Emptying Your Cup: A Zen Parable for Academics and Professors

A favorite parable of mine is a traditional Zen koan first translated into English by Nyogen Senzaki, a Rinzai Zen monk, in his 1919 book 101 Zen Stories. The koan is a cautionary parable about personal arrogance and the unwillingness to learn.

The koan has appeared in many slight variations over the years but the essence of it is this:


Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Rather than listen to what the Japanese master had to say, the university professor immediately began dominating the discussion with his own ideas, viewpoints, and knowledge.

While the university professor continued to talk, Nan-in listened patiently and began preparing 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!” he said. “The cup is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Yes,” Nan-in said. “And like this cup, you too are overfilled with your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”


The questions we must ask are these: Why is the antagonist of this story the university professor? And why, in this parable, does the professor fits so easily into such an unflattering role?

The university professor is the antagonist because professors historically represents unquestioning intellectual authority and dogma – the givers of knowledge, not the receivers. The very term “professor” implies that the information flow is unidirectional – it flows out, but it doesn’t flow in. Over time, university professors have developed a reputation for being closed-off, authoritarian, and inflexible. We even have a derisive term that has come to commonly represent the world in which we operate: the Ivory Tower – unassailable, unreachable, and exclusive to the point that the average person will never see the inside of it.

What is interesting about the university professor in the koan of the empty cup is that he seems truly unaware of his own shortcoming. He travels to meet the renowned master with the conscious belief that he will be exchanging ideas, but his unconscious intention is to assert his own opinions.

This parable comes to mind when recalling an experience I had during my undergraduate years. In my History of World Civilization class, the professor, like most Western history teachers, conducted a class that was all but entirely driven by European civilization. He took particular pleasure in belittling the achievements of Eastern countries and cultures. The professor spent only one class period on the entire history of Japan, while simultaneously dismissing Japan’s cultural contributions and expressing his opinion of the silliness of the “antiquated” samurai code used in Japanese business. His speech dripped with sarcasm and openly laughed as he referred to the business applications of Miyamoto Musashi’s classic treatise The Book of Five Rings. His own ignorance revealed itself, however, when he misidentified the book as “The Five Gold Rings.” Note to others: if you are a professor taking a dismissive attitude regarding the subject you are teaching, you should at least be certain you have all of the basic facts straight.

Like the history professor who had prejudiciously made up his mind about the significance of a culture’s contributions, we need to guard against our own developing arrogance. In academia, we begin to believe our own hype: I’m doing this research, publishing these papers, being asked to speak on my field of expertise; I must know everything there is to know on the subject! However, the evolution of knowledge can come with a comparable progression of blindness. We draw dogmatic lines in the sand and, even within our own fields, create competing viewpoints that are unwilling to listen to each other.  We become unwilling to observe with the fresh eyes we once possessed in our youth – when our cup was empty. This creates a risk that every conclusion we draw potentially closes a door to greater knowledge. We should always leave that door cracked open – at least a little. And we should welcome what passes through it.

We may be considered masters in our fields of study, but even within those fields, there is always the possibility that knowledge can evolve, new discoveries can be made, paradigms can be shifted and overturned, and, perhaps most importantly, we might simply be wrong.

In our studies, as in our lives, let us all be prepared to empty our cup.

3 thoughts on “Emptying Your Cup: A Zen Parable for Academics and Professors”

  1. I find the more I learn, on any subject, the worse my sense of ignorance though the greater my sense of curiosity and urgency to learn stuff. Scott Hanselman calls this Imposter Syndrome, certainly true when I studied programming for a while. I just got overwhelmed with how much I realised I just don’t know but could glimpse the edges of.

    To me, the ones who feel smug, who “know it all”, are like some teenagers – ones who know it all yet haven’t lived yet.

  2. One of my favorite (and true) stories is about a friend of mine whose acquaintances all had degrees — Ph.D, M.D., MBA, etc. — and he did not. After months of feeling intimidated, he went and had some business cards made that said, Gary Brumm, D.M.N.” His friends and colleagues were impressed. Finally, after quite some time, someone asked him, “What does D.M.N. mean?” Gary replied, “Don’t Mean Nothing.”

    The older I get the more meaningful I find this story. There are so many bright, talented, gifted people who do not have the “credentials” to match their knowledge and wisdom, and conversely I see many with credentials who lack wisdom and humility.

    Where this really came home to me was while writing my book, “Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope.” I struggled for several years with the concern of “Who am I to suggest to others how they might find meaning in life?” I finally reconciled it by remembering a couple of other thoughts. First, “In the land of the blind, one-eyed people are the rulers,” and second, that I could lay out alternatives and guideposts that I have found useful for me and for other people, and simply say that they might, or might not, be helpful to others. As the poet Robert Brownbing said, “‘Tis an awkward thing to play with men’s souls, and matter enough to save one’s own.”

    It is truly important to empty one’s cup!

  3. Thank you, Dr. Webb, that was a great anecdote. It brings to mind something the psychotherapist Dr. Carl Rogers wrote in one of his final books, A Way of Being. In it, drawing upon a lifetime of personal and professional experience, he took the following surprising perspective (and this circles back to the subject of inherent giftedness):

    We must face the fact that in dealing with human beings, a certificate does not give much assurance of real qualification. If we were less arrogant, we might also learn from the “uncertified” individual, who is sometimes unusually adept in the area of human relationships.

    I am quite aware that the position I am taking has disadvantages and involves risks. But so does the path to certification and licensure. And I have slowly come to the conclusion that if we did away with “the expert,” “the certified professional,” “the licensed psychologist,” we might open our profession to a breeze of fresh air, a surge of creativity, such as it has not known for years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *