The elusive and anonymous urban hermit “ZEN DADDY” marks a return from his sabbatical to lay down some modern insights from an old Zen fable…

Greetings and salutations from the Zen Daddy! This month’s topic is “Emptying the Teacup.” This refers to one of the better known Zen stories:

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?”

One reason why this story is a favorite of the Zen Daddy is that it can be applied to so many things. We are full of preconceptions and opinions and speculations about everything around us. Individuals, people from other groups (be they political parties, religions, financial or ethnic backgrounds), places, even our ideas of our selves fill our teacups to overflowing with labels and opinions and speculations. Even on a daily basis, we have filled the cup based on something our husband or wife said last night, or how a coworker responded (or didn’t respond) to a comment we made. This happens effortlessly; what is not effortless, but necessary, are two different things – paying attention to what we’re putting in the cup, and knowing when to empty it. The Zen Daddy will deal with the first part this month…

We constantly make judgments about things around us. Whether we think, “She dresses very nicely,” or “I don’t care for the service in this restaurant,” we are constantly accumulating decisions we make about things in our environment. Although the J-word (judgment) is often used negatively, sometimes it just depends on what you do with it. For example, when you find out a dry cleaner you’ve gone to doesn’t do a good job, it’s perfectly acceptable to acknowledge that and put it in your teacup by going to a different dry cleaner next time. Filling your teacup with angry thoughts on what bad people they must be for doing a good job is not acceptable, and makes for cloudy, bitter tea. The same applies to filling the teacup with ideas about people close to us, although this is where the spiritual rubber meets the road. It is not easy to experience the emotions of an encounter with someone, yet still pour clear tea in your teacup.

If you pour tea leaves and water straight into your cup, what happens? You have a mess! The same happens with judgments that are laden with emotions. So what should we use as a strainer? Compassion! When we’ve poured our thoughts and judgments through the strainer of compassion, it almost always makes for a fine cup of tea.

Now when you go through your day, take a moment every so often to ask yourself: is my tea cup cloudy, or is it clear?

Enjoy your day!

The Zen Daddy

The Zen Daddy has managed to remain anonymous even in the age of Wikileaks. As long as he keeps sharing his insights, we don’t mind keeping it that way.

About bensten

Teacher, writer, blogger and spiritual practitioner. Managing editor of

2 responses »

  1. 3D Eye says:

    Good blog. Possibly the three most important issues in life – how to deal with destructive emotions, how to achieve a spirit of non-attachment, and how to achieve a spirit of lovingkindness. GF

  2. […] Zen Daddy elaborates on his original Empty Your Cup essay and tells us how to deal with that stale, funky tea. If you did a web search on “elaborate […]

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