Apr 16, 2023
Martin Goodson

Empty the Cup

How the inner narration prevents clear seeing.

Emptying your cup is a Chinese proverb used in Zen practice. Martin explores what this means for the training.



Many years ago, my late Buddhist teacher was editing a book, a translation of a Zen classic called Discourse on The Inexhaustible Lamp by Torei Enji.

She was being assisted by an academic who was working in a voluntary capacity. The process of editing took many years and every line was scrutinised over and over again. The process involved printing off a page which would be edited by hand, using red ink for any changes, which would then be given to the assistant who would make them on the master document on the old Apple Mac computer. The page would be printed off and then given back to the teacher who would accept or amend further.

One day, the assistant received a page with a number of amendments. She corrected them, printed off the page and gave it to the teacher. Later on, the page came back with one amendment on it. The word to be amended was the word ‘abhor’. One of the original amendments had added an extra ‘r’ to the spelling so that it read ‘abhorr’. The assistant had ignored this amendment adding the extra ‘r’ and had handed it back to the teacher with the original word ‘abhor’. It was this word that was now again slated for amendment adding the extra ‘r’.

The assistant took the page through to the teacher and, with a small smile that an adult might give to a slightly dense child whom one felt should know better, explained that the word should be spelt with only one ‘r’. The teacher refused to accept this as truth and flatly denied that this was the case.

“I think you will find that it does only have one ‘r’” insisted the assistant.

“Get a dictionary.’ Came the blunt reply.

She did. Going down to the temple’s well stocked library, the result of a previous bequest, she picked up the large volume and turning to the relevant page felt a delighted vindication upon seeing ‘abhor’. She practically flew upstairs to deliver the unassailable verdict to the teacher. The latter’s response was immediate:

“Get another dictionary.”

The assistant went downstairs and this time found that the only other dictionary was an older volume from some several decades before. Turning to the relevant page, she found the following:


Somewhat crestfallen she returned to the teacher. “Why didn’t you just say that there were two ways to spell this word?”

“You never asked.” Came the reply.

The thing about Buddhist teachers is that good ones never miss an opportunity to give a teaching ‘in real time’ as we like to say these days.

So, what is the takeaway point from this story? 

It is that pre-judgements can stop us listening and learning. This relates to the phenomenon that there appears to be an almost continual running commentary going on inside us. It’s a bit like being at a sporting event and sitting in front of someone on the phone who is relating to his ‘mate’ in the pub down the road what is going on. And, if nothing particularly interesting is going on, then they opine, judge and criticise either what just happened or what they think might happen or just ramble on about something entirely unrelated to what is going on. It’s pretty distracting!

The Buddha had a number of things to say about this continual commentary, one of the most important being that this is not a natural state of the mind. By this, he means that there is something that is underneath this constant chatter or perhaps is it more like a roominess that pre-dates it and within which all this ‘stuff’ arises.

Another factor is to do with attention. The faculty of attention can only attend to a limited number of things at any one time. Let’s say I am being distracted by the commentary behind me. It may be because I’m taking issue with it (now there is an inner commentator commenting upon the outer commentator sitting behind), or disagree with an overheard opinion and am just now formulating what ‘I’ would say in riposte. At that point, a goal is scored, or a wicket is taken (if it’s cricket). The event is missed.

It’s the same when listening to a talk or lecture. There are times when ‘I’ am listening and then times when ‘I’ go off into thought about what I’ve heard. Usually, these thoughts are weighing up something, judging it, wondering if I agree or disagree with it and so on. Whilst this is going on, the attention has been captivated and is no longer attending to what is being said.  

The story goes that a young student came to a great meditation teacher in order to learn. The master invited him to join him for some tea. The master poured the tea, quickly filling the young student’s cup. But, once the cup was filled, he carried on pouring. The frothy tea washed over the lip of the cup and cascaded down all sides splashing over the table in a growing pool of green tea. “Stop!” Cried the student. “It’s full already.:” The master did as he was asked and explained: “So, you see you cannot pour more into an already full cup.”

The above example is what is known as a ‘teaching story’. It provides a strong image which makes the point. However, we should not stop just at the obvious point here. What is implied is that if we want to change the flavour of the tea or exchange it for coffee or maybe lemonade, then we need not only to stop pouring in green tea, but also empty out the cup and wash it a bit, thus getting it ready to receive something entirely new and different from its original contents. If we fail to do this, what we end up drinking is neither decent tea nor coffee/lemonade etc. Yeuch! We might even end up thinking that this lemonade is ghastly! We end up telling everyone about how awful it was and not to bother trying it!  Oh, these metaphors write themselves!

So, taking this full cup/empty cup image, how does it relate to the first story about abhor/abhorr? What was the residue in the assistant’s mind?

This is a tricky question… It cannot be the fact that she had never come across this older and less used spelling of the word. Why should that alone prevent her going to look up the word for herself? Why might she not just go to the teacher and ask her point blank why she spelt it like that? Can you feel your way into the assistant’s mind and recreate what may have been going on?

One thing, at some level, she must have thought that she knew ‘the truth’ of the matter - the correct spelling of the word. “I know the truth.” What is interesting is that this “I know” leaves little or no room for anything else. It is limiting in the way it perceives what is true. The effect is to create a binary or duality. “If I am right, she must be wrong.” Another factor to highlight here is just how ‘sticky’ this view becomes. There is an emotional reaction  happening which acts like glue and ‘I’ become staked onto this truth. Now the success or failure of my truth becomes personal. I am resistant to change my mind.

Remember what the Buddha said about these thoughts (because that is what they are) not being the natural state of the mind. The natural state of the mind is not these thoughts. In practice this means that what is lacking is the awareness that such thoughts, when they arise in the mind, are not really the true nature of the mind at all.

So maybe you can see that the further we go into the image of that cup the deeper we go. If the Buddha is right and the true nature of mind is quiet and spacious with nothing in it, then it might just be that there is no bottom to that cup at all!

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