”

    Eric Sander Kingston


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