The Empty Your Cup story is a famous one that is retold in Zen circles time and time again. It was also one of the iconic Bruce Lee’s favourite stories, so it’s definitely worth knowing about.
A learned man once went to visit a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher talked, the learned man frequently interrupted to express his own opinion about this or that. Finally, the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full, then kept pouring until the cup overflowed.
“Stop,” said the learned man. “The cup is full, no more can be poured in.”
“Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions,” replied the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty your cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”
The story is a metaphor for the perils of closing our mind to the world around us and thinking that we know far more than we do. If your cup is always full of supposed knowledge, prejudices, false impressions and the like, how can you ever experience reality for what it actually is?
The problem is very common amongst people that are trying to better themselves. I fill my cup way past the rim all of the time. I want to know more things, learn more things and want to do everything at once. With each piece of information adding a drop to my cup, it eventually gets to a point where I think that it doesn’t need anymore. My cup is full of knowledge and I don’t have any more space.
I don’t need any more space. I’m perfectly happy with my full cup.
This is an illusion though because you can never know everything that you need to know about something or someone. Not even yourself. Not even close. Because of this, a small dosage of humility is required each and every day for you to empty your cup and start again. To be willing to have your cup filled again with new experiences, new ideas, new inputs from yourself and from others.
You don’t need to accept what others are pouring into your cup. You don’t even have to accept what you yourself are pouring in. You only need to let it sit for a while and then pour it out again.
When you enter a conversation with someone else, is your cup full of your own opinions like the learned man from the story? Or is your cup empty and ready to receive?
And how often do you fill it to the brim versus pouring it out? For many of us, the answer is not much.
The whole point of having an empty cup is to engage with new ideas, to be open-minded and to be constantly open to whatever life has to offer, because there are always teachings and lessons to notice.
Empty your cup every single day.
“I have to leave now, my friend. You have a long journey ahead of you, and you must travel light. From now on drop all your burden of preconceived conclusions behind, and “open” yourself to everything and everyone ahead. Remember, my friend, the usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness.” – Bruce Lee