Empty Your Cup


The following is an essay I wrote for a college course last year. These concepts are deeply rooted in asian culture and beliefs, in Hinduism and Buddhism and Zen. I hope the concepts are of interest! Endnotes and works cited are included.


Empty Your Cup


One of the concepts presented in our study is the idea of the beginner’s mind. I have a great deal of experience with this personally thanks to the decade I spent studying a martial art called Shao-Lin Kempo. This is a form of Kung Fu in which I hold a black belt. With roots in both China and Japan, this art is closely tied to many Hindu and Buddhist principles. When I began my journey in this art, I had advanced equestrian knowledge and skill. Looking back, I am amazed I was able to be so successful in anything without first learning to empty my cup.

The beginner’s mind is explained with a simple metaphor. Imagine sitting down for tea with a Master, who pours tea into your cup. After it is full to the brim, the Master continues pouring tea and you watch as it overflows. When you ask the Master why he does this, he responds that your mind is like this cup. It is so full already, how can you possibly hold any more? Before the Master can begin to teach you, you must empty your cup. Let go of what you know and what you think you know. Once you have let go of presumptions, knowledge, pride in accomplishments, and all else that fills your cup, you have achieved the beginner’s mind. Now you present yourself to the Master ready to learn without any prejudice. This is an important element in Zen[1] that is universally useful in our lives.

We live in a highly individualistic, competitive society. American’s lives center around outdoing one another and appearing to know all there is to be known. This concept of been-there-done-that is the basis for what is called the expert’s mind.[2] The common misconception that once we’ve experienced something a single time, we can gain nothing further from it is the trap of having an expert’s mind. It results in narrow mindedness, causing us to shut others out and strengthen walls that divide us rather than build bridges to connect us to one another. In doing so it makes room for prejudice, discrimination, fanaticism and oppression.[3] Now, claiming that this can all be avoided by one simple concept is extraordinary. Luckily, with the beginner’s mind, avoiding these pitfalls of society seems not only easy, but also obvious and necessary for one’s own well being. Believing that knowing a characteristic (such as age, race, gender, sexual orientation, or hobbies) allows us to know what type of person another is and whether or not they are our kind of people[4] is a slippery slope perpetuated by the expert’s mind. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.[5] If we instead approach life and people with a beginner’s mind, we are excited to learn anything and everything. We present unlimited intellectual curiosity, constantly asking questions such as: Why? How? When? Where?[6] Thus the superiority of a beginner’s mind is made clear, as judgment is absent, being replaced by compassion and empathy.

It must be admitted that, although simple to explain, the beginner’s mind is not a simple concept in practice. We must pursue it without any attachment to our end goal, nor to its own origins, nor even to the practice itself. To attain a beginner’s mind, we must be free from possessing anything and accept that everything is in flowing change. Nothing exists but momentarily in its present form; one thing flows into another and cannot be grasped.[7] The loss of balance causes change, yet the whole of being, the universe, life itself, remains in perfect harmony. While that which we were dies upon the loss of balance, thanks to change being thrust upon us, we also develop ourselves and are able to grow because of this. Everything around us is constantly losing its balance, changing.[8] The apparent permanence of objects in our lives is merely a deception, caused by our inability to view the true nature that underlies all. Here again, it seems obvious the advantages of a beginner’s mind, for it opens our eyes to the big picture rather than narrowing our gaze upon that which we may find unwelcome. The beginner’s mind grants us freedom from the chains of experience, the numbness and inability to appreciate the complexness and freshness of existence. This is neither meant to degrade technical prowess nor committed inquiry, but rather to guide us from the lure of expertise in every moment. Then, when offering forgiveness is unimaginable, when our curiosity dwindles, when we proclaim, “I’m not that kind of person”,[9] this is when we must set aside our expert’s mind, so strongly entrenched in each of us, and call forth the righteous perspective, the wise understanding, of our beginner’s mind.

It should be noted that being an expert is not mutually exclusive of having a beginner’s mind. In fact, mastery of the beginner’s mind can only propel one in the right direction toward mastery of any subject. An expert is always a beginner, because expertise constantly opens up new worlds. It is the near irresolvability of their venture that provides experts their drive to reveal new perspectives and discover uncharted ideas.[10] Attaining a beginner’s mind can be as long a road as one would expect to achieve mastery of any other subject. After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is little by little. Much like learning a foreign language, you must practice it over and over in order to master it. As we do so, we become aware of the fact that to be sincere and put forth our full effort in each moment is enough, for this is where nirvana exists.[11] Mastery is not required; much as Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path teaches us, elements such as correct intention, effort, mindfulness and contemplation allow us to face life objectively, while living kindly and cultivating inner peace.[12] The expression of this concept taught in Shao-Lin Kempo is one hundred, one thousand, ten thousand. It takes one hundred attempts to simply remember material one is learning. It takes one thousand repetitions to begin to be able to complete the material with some level of developed skill. It takes ten thousand repetitions to achieve mastery of the material; at which point you begin again. For as we know, to be an expert is to be a beginner.

Zazen, the practice of seated meditation[13], is the corner stone of Zen practice as well as a porthole through which one can develop the beginner’s mind. To begin, the student sits down in the lotus position. This consists of placing the left foot on the right thigh, and the right foot on the left thigh. The lotus position expresses the oneness of duality: not two, not one. With legs crossed in this fashion, they become one despite the fact that there is one right leg and one left leg. Similarly, it is incorrect to think of the mind and body as two, but it is equally wrong to think of them as one. The mind and the body are both one and two; just as each of us are both dependent and independent.[14] While practicing zazen, all that exists is the movement of breathing. It is important the student not be absentminded, but also equally important not to focus on the finite self. The student must rather focus on the infinite self, that which is shared by everything. This is the point at which the student must overcome the dualistic nature intrinsic in “mine” and “yours”, “you” and “I”, “this” and “that”. This is the true experience of life; that which transcends time and space.[15] By focusing on their breathing, the student seeks control of their mind. This is neither meant to force the mind to be empty, nor to force the mind’s concentration on a single idea or thought. Rather, it is to not be disturbed by the images in one’s mind; to let them come, and to let them go. Then they will be under control.[16] With time, your thinking will stop of its own accord. If the student tries to stop thinking, that denotes being bothered by it. The student should not be bothered by anything. While it appears thoughts are coming from your mind, they are actually only the waves of your mind. When you are not bothered by the waves, eventually they become calmer and calmer.[17] The difficulties experienced throughout this process should not be resented, for they only served to enrich your practice of zazen.[18]

“If you continue this simple practice every day, you will obtain some wonderful power. Before you attain it, it is something wonderful, but after you attain it, it is nothing special.”[19] Achieving and maintaining a beginner’s mind opens doors in any venture, including in those everyday interactions we don’t even notice occurring. Understanding the connection between all things and living with an open, curious, judgment free mind builds bridges which break down the wall of ego deceiving us into believing we are individuals, unaffected by the pain of others. When we view the world through a beginner’s mind, we begin to see the depth surrounding us where previously we saw only shells. It’s amazing how much we miss by assuming we already know what’s there. The beginner’s mind is perhaps the most powerful asset any of us will ever attain.



Kaufman, Peter. “The Beginner’s Mind”. Everyday Sociology Blog. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. Web. 3 March 2013.

Lentine, Genine. “The Expert’s Mind”. San Francisco Zen Center.San Francisco Zen Center, 2010. Web. 3 March 2013.

Molloy, Michael. Experiencing the World’s Religions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. Print.

Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991. Print.

Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. New York: Weatherhill, Inc., 1995. Print.


[1] Suzuki, Pages 21-22

[2] Kaufman, Paragraph 5

[3] Kaufman, Paragraph 5-6

[4] Kaufman, Paragraph 5

[5] Suzuki, Page 21

[6] Kaufman, Paragraph 3

[7] Suzuki, Page 138

[8] Suzuki, Pages 31-32

[9] Lentine, Paragraph 4-6

[10] Lentine, Paragraph 9

[11] Suzuki, Page 46

[12] Molloy, Page 136

[13] Molloy, Page 166

[14] Suzuki, Page 25

[15] Suzuki, Page 29

[16] Suzuki, Page 32

[17] Suzuki, Page 34

[18] Suzuki, Page 36

[19] Suzuki, Page 46