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Zen Story: A Cup of Tea

Once, a university professor went to visit a well-respected Zen Master to learn about Zen. The Master first invited him to sit for a cup of tea. The professor sat down and started talking about Zen. The Master quietly prepared and poured the tea. When the tea was filled to the cup's brim, he kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's full! No more will go in!" blurted the professor. "The same with your mind. How can I teach you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"


Many lessons can be drawn from this story. The main one would be that we can't learn something that we think we already know. Recently, I had two experiences that reminded me of this story.

Story 1

I'm teaching a healthcare course this semester, and I was talking to my students about whether western medicine is better or Traditional Chinese Medicine. One student said "I don't trust Chinese medicine, all the people who use it are old-fashioned in thinking and illogical." I said to him, "For you to have such a strong negative reaction to Chinese medicine, I'm guessing you must've had a really bad experience with it in the past, is that right?" He said yes, that the people who recommended Chinese medicine to him in the past left a very negative experience in his mind.

A key point I wanted to teach in that discussion is that nothing is 100% always good or always bad; it's about using it correctly. Western medicine is great for emergency life-saving situations, while Chinese medicine is much better for long-term health and chronic-illness prevention. But throughout our Chinese medicine unit, this student indeed was unable to let go of his prejudice towards Chinese medicine, which I felt was a shame because he's a bright student and could have really benefited from using Chinese medicine in his life.

Story 2

My mother accidentally shut the car door on her thumb, which resulted in her nail turning blue/purple and swollen. Unlike the student in my class, my mom was prejudiced towards western medicine, thinking it's illogical and naïve. The next day morning, she told me she didn’t sleep well because her thumb started to hurt so much at night. I did a quick internet search and told her she needs to dip her hand in ice water for 30 minutes twice a day. She immediately dismissed my idea and told me she doesn’t need it. I still went ahead and prepared the ice any way, just in case.

Shortly after, she changed her mind and decided to give it a try. She ended up using ice water for most of the day. At the end of the day, she told me, "Wow, this western medicine solution was really useful! My thumb is so much better now. I always thought western medicine was dumb because they think cutting off body parts will solve illnesses. But it looks like I got saved by western medicine this time."


As Epictetus once said,

“You can’t learn that which you think you already know.”

If you want to learn anything, first empty your mind of all your pre-existing opinions so that you can listen with full respect and attention.


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