The Story Of The Zen Master And A Cup Of Tea (A King’s Castle)

The Story Of The Zen Master And A Cup Of Tea (A King's Castle) by Charles Sledge

This is a guest post by Jacob of A King’s Castle a site dedicated to living as a red pilled husband and father (something that is not discussed enough). A King’s Castle promotes strength, honor, duty, dignity, and compassion  in a world bereft of all five. If you want to raise strong sons and virtuous daughters then I highly encourage you to check out the greatness that is A King’s Castle. In this post Jacob talks about the tale of the zen master and the cup of tea. In it is much wisdom and important life lessons. Enjoy!

While reading Charles’s article about the Chinese Bamboo Tree, I was reminded of a related story told to me by my martial arts instructor a few months ago: The Zen Master and a Cup of Tea.  While the story about the bamboo tree details the eventual rewards that patience and persistence provide, this short story about a cup of tea that I am going to regale you with will explain how you should enter into something new that you are wanting to learn more about.  It’s a lesson about adopting the correct mindset for learning.

The Story

One day a long time ago, there was a young man who sought to study under the wisest Zen master in the known world.  He saved up enough money to pay for his trip, sold all his belongings, and after weeks of traveling, made it to the base of the mountain that the master lived atop.  It was an arduous climb, but the young man finally made it to the top of the mountain and stood in awe at the beauty of the temple.  His journey was complete.

The Zen master welcomed the young man inside and they began to walk around temple courtyard, conversing.  The Zen master mainly listened as the young man went on and on about how he’s studied Zen Buddhism for years and how he knows so much about meditation, proper breathing, the liturgy, and so much more.  On and on he went, while the Zen master patiently listened offering up only the occasional “ah” or “mhmm.”  Finally, after some time had passed, the Zen master suggested that they go inside for some fresh tea.

A bit later, they were seated with a hot kettle of tea set between them.  The Zen master picked up the kettle and began pouring the tea into the young man’s cup while he continued to ramble on about his vast knowledge of Zen Buddhism.  The master said nothing and continued to pour…and pour…and pour…until the tea was flowing over the sides of the cup.

“Stop!” exclaimed the young man. “The cup is full! It won’t hold anymore tea!”

“Yes,” the master replied. “and like this cup of tea, you will not be able to learn any more until you empty yourself.”

Empty Your Cup

If you enter into a new field with preconceived notions from prior experience, you won’t fully grasp the lessons being presented to you.  Let go of your ego and adopt the mindset of a humble student, ready and open to hear the teachings of the master.

This is such a valuable lesson that applies to every facet of life, but I have to chuckle about how so many martial art practitioners sail right past it.  You can see it on any martial art forum – keyboard warriors digitally battling it out over which style is the best.  I see it whenever a senior student from another school comes to our class and behaves like they already know all there is to know, even if they’re studying a completely different style of martial arts.

Their cups are full.  They are incapable of holding any more tea.

To adopt the mindset of a student, you must accept the fact that everyone has a lesson to teach.  I learned this lesson when I left my old martial arts school for greener pastures.  I was a 5th degree black belt with over a decade of competitive sparring experience.  Needless to say my ego was a little high, but I was at least smart enough to keep it to myself.  Fortunately, it was easy enough to do so as the excitement of studying completely different styles of martial arts overpowered any other feelings.

That isn’t to say I didn’t have some ingrained perceptions of how I thought things were best done which happened to clash directly against the teachings of these new martial arts.  I’ve spent two years working on overriding these deeply ingrained teachings to be able to incorporate different ones.  This has proven frustrating at times and left me exasperated.  Why can’t I just do it the way I originally learned it?

As I let go of the ego and just enjoyed the process, I began to see that what I had already learned didn’t actually clash with these new lessons.  Rather, they complemented them.  They were the yin to my yang.  They filled in the holes that my original lessons didn’t address fully.

But Don’t Throw Out the China

It is wise to empty your cup when trying to learn something new, but there is no need to throw out the China completely.  You don’t need to start completely from square one and relearn the basic stuff all over again.

If you were to switch from playing soccer to football, you wouldn’t need the coach to teach you how to run again, would you?  Of course not.  That would be silly and a waste of everyone’s time.  Likewise, you don’t need to completely forget all the lessons you have already learned in order to adopt the mindset of a student and learn something new.

In short, remain humble, listen, learn, ask questions, and find ways to apply what you’re learning to what you already know.  Piece them together like a puzzle instead of trying to mash them together.

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Charles Sledge

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  • GhostOfJefferson ✓ᴺᵃᵗᶦᵒᶰᵃˡᶦˢᵗ

    Learning the rote gives you the ability to empty the mind to the actual lesson, once you gather that the rote is not the lesson, but the cup. That’s what I took from this article.

    Don’t remember where I heard it, but it was when I was around 10 or so, and it’s always stuck with me as true wisdom.

    “Every man is my teacher, that I may learn from him”.

    • Agreed, I find the same with every book I read. Even if overall I don’t agree with it there is always something that I can learn. Just about every man has something to teach if you can look past what you disagree with or preconceived notions.