photo credit: Cole Hutson

Empty Your Cup: A Zen Proverb on Accepting Feedback

There is a famous proverb about a teacup. Although there are multiple versions, here is my favorite one:

Once upon a time, there was a wise Zen master. People traveled from far away to seek his help. In return, he would teach them and show them the way to enlightenment.

On this particular day, a scholar came to visit the master for advice. “I have come to ask you to teach me about Zen,” the scholar said.

Soon, it became obvious that the scholar was full of his own opinions and knowledge. He interrupted the master repeatedly with his own stories and failed to listen to what the master had to say. The master calmly suggested that they should have tea.

So the master poured his guest a cup. The cup was filled, yet he kept pouring until the cup overflowed onto the table, onto the floor, and finally onto the scholar’s robes. The scholar cried “Stop! The cup is full already. Can’t you see?”

“Exactly,” the Zen master replied with a smile. “You are like this cup — so full of ideas that nothing more will fit in. Come back to me with an empty cup.”

I think of this story often because it reminds us that we need to stay humble, open ourselves to new ideas, and be willing to change our preconceptions.

It’s simple in theory, but difficult to practice. As we get older, we fill up our cups with our past experiences and knowledge. When someone comes along and tries to change our minds, it is too easy to mold what someone else’s words to fit our existing beliefs.

To counteract this problem, I try to say “thank you” whenever someone gives me a piece of advice. Even if I don’t feel like receiving advice from someone, thanking the person causes me to internally become more open to listening to what they have to say.

If the person provides feedback such as “Your ideas are wrong”, thank the person and ask them to elaborate. Whether or not they choose to do so is up to them, but at least you’ll have opened up a channel for discussion and sharing.

So consider new thoughts and opinions. Even if you disagree, at least you can understand the basis behind them.

Bruce Lee sums it up nicely: “Empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality.”

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