A Zen Parable: A Cup of Tea
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
I think the lesson to be learned from this is pretty simple. To get the most out of life and our daily encounters, on and off the bandstand, we must approach life with an open mind and an open heart.
Musically speaking, if you go into playing situations with a pre-fixed musical agenda, other than to get out of the way of the music, you’ll probably be oblivious to all of the music that's being created in real time--more important, all of the music that wants to be created. In fact, I remember attending a Dave Liebman clinic a few years back, where he was discussing the importance of listening to all of the members of the band. As an example of the antithesis to this idea, he mentioned a young tenor player who already knew what licks he was going to play, on which tunes, before he even got to the gig.
I still laugh when I think about it.
But the point that Liebman was making speaks exactly to the lesson of the parable. Like the professor who was “full of his own opinions and speculations,” the young tenor player also came with a full musical cup and was not able to make room for any new music that transpired during the performance.
Approaching music this way is harmful for a few reasons:
- You end up only listening to yourself, and not the members of the band.
- The band never gets a chance to create the chemistry that makes jazz magical.
- You as the improviser, never really learn the true art of improvisation.
- And most tragically, you will always be an ego-centered player, and will never experience enlightenment through music.
The story of the professor is very telling about the destructiveness of the ego. It’s sort of like a drug. It gives us short term satisfaction, but long term it makes us very miserable, and could possibly destroy us. And musically speaking, it stunts our growth, our careers, and ultimately our happiness.
So as Nan-in tried to teach the professor: In life, we must empty our cups. This is the only way to make room for the knowledge and wisdom that makes us better musicians, better people, and better spirits.
As Bruce Lee so eloquently put it: "The usefulness of the cup, is its emptiness."