Many people know Bruce Lee as a great martial artist or a famous movie star. But not many people know that he was also a great teacher. He loved to tell stories in the classroom, and one of the stories that he loved to tell his students was about a Zen master and a professor. The story goes as follows:
One day, a famous and knowledgeable professor goes to learn from an old Zen master. But during the session, the Zen master notices that the professor keeps interrupting him. He talks nonstop about his version of his understanding of everything. (Remember the scene where Benedict Cumberbatch’s character Doctor Strange meets with The Ancient One?) As soon as the Zen master realises this, he stops talking. And no, he never hits the professor just as The Ancient One does to Doctor Strange in the movie; the Zen master starts to make tea for the professor instead.
The Zen master begins to pour a cup of tea for the professor, the professor still keeps talking while holding a cup, the Zen master smiles gently and listens to what the professor is saying. And the Zen master fills the cup but keeps pouring so that the cup begins overflowing.
The professor stops the master and says that the cup is overflowing and no more tea will fill in. The Zen master smiles and says to the professor: exactly, if the cup is not empty, it will not make room for the tea; if you want to learn something new, you have to empty your cup. Bruce Lee concluded this story with a sentence:
Many people have the wrong understanding of the word “empty”. They think that empty means “zero”, ”nothing”, or “void”. But in fact, the “empty” that Bruce Lee loved to talk about means “an opportunity to be filled”. For example, when a cup is empty, most people will see it as a cup without water in it. But Bruce Lee would think that the cup has an opportunity to be filled with water or Coke or any other beverage.
If we want to progress in life and constantly learn new things – whether it be taking up a new martial arts class, learning a new musical instrument, taking a new course, learning a new language, or learning new information or technology – we have to always remember to empty our cups.
But how to empty our cups exactly?
Bruce Lee had many students that come from different martial arts backgrounds, and he always said to his students: “In order to taste my cup of water, you must first empty your cup. My friend, drop all of your preconceived and fixed ideas and be neutral. Do you know why this cup is useful? Because it is empty.”
In this quote, Bruce Lee mentioned about how to empty our cups, which is to drop the preconceived and fixed ideas and be neutral.
The first step to empty the cup is to admit that we have preconceived and fixed ideas. We grow up in different continents of the world and come from different cultural or religious backgrounds. We were also educated in different ways during our upbringings. All these things give us our preconceived and fixed ideas about the world.
Once we accept that we have preconceived and fixed ideas, we should be easy in keeping a neutral attitude about new things. Being neutral simply means to keep an open mind about everything new that comes our way. Keeping an open mind means that we accept that everyone has their own opinion and there is no right or wrong for expressing it.
In a world that is constantly changing, it is important that we keep equipping ourselves with new knowledge. When learning new things, we have to remind ourselves that we have preconceived and fixed ideas.We have to try to keep our minds open, also try to empty our cups, try to accept different voices, and try to understand different opinions. Only then can we be filled with new knowledge.
If we refuse to empty our cups, we will let our preconceived and fixed ideas blind us to the new knowledge. Don’t be like the professor that goes to the Zen master to learn new things but keeps talking about what he already knows and misses the opportunity to learn great new things from the Zen master.
So empty your cup, my friend.