Zen Story: Emptying the Teacup

The following is one of my favourite Zen stories, especially for its application to misunderstandings of haiku poetry. It is a constant reminder to be humble.

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. “Stop! It is overflowing. 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?”

Many people who are new to haiku believe that it must be 5-7-5 syllables in English. They are deeply attached to this rigid belief, an urban myth usually taught to them at an impressionable young age by well-meaning teachers. As a result, they too often fail to see that 5-7-5 is essentially an incorrect target for English-language haiku—violating the form rather than preserving it. This is because the Japanese have never counted syllables in haiku, but something else, and because “syllable” is the wrong word for this. Even more importantly, those who insist on 5-7-5 syllables typically fail to see other targets that are vital to haiku poetry. The lesson is not just for those new to haiku. Even seasoned writers of haiku are well-advised to return to beginner’s mind, to always be open to new ways of approaching this ephemeral art. I need to remind myself of this lesson all the time. This Zen story brings to mind the Greek word from Christian theology, kenosis, to empty oneself, which describes how Jesus emptied himself of divine power to become fully human. Only emptiness welcomes fullness, and fullness is not even the goal. See also “Zen and the Art of Direct Seeing and “Dripping Rain: Learning Haiku from Shunryu Suzuki.”       +