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Empty Your Cup of Tea

I attended a class recently where I witnessed an incident all too familiar to many teachers, regardless of their subject. This class was Java Programming, where we students would learn the syntax and techniques of programming in that hot new computer language, Java. On the second day, the instructor got into a little dispute with one of my fellow students, an obviously seasoned engineer who had made clear his preference for that more powerful, but far more difficult language, C++. (Sorry, folks, for all the geeky references, but hey, I do work in Silicon Valley.)

They argued over some arcane point for almost ten minutes until the frustrated instructor called for a break and the argumentative student gathered his belongings and left. Evidently, Mr. C++ felt he didn't need to learn anything about Java, for he never returned.

This brings to mind that fable of the martial artist who goes to study under the tutelage of a famed Zen master. It's one you might have heard before, so rather than retell the version my father told me, here's Bruce Lee's retelling of the story, from his Black Belt magazine article, "Liberate Yourself From Classical Karate":

A learned man once went to a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher explained, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like, "Oh, yes, we have that too...." and so on.

Finally the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full, and then kept pouring until the cup overflowed.

"Enough!" the learned man once more interrupted. "No more can go into the cup!"

"Indeed, I see," answered the Zen teacher. "If you do not first empty the cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?"

In any subject, but particularly in the martial arts, we look to our instructors to show us new ideas, new techniques, and new values that will enrich our knowledge and performance in that subject. Whether you're programming computers or performing side kicks, there's always something new to learn. Why else would you go to the dojo?

This way of thinking about learning is called the "beginner's mind," or shoshin in Japanese. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki-roshi explained it best, thusly:

In the beginner's mind there is no thought, "I have attained something." All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.
To truly learn, one must want to learn. Only by emptying the cup can fresh tea be poured.

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