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Overflowing Cup

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By this point the story of the Zen master and the eager pupil having a dysfunctional tea ceremony has become quite cliché. However, I have been thinking about it a good deal recently.

As a quick summary here is my telling of it:

An adept pupil in search of enlightenment journeys far to study under a Zen Master. The Master is happy for the eager company and asks the young adept to walk with him in the garden. AS they walk the Master tries to point out lessons he has learned from contemplating the garden but each time he begins the eager adept interrupts the lesson with his own observations and conclusions. After a while the Master just lets the pupil speak while escorting him to a small table for tea.

As the tea ceremony progresses the Master continues to listen as the student continues to speak, seeing that this will take a while the Master pours a second round, having spent the entire time talking the student did not drink any tea so when the Master goes to pour some tea for the pupil the cup overflows. This distracts the student who exclaims, "Master, the tea is spilling on to the table."

The Master responds, "How can I pour you tea when you cup is already full?"

So maybe this is not the best telling but this is how I have felt recently. Like a student unable to understand why the tea is on that table. Is my cup too full? Are my own opinions, experiences, expectations, and conclusions obstructing my learning?

This thinking started the other day when I was watching an interview with Johnny Depp where he recalls rebuffing advice from Allen Ginsberg. While I admire Johnny Depp I found his attitude to be much like the student in the story, unwilling to listen because he felt that he already knew all he needed to know.

Then as I was reading over some lecture notes by Alexander Stepanov I found myself irritated by some of the things I was reading... yet somehow the overflowing tea cup kept coming to mind. I found myself struggling to keep reading. Yet I honestly think that listening to the insights of one of the primary architects of the C++STL should probably be given a little more consideration.

I have also found myself a little cornered on my on going rage against TurboC in education. Have I been too bitter to see things clearly? Again have I let my own experiences and conclusions cloud my view?

So I find myself wondering: Have I left my cup filled?

How does one keep an opened mind when you get so filled up with ideas of what is right and what is wrong? I find myself so quick to judge and yet find that once all the facts are in things are often more interesting than I had judged.

3 Comments On This Entry

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22 March 2010 - 07:56 AM
Great post. Although your "rage against TurboC" in academia is certainly justified. There comes a point where you have to be certain in your beliefs/knoweldge and move forward accordingly. Is that arrogance? I don't think so; it's confidence based on education and experience.


23 March 2010 - 06:06 AM
Well I honestly think having an opinion is never really wrong -- So long as you treat your opinion as theory susceptible to modification based upon observation and evidence. It is when one begins to hold on to opinions so tightly that you block out other ideas (right or wrong).

When I teach there always comes a point when I tell my student something along the lines of: "Envision success, envision how you will achieve success, do it, compare your experience and with your expectations." (kind of a quick and dirty scientific method). I feel that having opinions is much like "envisioning success" (taking success as "I am right in my opinion"). One still needs to be able to be objective about how that expectation holds up.


23 March 2010 - 11:16 AM
I know where you're coming from. This happens to everyone at everything at some time I think. Basically, you get to the point where you're thinking on a different level from the complete neophyte. You rationalize and reason very differently and this causes things to sometimes be overlooked or dismissed prematurely.

A good thing to do is to step really far outside of your comfort zone. Depending on your current perception of your ego, this may be really far off the edge.

The idea here is that you want to realize that while you know a lot, you still have a lot to learn. With the new knowledge acquired from probably failing at this monumental leap, you can go back to the more fundamental assessments you've made and see if they are even still accurate.

In order to tear down all of your walls, you have to see that they're even there in the first place.

Great post.
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