Another Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a great Japanese Master of Zen during the Meiji era, received a university professor who had come to inquire about Zen. Upon arriving, the professor was shown to the formal tea house by Nan-in’s most faithful servant, Chujian. They followed the river stone path as it led through the garden to the tea house. The professor spoke to Chujian, “How long have you served your Master in this house?”.  Chujian, having been orphaned at an early age and left with the Zen Master as a child, replied, “I have served my Master all my known life”. The professor thought how sad it must be that this poor servant’s life was spent entirely in this humble mountain village. He could not know or understand the vastness of the world, the science of alchemy, the joy of language, and the beauty of artisans from around the world. All things that the professor had eagerly learned and appreciated in his years as a student at the university, and even more so now as a professor. The professor was glad that his life had not followed such a meager path of existence.

Arriving at the tea house, the servant ushered the professor in and sat him on the rice mats before the table. As he moved quietly around the room preparing the items needed by his Master to serve tea to his guest, the professor shared with Chujian some of the many things he had learned and seen while attending university. Master Nan-in paused outside the tea house overhearing the conversation and intrigued by what his servant and the professor could possibly be discussing. The professor went on and on about his vast knowledge and experience in the world, proud of his station in life and the respect it commanded. When asked a question by the professor, Chujian always and simply replied, “I know nothing of such things. I do not have the knowledge you possess honorable teacher.”

After many minutes, Master Nan-in entered the tea room and greeted his venerable guest. Chujian brought the kettle of boiling water to the table and retreated to a small stool in the corner lest his Master have need of him. The professor told Nan-in that he had come to learn about Zen and the ways of the Tao. He was eager to gain the wisdom of these ancient beliefs and return to the university to pass them on to his students and fellow professors. Nan-in just smiled saying’ “First, let us have our tea”. Nan-in served the tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the cup overflow until he could no longer restrain himself.  “Stop! It is overfull. No more will go in.”

Nan-in stopped pouring and carefully filled his own cup. He sat and sipped the warm tea for a moment and said, “Professor, I cannot teach you Zen.” “But Master Nan-in, I have travelled a great distance to be here. I was told you were the wisest and most generous of all the Zen Masters. How can it be that you will not teach me?” asked the professor. Nan-in replied, “It is not that I will not teach you, but that I cannot teach you. Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I teach you anything unless you first empty your cup?” The professor was outraged, shouting, “I have learned many things old man. I have learned things and seen things that are beyond the understanding of your simple ancient beliefs. How could you possibly imply I cannot learn about Zen?”

Master Nan-in continued to sip his tea, letting the minutes pass and his guest’s anger to fade. He could see that the professor still did not understand what was being said. Eventually he continued, “Professor, I have spent many years with my humble servant and passed onto him the great wisdom of the Tao. He has practiced the art of Zen in my home for years on end. Yet I could spend a lifetime teaching you and you will not grasp the slightest wisp of the knowledge offered to you. You are eager and willing to learn, but have no place for such knowledge in your crowded and overflowing mind.” The professor asked, “Then how can I ever learn your wisdom? Must I become your servant and spend all those years in your house?” Nan-in replied, “Your first lesson in learning the way of the Tao will come from Chujian, my servant. Ask him to teach you about Zen. The professor was puzzled by this command, but was determined he would not make this long trek without gaining some kind of insight and adding to his knowledge and understanding.  He turned to Chujian sitting in the corner and asked, “Chujian, would you be so kind as to share with me your wisdom of Zen?” Chujian simply replied, “I know nothing of such things. I do not have the knowledge you possess honorable teacher.”

Finally the professor understood. After years of studying under his Master, the simple servant still understood he must be the “empty cup”.

© 2012  Commonsensibly Speaking ~ Brad Osborne

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