empty your cup



~2 min read


352 words

To “empty your cup” is an idiom referencing a conversation between a scholar Tokusan (also called Te-shan Hsuan-chien, 782-865) and Zen Master Ryutan (Lung-t’an Ch’ung-hsin or Longtan Chongxin, 760-840).1

As the story goes, Tokusan visited Ryutan seeking to learn about zen. During the conversation it became quite clear that Tokusan had his own opinions and ideas about the dharma and frequently interrupted Ryutan. At one point during the conversation Ryutan went to refill Tokusan’s tea cup. He did not stop when the cup was full, but continued pouring until it overflowed and tea spilled onto the table and floor.

Tokusan shouted, “Stop! The cup is full! Can’t you see?”

“Exactly,” replied Ryutan. “You are like this cup; you are full of ideas. You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.”

Among other reasons why I like this story, it reminds me of an idea I’ve had in the past about “refilling your cup.” In my mind, the cup was a measure of your energy / focus / creativity. At some point, you exhaust all of the cup’s contents and you need to refill it. For me, that often meant finding a way to recharge, which mostly meant doing something else. If I was working too much, go for a walk, read, exercise. If I was overdoing it on reading, find a different hobby. It ultimately came down to balance because while I only ever thought of a single cup, the lived experience was that there are many tanks, they all have their own refractory period, and exhausting any one of them completely can throw me into disequilibrium.

Perhaps my issue wasn’t that I was exhausting the resource though. Reframing it in light of Tokusan’s experience, perhaps my problem was that I was overfull. I needed to empty my cup.

h/t to Neil from neilonsoftware.com for using the reference.


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