Kōan 2: 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?”


I think the lesson here is to let go of our preconceived notions. However unlike most lessons outside of Zen teachings, Zen requires a clear mind/emptiness — and that’s about it. The cup is our minds in this kōan, and we can’t experience Zen unless our minds are empty.

But what are your thoughts on this kōan? I’m by no means an expert, so I’d love to hear other thoughts (conflicting to the kōan as that may sound :?)

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