An Empty Cup

Jeff Stillion


A known scholar with vast knowledge and a multitude of opinions visited a Zen master. The scholar had only heard of Zen, but never experienced it. And like a good scholar, this did not deter him from forming assumptions about it. Well into an hour of their meeting, the master had not uttered one word. Inversely, the scholar couldn't keep words from falling out of his mouth. As the master refilled the scholar's tea, he allowed to fill until it began to overflow. "Stop! The cup is full!" the scholar said. "Precisely," the master replied. "Like this cup, you're full of your own ideas. You visit me, claiming to ask for teaching, but your cup is already full; how am I to put anything in? Before I can teach you anything, your cup must be empty."

This notion calls upon Lokahi and Pono. Lokahi is alignment and unity, and in this case, applies to the self. Thinking that you've heard it all (and know it all) is a dangerous referendum. It's a virtue to pursue knowledge, but it's another to equate that pursuit with pride or superiority. This will keep you from having unity with the self, and therefore with others--teachers and fellow students alike.

Practicing alignment naturally paves the way for Pono. Pono situates us to be in accord or harmony with another. If my training partner and I are "Pono", then an implied trust is present. We both feel safe, and can feel good about having an effective training session.

We need look no further than nature to validate this lesson. When the time is sufficient, the tide will beautifully rise and fall in response to natural forces. And if I force the wave to form or stop the wave from crashing, then I oppose (or resist) what wants to naturally occur.

And if the practical study of Jujitsu has taught me anything the last 10 years, opposing the will of harmony can result in injury, frustration, and even isolation. The scholar’s error was our gift. And how fortunate that the Master revealed the wisdom gap! I see the scholar as our ego, and the Master, our souls. The ego seeks to fill, whereas the soul seeks to empty.

Which one will you be?