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Several centuries ago, a learned German philosopher began investigating a new philosophy coming out of Japan. This philosophy was called, “Zen.” The philosopher poured through every piece of written material he cold find on this Zen philosophy, but there was scarce information available. Then one day he learned that one of the leading masters of this philosophy was also able to read, write and speak Latin, he made up his mind to travel to Japan to investigate.


Through several years of correspondence, arrangements were finally made for the German philosopher to travel by ship to Japan to study first-hand the mystical and mostly unknown Zen. After several months at sea, the two men finally met.


The Zen master greeted his guest with great formality and invited him into a small room that held only a low table off to one side. On the table were several items, but there were no pictures or photographs on the wall and no other furnishings. The host gestured to one side of the low table and then moved to the opposite side and knelt down on the floor. A little confused but too excited to question this strange protocol, the guest sat cross-legged on the floor on the opposite side of his host. He immediately launched into a rapid-fie monologue about how excited and pleased he was to have finally arrived and about how much he was looking forward to learning about Zen.


All the while, his host was going through the exacting procedures of preparing tea for his honored guest. Tea is an important part of that culture and its preparation and presentation have been developed into an art form. In fact, the formal cha-no-yu is a four-hour affair where every shadow, ever fold of fabric, every angle of light, absolutely every detail is orchestrated to communicate and to garner a variety of emotional responses from the guests.


The German guest was still speaking in run-on sentences about all he had learned through his studies and all that he had read about Zen in particular. His host had a neutral expression on his face and continued to prepare the tea.


Finally, the tea was ready and the host pulled back his sleeve and began pouring the steaming liquid into his guest’s cup. His guest was oblivious to what was happening until the liquid reached the lip of the cup.

Still the Zen master poured. Tea spilled over the rim of the guest’s cup and flooded across the lacquered surface of the table. The guest became so agitated that he interrupted himself and called out, “Stop! My cup is over-full! It won’t hold any more!”


With that, the host stopped pouring, slowly set the tea pot back on its brazier, sat back on his heels and looked calmly at his guest for several seconds without speaking. The two men sat silently, then the Zen master spoke slowly and clearly, “As with you, my friend. If you would know Zen, you must first empty your cup.”