Empty Your Cup


“Empty your cup” is an old Chinese Chan (Zen) saying that occasionally pops up in western popular entertainment. “Empty your cup” often is attributed to a famous conversation between the 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).

Scholar Tokusan, who was full of knowledge and opinions about the dharma, came to Ryutan and asked about Zen.

At one point Ryutan re-filled his guest’s teacup but did not stop pouring when the cup was full. Tea spilled out and ran over the table. “Stop! The cup is full!” said Tokusan.

“Exactly,” said Master 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.”

This is harder than you might realize. By the time we reach adulthood we are so full of stuff that we don’t even notice it’s there. We might consider ourselves to be open-minded, but in fact, everything we learn is filtered through many assumptions and then classified to fit into the knowledge we already possess.


The Buddha taught that conceptual thinking is a function of the Third Skandha. This skandha is called Samjna in Sanskrit, which means “knowledge that links together.” Unconsciously, we “learn” something new by first linking it to something we already know.

Most of the time, this is useful; it helps us navigate through the phenomenal world.

But sometimes this system fails. What if the new thing is utterly unrelated to anything you already know? What usually happens is a misunderstanding. We see this when westerners, including scholars, try to understand Buddhism by stuffing it into some western conceptual box.

That creates a lot of conceptual distortion; people end up with a version of Buddhism in their heads that is unrecognizable to most Buddhists. And the whole is Buddhism philosophy or religion? argument is being perpetrated by people who can’t think outside the box.

To one extent or another most of us go about demanding that reality conforms to our ideas, rather than the other way around. Mindfulness practice is an excellent way to stop doing that or at least learn to recognize that’s what we’re doing, which is a start.


But then there are ideologues and dogmatists. I’ve come to see the ideology of any sort as a kind of interface to the reality that provides a pre-formed explanation for why things are as they are. People with faith in ideology may find these explanations very satisfying, and sometimes they might even be relatively true. Unfortunately, a true ideologue rarely recognizes a situation in which his beloved assumptions to not apply, which can lead him into colossal blunders.

But there is no cup so full as that of the religious dogmatist. I read this today at Brad Warner’s place, about a woman friend to interviewed a young Hare Krishna devotee.

“Turns out her Hare Krishna friend told her that women are naturally submissive and their position on earth is to serve men. When Darrah tried to counter this assertion by citing her own real-life experience, her buddy literally went “Blah-blah-blah” and proceeded to talk over her. When Darrah finally managed to ask how he knew all this, the Hare Krishna pointed to a bookshelf and said, ‘I have five thousand years of yogic literature that proves it’s true.'”

This young man is now dead to reality, or reality about women, at least.

Although male teachers dominate the recorded history of Zen Buddhism, many remarkable women were part of Zen history also.

Some of these women appear in the koan collections. For example, Case 31 of the Mumonkan records an encounter between Master Chao-chou Ts’ung-shen (778-897) and a wise old woman whose name is not remembered.

A famous meeting took place between another old woman and Master Te-shan Hsuan-chien (781-867).

Before becoming a Ch’an (Zen) master, Te-shan was famous for his scholarly commentaries on the Diamond Sutra. One day he found a woman selling rice cakes and tea. The woman had a question: “In the Diamond Sutra it is written that past mind cannot be grasped; present mind cannot be grasped; and future mind cannot be grasped. Is that right?”

“Yes, that is right,” said Te-shan.

“Then with which mind will you accept this tea?” she asked. Te-shan could not answer. Seeing his own ignorance, he found a teacher and eventually became a great teacher himself.

Here are five women who played vital roles in the early history of Zen Buddhism in China.


Zongchi was the daughter of a Liang Dynasty emperor. She was ordained a nun at the age of 19 and eventually became a disciple of Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Zen. She was one of four dharma heirs of Bodhidharma, meaning that she completely understood his teachings.

(A dharma heir is also a “Zen master,” although that term is more common outside of Zen.)

Zongchi appears in a well-known story. One day Bodhidharma addressed his disciples, asking them what they had attained. Daofu said, “My present view is, without being attached to the written word or being detached from the written word, one still engages in the function of the Way.”

Bodhidharma said, “You have my skin.”

Then Zongchi said, “It’s like Ananda seeing the pure land of the Buddha Akshobhya. Seen once, it isn’t seen again.”

Bodhidharma said, “You have my flesh.”

Daoyu said, “The four elements are originally empty; the five aggregates are nonexistent. There’s not a single dharma to attain.”

Bodhidharma said, “You have my bones.”

Huike made three bows and stood still.

Bodhidharma said, “You have my marrow.”

Huike had the deepest understanding and would become the Second Patriarch.

LINGZHAO (762-808)

Layman Pang (740–808) and his wife were both Zen adepts, and their daughter, Lingzhao, surpassed them both. Lingzhao and her father were very close and often studied together and debated each other. When Lingzhao was an adult, she and her father went on pilgrimages together.

There are a wealth of stories about Layman Pang and his family. In many of these stories, Lingzhao has the last word. A famous bit of dialogue is this:

Layman Pang said, “Difficult, difficult, difficult. Like trying to scatter ten measures of sesame seed all over a tree.”

Hearing this, the layman’s wife said, “Easy, easy, easy. Just like touching your feet to the ground when you get out of bed.”

Lingzhao responded, “Neither difficult nor easy.

On the hundred grass tips, the ancestors’ meaning.”

According to legend, one day when Layman Pang was very old, he announced he was ready to die when the sun had reached its height. He bathed, put on a clean robe, and lay on his sleeping mat. Lingzhao announced to him the sun was covered — there was an eclipse. The layman stepped outside to see, and while he watched the eclipse, Lingzhao took his place on the sleeping mat and died. When Layman Pang found his daughter, he sighed, “She has beaten me once more.”


“Iron Grindstone” Liu was a peasant girl who became a formidable debater. She was called the “Iron Grindstone” because she ground her challengers to bits. Liu Tiemo was one of 43 dharma heirs of Guishan Lingyou, who was said to have 1,500 disciples.


Moshan Liaoran was a Ch’an (Zen) master and teacher and the abbess of a monastery. Both men and women came to her for teaching. She is the first woman thought to have transmitted the dharma to one of the male ancestors, Guanzhi Zhixian (d. 895). Guanzhi was also a dharma heir of Linji Yixuan (d. 867), founder of the Linji (Rinzai) school.

After Guanzhi became a teacher, he told his monks, “I got half a ladle at Papa Linji’s place, and I got half a ladle at Mama Moshan’s place, which together made a full ladle. Since that time, after having fully digested this, I’ve been satisfied to the full.”

MIAOXIN (840-895)

Miaoxin was a disciple of Yangshan Huiji. Yangshan was a dharma heir of Guishan Lingyou, the teacher of “Iron Grindstone” Liu. This perhaps gave Yangshan an appreciation of strong women. Like Liu, Miaoxin was ​a formidable debater. Yangshan held Miaoxin in such high regard he made her minister of secular affairs for his monastery. He said, “She has the determination of a person of great resolve. She is truly the one qualified to serve as the director of the office for secular affairs.”


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