Given we’re entering the early stages of a prolonged political season and we have already been treated to two scintillating debates, this seems an opportune moment to refresh an old Zen parable I first heard from storied pastoral theologian, Henri Nouwen, one of my mentors at divinity school back in the day. (Isn’t that a great moniker—divinity school?) He first heard this parable from Thich Nhat Hanh, a highly regarded Buddhist monk, teacher and author of over 100 books.
The short vignette tells the story of a politician, who, in a moment of rare self-awareness, decided to visit a Zen master to ask for wisdom in how he might govern. Nan-in, the Zen master, served him tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full and then just kept on pouring. The politician watched the cup overflow until he could no longer restrain himself.
“It’s overflowing, Nan-in! The cup cannot hold any more.”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “You are full of your own opinions and attitudes.
How can I teach you anything unless you first empty your cup?”
At the time I was a cocky young stand-in for the politician. For that matter, I suppose I might as well admit that I’ve matured into a cocky middle-aged stand-in. The only difference between then and now is that experience has confirmed this basic law of personal physics, which predicts you can’t take in something new if you’re already full of yourself.
I’ll leave it to you to determine how this might apply to high profile politicians. But that’s only a distraction from the important discovery that the work leading to spiritual maturity involves a relentless pursuit of emptiness a la Nan-in’s tea cup. It’s the emptiness created by humble acceptance that we know less than we think we do and that God is surely larger than our last opinion. This is the emptiness that allows us to listen deeply and ripen values like respect, compassion and personal integrity. Find this in another, and you’ve likely found a friend. But to find it in oneself, well, that would require some emptying for certain.
-Rev. Dr. Stephen Bauman