Empty Zen teacups and divine fullness

February 6th, 2019

There’s a lovely Zen story I’d like to offer a Christian spiritual commentary on. 

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?”

The professor is full of “opinions and speculations,” full of his thoughts, his gnosis, his confidence and pride at his erudite and precise views. There are several things we can learn about the Christian path from the self-emptying the professor needs in order to be grasped by Zen. 

First, what is communicated is that the posture of the empty teacup is the learner’s posture, the disciple’s posture. When one would learn to follow Jesus, learn to know Jesus, she or he must seek not to impose her own categories on the path Jesus would reveal to her, but, as much as possible, to learn from Jesus within what it means to follow Jesus, what it means to follow the Christian path. Yet not imposing one’s own thoughts and categories and speculations on the Christian path is easier said than done: when we’re speaking we’re never without lenses, just as we’re never speaking without language. So allowing one’s categories, concepts, perspectives, lenses to be the ones Jesus would form in one is a process. It’s a process of self-emptying and re-self-emptying. Our thoughts and speculations, reactions and sectarian impulses are always refilling the teacup we’ve emptied in order to learn from Jesus and commune with Jesus. 

And this brings us to the second point. A vital and central practice of self-emptying is what is often, in the Christian tradition, called contemplative prayer. It is quite similar to what Anglophone Buddhists and Vedantists might call meditation, and yet, as Martin Laird maintains, it is a common mistake of Christian self-perception to think that the Christian tradition has little or nothing to say about this kind of prayer.** Cynthia Bourgeault describes the Christian practice of contemplative prayer as the practice of simply sitting and gently returning the mind to a prayer word (“Jesus” being perhaps the most traditional) whenever one encounters thoughts.*** A further, and complementary if perhaps more fundamental practice, is keeping one’s attention gently centered one one’s breathing, while the prayer word is then used to return the attention to one’s breath. As Bourgeault points out, this kind of practice of Christian self-emptying may be seen as a response to and participation in the divine Logos’ own self-emptying, or kenosis, in the incarnation (Phil. 2:5-11). The one who cultivates contemplation thus participates to the call to enter imitatively into the “mind of Christ.” This is the practice of emptying, and patiently re-emptying, one’s teacup. 

Third, the emptiness of the teacup into which we form ourselves in contemplation teaches us also about God. The concept of God is empty in the sense that God is not a being among beings, not a thing among things, not one we’re able to comprehend. It is for this reason that many of the Christian mystics think of “Nothing”  literally no-thing — as a rather exalted and pious name of God. The Vedantist neti neti amounts to the same. As the great scholastic saint (and apparently contemplative) Thomas Aquinas taught, God is not part of any genus. There’s no box, no category of things (not even “gods”), in which God can be put. Rather, as Aquinas says, we’re joined to God quasi ignoto, as to one unknown, and that by grace. We know and love God truly without seeing the divine essence. As Paul writes, now we see through a glass darkly, or, as it is memorably rendered recently, “ by way of a mirror, in an enigma” (1 Cor. 13:12).**** 

God is the transcendent source of all things, the hidden and ever-more-interior fountain of our being and so nearer to us than they are to ourselves, the Father of all illuminations, all enlightenment, every good and perfect gift coming down from above (James 1:17). 

We get close to the ever-closer God by “emptying our cup”, emptying heart and mind, simplifying our self, our soul, our attitude. Learning to wait. Learning to sit within our silence and attend to nothing, learning not to notice ourselves or anything. Maybe our breath. Maybe just awareness itself. So emptied, like Nan-in’s tea cup, we’re ready for the divine love, the divine kindness to flow through us. 


*Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings (New York: Doubleday, 1961), 5. 

**Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 4. 

***Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind –a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Boulder: Shambhala, 2008), 141-149. 

****David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 343.

About the Author

Clifton Stringer

Clifton Stringer is based in Austin, Texas and holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Boston College. He previously read more…
comments powered by Disqus