The empty cup

My friend and teacher, Nick Ushin Lowry Sensei, offered the following sentiment on Facebook the other day: "The one who bows an the one who is bowed to are both fundamentally empty, which is what allows for true clear communication."

Another friend responded (in jest): " usually what in between my ears, sensei... absolutely nothing, nada, zilt..."

To which, Lowry Sensei replied, "Good for you—just don't get stuck on it."

. . . . . . . . . . .

Bare in mind here that I am not a serious student of any particular eastern philosophy or religion aside from reading the "Tao Te Ching" a couple of times, along with whatever odds and ends I pick up by virtue of studying a Asian martial art and hanging around a few folks who are more devoted students.

The concept of "the empty cup" is one of those that has come up a number of times. For the most part, I think I understand the idea behind it. Although I might embarrass myself by trying to describe it, I can only say that this is what it has meant to me, at least.

To me, it has meant getting rid of any preconceived notions when approaching something, be it an aikido or judo class, or working on a design at work, or just life in general. It means not making any assumptions ahead of time, so that when things start to turn out differently, I don't bang my head against the wall trying to make things fit my view of how it should be.

It means remaining open to new insight, new ways of doing a given thing (or thinking a given way), no matter how experienced or accomplished I may be at it. It means remaining teachable, even when it comes from those who are beginners or even my "enemy". It means letting go, receiving all. The cup doesn't try to control the water, it allows it to pour in and fill it completely.

Etc, etc, so on and so forth, blah blah blah. You get the picture.

That's how I try to live my life, on the whole; and on the whole, it seems to work pretty well. But I was disarmed by Lowry Sensei's response: "Good for you—just don't get stuck on it." I've been thinking about it a little lately, and something occurred to me.

Now, this may not be what he had in mind in the slightest, but like I said before, this is the meaning it had for me. What occurred to me was this: Be as empty as a cup, except when it is time to be full.

I know, I know: what the crap does that mean? Well, I'll try and describe it as best as I can, and use aikido or judo class as an example. Let's say I'm working with a partner. For sure, my less experienced partner's cup is empty; he knows less than me, he needs guidance, needs direction, right? In those cases, I find that my cup is actually full. So full, that the "water" I have naturally overflows, and I "pour" it into the student's empty cup.

Heck, sometimes, I don't pay attention, get carried away with my own excitement for the subject (or perhaps my own eagerness to show off what I know), and I pour a little too much. We must always be mindful of what our student needs and can handle in that very moment in time, and pour no more, no less than what he needs or has room for. In time, he will, in turn, pour what he has learned into someone else's cup, and so on.

In other words, a cup that is always empty, that stays empty, is useless. It's a hunk of glazed clay that collects dust. To function, to be of any use, the cup is always filled, poured and emptied, again and again.

So, to me, being "stuck" on the concept of remaining empty does you no more good than if you walked around being constantly "full." By and large, I'm a believer in keeping my mouth shut and my ears open; the temptation to open my trap and demonstrate how much I know about a subject is always looming. As long as I'm busy yapping, I'm not able to hear anything new that will benefit me. Or, as long as I'm always pouring, I'm never prepared to "receive" new water.

But there comes a time, during training and in life, when it's perfectly natural to share what we have. What's the old expression, "Nature abhors a vacuum?" Meaning that if there's an "empty" space, something will naturally flow into it, be it air, water or whatever. I think that harmony flourishes whenever there's an empty cup and there's a full one pouring into it; and where there's a full cup, there's an empty cup to receive it. (Could this be another way to consider yin and yang, in and yo?)

Here's the trick: the nature of this relationship—who's full and who's empty—can turn on a dime. In fact, it is often in constant flux.

Take this morning, for instance. I was demonstrating a method of passing the guard in judo. I was pouring the knowledge I had into empty, eagerly awaiting cups. The young man with whom I was demonstrating, a brown belt in judo, mentioned the placement of my foot at one point in the pass, and wondered if it was vulnerable where I had put it. Sure enough, I had to concede that he was right, and I amended my approach.

In a flash, I had a choice. I could refuse to admit that a "lower rank" has just pointed out a flaw in my technique and BS'ed my way out of it. I would have kept my cup full and any new water that could have come in would have just spilled off to the side, lost forever. Or, I could empty my cup and abandon my pride, my preconceived notions, all that, and be open to learn and to grow. Luckily for me, I chose the latter.

In these circumstances, when I'm truly empty and am filled with water, I bow inwardly and say, "Thank you very much," no matter who does the pouring. But also, when I teach and pour what I know into an eager empty cup, I am also grateful for the opportunity and find I must bow and say, "Thank you very much."

The trick it seems is not about staying full or empty, but knowing, feeling when to be one or the other. Nature, the universe will tell you if you listen.

Of course, if all else fails, I would err on the empty side.


  1. Thank you. This was helpful to my quest for what an empty cup meant.


Post a Comment