Last week my son gave me the opportunity to impart what I believe to be one of the most important lessons that the martial arts can teach: the lesson of The Empty Cup. He had just taken his first Tae Kwon Do class, and he was sooooooo excited to tell me all about the new things he learned. Except for punching. Apparently, he was under the impression I have already taught him everything he will ever need to know about punching. My son’s overly confident assessment of the quality of my instruction made me smile; and so did the fact that his off-the-cuff comment provide me with an absolutely perfect teaching moment. It gave me a chance to tell him a story my very first martial arts instructor told me nearly 30 years ago – it is the same story instructors have been telling their students for thousands of years:
There was once a bright young monk who wanted to become a great Zen master. After years of study, the monk went to challenge the greatest master of his day in order to prove his worth and be accepted as a master student. Before the debate, the old man asked the young monk to join him for tea. The old man poured tea into the monk’s cup – and he kept pouring long after the cup was full. Tea spilled all over the ground. “What are you doing?” cried the monk. “You are spilling tea everywhere! Can’t you see the cup is full?” The master responded: “I cannot teach you Zen because you are like this cup, too full. You are too full with what you already KNOW; if you want to learn from me, you must first have an empty cup.”
I told my son the same thing is true when studying the martial arts. If you want to grow, evolve, and progress in any martial art, you must first have an empty cup. If you approach your training with the mindset that you already KNOW how to throw a punch; if you already KNOW how to take a break fall; if already you KNOW when to apply a technique – then you probably don’t have any room left in your head to learn something new. In fact, you are effectively robbing yourself of the opportunity to learn because you are like the young monk’s tea cup – too full. There is always something new to learn. This is true whether you have been training for two weeks or for 25 years. You just have to have an empty cup.
This concept is something that I have incorporated into my own training. I believe that words matter, and so I actually say the words. I am an empty cup. Every time I step onto the mat, I say those five words quietly to myself. It keeps me grounded, and humble, and open to the opportunity to receive instruction.
I am an empty cup.