Some of you are familiar with the Zen story of the university professor who went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor pontificated about Zen, holding himself forth as an expert on the topic. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The tea spilled onto the table and then to the floor. The master kept pouring. The professor watched until he could no longer restrain himself. “Stop! It’s overfull! No more will go in!” the professor blurted. “You are like this cup,” the master replied. “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
I was reminded of this story recently when I had tea with a friend who spent our whole time together explaining her evolving theories of awakening. While much of what she said was fascinating and thought provoking, I experienced our visit as much more of a lecture rather than a conversation. She seemed uninterested in what I might have offered, or in anything else about me or my life. In fact, I’m not sure it even mattered that I was there.
As I listened, there were times when I couldn’t keep up with the pace of her excited revelations, and I confess my brain drifted in and out of attention to her words. Instead, I became intrigued by the global structure of her analysis, and by her certainty that she had things figured out. There really wasn’t space for dialogue, for sharing, for communion.
On the way home, besides feeling a bit disappointed by the lack of conversation that I had looked forward to, I was curious about my friend’s grasp of the knowledge that she seemed so sure of. I looked down at what I was wearing and laughed. The Chinese characters on my T-shirt (in the photo above) mean “I really don’t know.”
The universe has conspired lately to remind me that everything I think I know … I don’t. No matter where I turn – to family, to friends, to martial arts, to life in general – I am confronted by my absolute ignorance of, well, everything. It is often disorienting and uncomfortable. Sometimes scary. At the same time, it is intriguing, exciting, liberating, and occasionally even fun.
It is, spiritually speaking, where the action is. Outside my comfort zone, on the razor’s edge, is where I see most clearly, if I’m willing to look, my habitual patterns, my stories, my insecurities and fear. It is where I’m given the opportunity to experience the raw beauty and fierce grace of reality, to surrender any illusion of control, to taste the nectar of truth. If only for a moment….
It’s also the place, and perhaps the only place, where authentic connection happens, because when we are in that place of not knowing, we are an open rather than a closed system. It’s where our cup is empty and has space for someone else.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ~Shunryu Suzuki