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Barbara O'Brien

Empty Your Cup

By August 13, 2012

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"Empty your cup" is an old Chinese Chan (Zen) saying that occasionally pops up in western popular entertainment. "Empty your cup" often is attributed to a famous conversation between the scholar Tokusan (also called Te-shan Hsuan-chien, 782-865) and Zen Master Ryutan (Lung-t'an Ch'ung-hsin or Longtan Chongxin, 760-840).

Scholar Tokusan, who was full full of knowledge and opinions about the dharma, came to Ryutan and asked about Zen. At one point Ryutan re-filled his guest's teacup, but did not stop pouring when the cup was full. Tea spilled out and ran over the table. "Stop! The cup is full!" said Tokusan.

"Exactly," said Master Ryutan. "You are like this cup; you are full of ideas. You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can't put anything in. Before I can teach you, you'll have to empty your cup."

This is harder than you might realize. By the time we reach adulthood we are so full of, um, stuff that we don't even notice it's there. We might consider ourselves to be open minded, but in fact everything we learn is filtered through many assumptions and then classified to fit into the knowledge we already possess.

The Buddha taught that conceptual thinking is a function of the Third Skandha. This skandha is called Samjna in Sanskrit, which means "knowledge that links together." Unconsciously, we "learn" something new by first linking it to something we already know. Most of the time, this is useful; it helps us navigate through the phenomenal world.

But sometimes this system fails. What if the new thing is utterly unrelated to anything you already know? What usually happens is misunderstanding. We see this when westerners, including scholars, try to understand Buddhism by stuffing it into some western conceptual box. That creates a lot of conceptual distortion; people end up with a version of Buddhism in their heads that is unrecognizable to most Buddhists. And the whole is Buddhism philosophy or religion? argument is being perpetrated by people who can't think outside the box.

To one extent or another most of us go about demanding that reality conform to our ideas, rather than the other way around. Mindfulness practice is an excellent way to stop doing that, or at least learn to recognize that's what we're doing, which is a start.

But then there are ideologues and dogmatists. I've come to see ideology of any sort as a kind of interface to reality that provides a pre-formed explanation for why things are as they are. People with faith in ideology may find these explanations very satisfying, and sometimes they might even be relatively true. Unfortunately, a true ideologue rarely recognizes a situation in which his beloved assumptions to not apply, which can lead him into colossal blunders.

But there is no cup so full as that of the religious dogmatist. I read this today at Brad Warner's place, about a woman friend to interviewed a young Hare Krishna devotee.

"Turns out her Hare Krishna friend told her that women are naturally submissive and their position on earth is to serve men. When Darrah tried to counter this assertion by citing her own real-life experience, her buddy literally went "Blah-blah-blah" and proceeded to talk over her. When Darrah finally managed to ask how he knew all this, the Hare Krishna pointed to a bookshelf and said, 'I have five thousand years of yogic literature that proves it's true.'"

This young man is now dead to reality, or reality about women, at least.

August 14, 2012 at 7:08 am
(1) Hein says:

Women and the spiritual path; its a controversy even in Buddhism it seems. Is the Dharma (or rather people’s view of the Dharma) so stagnant and caught up in the traditions and conditioned mindsets of the past (i.e. ancient times) that it cannot evolve and be relevant in the modern age?

Obviously there are differences between men and women. The most apparent difference is bodily, but the differences does not go that far to say that females are “naturally submissive”. That view is based upon conditioned thinking then anything sprouting from an “enlightened mind”.

August 14, 2012 at 1:40 pm
(2) cl says:

quite frankly “five thousand years of yogic literature” without being put through rigorous analysis and examination is just an immeasurable quantity of so many words.

August 14, 2012 at 11:04 pm
(3) JonJ says:

This subject immediately brings to my mind, of course, Te-shan the Diamond Sutra “expert” and the woman selling cakes.

August 15, 2012 at 4:59 am
(4) Paul UK says:

Well, I sure would not like to tell my ex-wife or Mother that women are “naturally submissive” cos their reaction certainly would NOT be submissive !!! More likely a zen bump on the head !

On a serious note though, it seems the Buddhist tradition has always been somewhat ambiguous towards women, didnt Buddha say that by allowing Nuns the Dharma would degenerate sooner(which seems out of place considering Buddhas egalitarian attitude), or maybe this was a later addition put into Lord Buddhas mouth, and so the debate goes on…

I`ve heard Tibetans say that women have a greater capacity for the contemplative life than men when they apply themselves yet undeniably Tibetan culture is a Patriarchy … & most certainly most Tibetan Buddhist groups are male dominated.

Its an issue that will probably always remain problematic. I suppose as Buddhists we try our best to be as egalitarian as possible in a world thats mostly a Patriarchy.

August 16, 2012 at 9:41 pm
(5) HeidiC says:

I think that the Buddha’s attitude toward women was, although probably more liberal than society in general, was a natural out-growth of the society that he lived in. Had he lived and taught in the West in the early 21st century, he probably would have welcomed women and treated them with the same respect as men.

August 17, 2012 at 1:17 pm
(6) Joram Arentved says:

Whatever it relates to, Barb, anything, I respect, is just a good future that gives me no idea, whatsoever that I can ‘still’ fail to be myself, let alone ‘testify(!)’ to being happy to be against my labor situation being any big compromise, e.g. mine, greetings, ‘J.A.,’ Chile, guit_artie@yahoo.dk.

August 18, 2012 at 2:45 pm
(7) Mila says:
August 19, 2012 at 11:24 am
(8) Synical says:

No evolution = extinction.
The Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, whomever originated a spiritual movement at any one time in the past is simply a WISER man/woman of their era. Human in every aspect, they cannot but reflect the seemingly obvious attitudes of their time.
Scrutinizing what has been said with a fine comb has a tendency to demean their innovative ideas (that are obviously expounded upon – evolutionarily- not taken for gospel).
What any of these social innovators have contributed to their philosophies should be respected for thinking a little outside the box, but had they been overdramatic in their approach, they would have been considered lunatics.
I love what the Buddha started (maybe a little more conforming to my personal way of thinking than Islam for instance), but do not necessarily assign him supremacy on Buddhist thought. Actually, no innovator is entitled to eternal, absolute infallibility without amendment with subsequent socio/techno/spiritual innovations.

August 19, 2012 at 4:32 pm
(9) Mila says:

RE: “No evolution = extinction.”

yep, I can agree with this ….. in both its relative-truth & ultimate-truth sense:

(1) relative to a specific, say, Darwinian and Newtonian space-time context (i.e. a particular collectively created/maintained karmic vision): “no evolution = extinction” means that given the primary concern for the survival of individual persons or species within a presumably hostile, limited-resources “external world” …. it’s dog-eat-dog survival of the fittest situation. Yikes.

(2) in terms of Absolute Truth, the Ultimate Dimension: “no-evolution (in the sense of no-arising, no-abiding, no-cessation of individual beings or species) = extinction (in the sense of nirodha, nirvana, cessation of dukha)”. The profound insight of all the Buddhas: that lasting happiness and freedom = liberation from the illusion of a so-called individual “me” — in seemingly endless comparison & competition with all the other “me’s” — worrying ceaselessly about evolution/extinction, birth/death — what a relief!

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