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The Shattered Tea Cup

Once upon a time in the land of Japan, there lived a man named Sheng-yen who was both a Zen master and a professor at a university. One day, in order to explain to his students how they might become enlightened, he told how his own teacher had reached enlightenment.


Once upon a time, there lived a Zen Master. The Zen Master was small and quiet, with gray hair and many lines on his face. He often smiled. He lived in a monastery that stood near the banks of a rushing river. There, he watched over all the monks who lived at the monastery, teaching them about Zen Buddhism and helping them reach enlightenment.

The monks chopped wood for the fireplace. They hauled buckets of water from the well to use in the kitchen. They listened to the teaching of the Zen Master, sitting in the great hall while the Zen Master gave Dharma Talks. But the most important thing that the monks did was to meditate. Every day, they sat on the floor of the great hall of the monastery, meditating in silence. No one said a word all day long.

It was hard for the young monks to sit in silence for such long periods of time, but the Zen Master could sit for days on end, meditating in silence. One of the younger monks asked him, “How can you sit for so long in silence?”

The Zen Master replied, “Stop thinking so much. Just sit.”

At that time, the man who later became my teacher came to learn at this monastery. This young monk did what he was supposed to do: he learned the sutras by heart, he learned to sit in silence for hours while he meditated, he learned everything he was supposed to know. But try as he might, he could not reach enlightenment.

One day, the Zen master invited the young monk to come talk to him. While the Zen Master prepared tea, the young monk said, “Zen Master, I have not been able to reach enlightenment.”

“Do you think I can help you?” said the Zen Master.

"I don't know," said the monk.

The Zen Master began to pour the hot tea. He slipped, and some scalding water flowed onto the young monk ’s hands. The young monkstarted in surprise, the delicate cup flew out of his hands, and shattered on the floor beside him.

Upon hearing the cup shatter, the young monk reached enlightenment.


"And that," said Sheng-yen, "is how my own teacher reached enlightenment. Just as the cup shattered, so must your mind shatter if you want to reach enlightenment."


Notes on the story: In the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (compiled by Paul Reps), there is a story where a scholar visits the Japanese Zen master Nan-in (1868-1912). The Scholar talks too much, and Nan-in pours hot tea over the Scholar’s hands as a vivid demonstration of the necessity of keeping your mind open to new ideas. This story has taken on the status of a folk tale in contemporary American culture, and it is often used to tell people that they should shut up and listen to what the speaker has to say.

I told variations of the Nan-in story a number of times over the years, but I became uncomfortable with the way adults interpreted the story. Adults wanted the story to mean that children should be quiet and listen to authority figures. I tried to frame the story so that it became clear that it applied to adults as well: I would make the Scholar be the same age as I, and at the end of the story I would say that I felt more like the Scholar than the Zen Master. I began to tell the story as way to demonstrate the importance of meditation and of emptying one’s mind. But no matter how I told the story, the Scholar always came off looking like an idiot, and adults kept interpreting it as a story that was meant to tell children to be quiet and listen.

Then I read a dharma talk by Master Sheng-yen (1931- ), who tells the story of how one of his Zen masters, Xu Yun, achieved enlightenment. Xu Yun was holding a cup into which someone else was pouring tea. By mistake, the other person spilled some tea onto Xu Yun’s hand, he dropped the cup, and upon hearing it shatter he reached enlightenment. Master Sheng-yen says that just as the cup shatters, the mind must shatter to become no-mind. By the way, Master Sheng-yen is a university professor and scholar as well as a Zen master, demonstrating that enlightenment and learning are not mutually exclusive.

So I rewrote the story based on that dharma talk. It's much better now.