The old Zen Master knew that the young man standing before him wanted very badly to be admitted to his monastery, but he questioned his motive. For three days he had interviewed him at the appointed time, and now on the third day he was getting at the truth. It wasn’t that the teacher’s sight was faulty, for the truth is not hidden so much by deception as it is by self-deception. Youthful sincerity can fool even the most astute observer.
It was normal for a prospective disciple to try to impress the teacher, parading his knowledge and abilities as though they were what the teacher wanted, believing that these would qualify him for entry into the school. But the teacher was looking for something much more important. How willing was this boy to learn? And how much did he think he already knew? The old Zen Master was quickly drawing his conclusions.
The young man was indeed impressive. Born of a noble family, well-educated, a keen eye for detail, refined in his dress and demeanor – all the qualities that one seeking an apprentice could appreciate, if he were looking for that sort of thing. But there was an air about him, somewhat vulgar, like a business man coming to broker a deal. His attitude seemed to say, “Take me as your student. I would be a great asset to you and your school. For I am knowledgeable and may even be a teacher myself one day!”
The teacher did not want to be cruel to the young man, for he obviously had led a virtuous life and had followed all the rules. He had, to the best of his understanding, been an upright person, devoted to his family and mindful of his civic responsibilities. The old Zen Master offered the young man a seat at table for a cup of tea. He wanted to break the news to him kindly, without blunting his zeal for the virtuous life he had chosen. He would let the right moment reveal itself and then tell him his application would not be accepted.
As they sat there facing each other, the teacher grasped the teapot by its handle and raised it over the young man’s cup. The moment was silent and seemed to linger indefinitely. His eye fell upon the white porcelain of the inside of the cup, and a haiku began to form in his mind.
Waiting to receive
The teacup stands empty
Like the moon
Caught in his reverie, the old Zen Master failed to notice that he had over-filled the cup, much to the the young man’s dismay. “Sir! Can’t you see that my cup is full?” he exclaimed. Astonished at the revelation unfolding before him, the teacher said with great humility, “Why, yes!” He took the teapot and set it back down carefully and deliberately, then looked the young man straight in the eye and said, “And so are you. You have read all of the great books; you have received the finest upbringing; you are a model citizen and the pride of your family. You don’t need me. Go back to your community and serve with honor.” The teacher’s words cut through the young man’s pride cleanly, without destroying his self-worth. He stood, bowed deeply, thanked the old Zen Master for his hospitality and kindness, and departed the monastery with all the best parts of him intact.
The teacher sat and contemplated what had just transpired. The emptiness he had seen in the cup reflected the emptiness he felt within himself. Through that emptiness, the words he spoke to the young man had come with easy precision, perfect and simple. They came as though from his own teacher, who was also empty like the teachers before him, all the way up the line. This thought hung about him like an opening in the early morning mist. He sat with it for an hour, marveling at the perfection of it all.