Your teacup is full (Empty your cup)

The teacup story is around in different versions, here is one version:

Once, a long time ago, there was a wise Zen master. People from far and near would seek his counsel and ask for his wisdom. Many would come and ask him to teach them, enlighten them in the way of Zen. He seldom turned any away.

One day an important man, a man used to command and obedience came to visit the master. “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The tone of the important man’s voice was one used to getting his own way.

The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man. Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?”

The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”

Here is another version:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

Like this cup, Nan-in said, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?

I like the tea story a lot, it is a great reminder that in order to learn we have to be humble, to empty our mind and make room for the new.

Here are some quotes about learning, I love the one about beginner’s mind.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few. – Shunryu Suzuki-roshi

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn – Alvin Toffler

When any real progress is made, we unlearn and learn anew what we thought we knew before. – Henry David Thoreau

Knowledge is learning something every day. Wisdom is letting something go every day. – Zen Proverb

This was originally posted at Zen And More, another blog of mine.


  1. Dorothy Dalton

    Bengt – love this parable. It is very important to me – although letting old ways go is a work in progress.

    Excellent writing.


  2. Vijay Aggarwal

    The story is really gr8 as it opens the closed mind and make space for learn & relearn.


  3. Bob Esse

    “cup of tea’ opened my mind to understanding in 1972. I carry it with me daily, and share it almost as much.

  4. Bengt

    It’s a great story. The end, “Come back to me with an empty mind” connects nicely to the concept of beginner’s mind.

  5. Lindy Asimus

    It’s a long way back to Beginner’s Mind. 😉

    • Bengt

      Beginner’s mind requires an effort but we have to start somewhere.

  6. Mindy Knapp

    who actually wrote the lovely story about the zen master and the overflowing tea cup?

    • Bengt

      I have no idea who created the original.

  7. t.c

    It’s from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

  8. Eric Sander Kingston

    Thought you’d find this work of mine of interest.

    One Tea Cup & Two Exact Opposites

    One day, two Zen disciples got into an argument about what Zen is and what Zen isn’t. They went to their Zen teacher, who was sitting and drinking a cup of tea. The disciples told their teacher about their dilemma. The teacher said, “The wisdom you seek, is in this half empty tea cup.” The teacher placed the cup down, got up and walked away. The two disciples stood and argued and argued. Then, the first disciple said, “Zen is in what is there.” The second disciple said, “Zen is in what isn’t there.” Finally, the teacher came back and asked, “What have you discovered?” The first disciple said, “You were correct my teacher, and this disciple is wrong. The tea cup is half full, it reflects gratitude and allows us to create using that which is there.” The second disciple said, “You were correct my teacher, and this disciple is wrong. The tea cup is half empty, reflecting humbleness and allowing us to create new things from the empty infinite space of possibility of that which isn’t there.” Finally, the disciples asked, “Which one of us is correct?” The teacher smiled and said, “Both of you.”

    Eric Sander Kingston

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