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Empty Your Cup: Part One

Empty paper coffee cup on marble table
An empty cup is often the difference between growth and lack of growth.

As we head into a new decade, bright with promise, a blank sheet of paper yet unwritten, my mind turns back to this phrase again and again. Those in Shaolin Wahnam are likely already quite familiar with it, as it permeates all aspects of our training: qigong, kungfu, Taijiquan, and Zen. It comes from a Zen koan, or parable designed to provoke enlightenment.

A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), 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?"

There are several different versions of this parable as they relate to kungfu as well. But the crux of each one is all the same: in order to learn anything new, you must let go of everything you think you know and empty your cup. Sound familiar? I wrote about this idea to some extent last year when I talked about how the ego can get in the way of our training if we let it.

We all come to Shaolin with our own stories and our own experiences. These can be stories of trauma or injury, fear and anxiety, depression or stress, or we can simply come to the table with our own way of understanding things. None of these things are bad, it’s just what we do with them when we step into the training hall that can either hold us back or set us free. Grandmaster Wong frequently encourages students to just follow the instructions to the best of their abilities, nothing more, nothing less. Don’t add anything, don’t modify the instructions, just follow them simply.

This guideline serves not only to allow the transmission of the arts as they were intended, but also to the great benefit of the student. Leave your assumptions and presumptions at the door, follow the instructions for a time, and then assess your progress. Only then will you get a true picture of what needs to be adjusted. Empty your cup. If you start from this place, chances are you’re going to free yourself of a lot of that pesky ego pretty quickly.

Stay tuned for part two...

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