Emptying Your Cup

There is a martial arts fable of the Professor and the Zen Master.

A knowledgeable Professor requested an appointment with a Zen Master, as he was interested in learning more about Zen. Upon his arrival, the Professor tried to impress the Zen Master with his broad knowledge talking about a vast array of subjects in detail. The Zen Master waited patiently throughout. When the Professor finished speaking, the Zen Master offered the Professor some tea. He filled the Professor’s cup and when it became full, he kept pouring. The Professor watched the tea spill onto the table and exclaimed, “The cup is overfull, no more will go in!” The Master replied,

“Like the cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”


  • Many martial artists could gain insight from this fable as too often students find themselves at a point where they think they know it all – or at least enough to suffice. These students often take what they learn as gospel, as the only method of executing a technique properly. In truth, there are many ways to execute any technique and each can be effective in its own right. Even in the cases where a technique’s methodology has no merit, it serves a purpose by having us question and analysing our own methods – hence reinforcing what is best by our standards.
  • One major pitfall is that often, these students have heard an explanation incorrectly, and still taken their ‘interpretation’ of what was taught as gospel. Later, even their own instructor has trouble re-explaining it to them because they have now closed their mind to other possibilities. They then complain that things have changed, rather than embracing the martial arts philosophy of open-mindedness and adaptability.
  • One of the most valuable lessons a martial artist can learn is to keep an open mind to all things – in karate and life. Whether a student’s methodology is sound, or based on poor interpretation, they should always be open-minded to hearing another theory on execution.
  • The reason so many become close-minded is because they become ‘dojo-conditioned thinkers’. In other words, as a technique in the dojo is often practiced from the same position (without any element of surprise), they see no reason to be open-minded to other theories of execution. Dojo-conditioned thinking is something all martial artists should avoid. While we train in the dojo, our thinking should always be on life application. The habit of close-mindedness in the dojo often transcends into our everyday life, and it hinders our ability to use our karate effectively. Think about it, real life confrontations may come in a variety of scenarios; you may be taken by surprise, from the front, behind, grabbed, even approached by more than one attacker. Surely as there are various scenarios of being attacked, does it not make sense that there would also be various methods of executing a technique?
  • The following is just one example that clearly illustrates dojoconditioned thinking: Some karate-ka will swear blindly that before any punch is thrown (in combinations or kumite), the fist must come back to the hip first. So let us examine the punch in battle. In Okinawa, karate-ka rarely pulled their hand back to the hip before executing a punch. Instead it was thrown most often from its guard position. The methodology was that it took less time to reach its target and had no telegraphed movements – a sound theory. When karate reached Japan however, the two primary arts were sumo and Judo (both grappling arts). Holding the guard out in front and punching from guard position had a drawback; the grapplers would rush in and attempt to grab the karate-ka’s arms taking away their most valuable weapon. Even if they did not succeed in grabbing the arms, being so close, the karate-ka’s punch was less effective. So a new methodology was created. The karate-ka started moving their guard around in circular motions. This meant the grapplers had less chance to grab their guard. Another theory was introduced, to bring the fist back to the hip prior to punching. The theory behind this was two-fold. Firstly, if an attacker grabbed your arms, by ripping the fist back to the hip in a twisting motion, one could escape the grapplers grip. Secondly, by bringing the fist back to the hip, one could still generate a powerful blow to an attacker who was very close. So who was right, the Okinawa’s or the Japanese? Both were right, for in a scenario where an attacker was at distance, striking from the guard position was the best methodology. Yet, if an opponent was to come in close and attempt or succeed in grabbing you, bringing the hand back to the hip first was best.
  • There are pros and cons to nearly every difference in technique in karate and pros and cons to almost every approach in life. We all have ways we like to deal with our life, our work, our kids etc. For example, some people always take an aggressive approach in their work environment, or at home. Some people always take rejection personally; some people always take others questioning things as a sign of descent. As the adage reads, ‘A strong wind can push grass to and froe but cannot budge the oak tree that stands strong. Yet, the strongest winds can uproot the oak tree, but can never uproot grass which simply moves to and froe’. In our lives there are times we should be the oak-tree and other times where we should be like grass. Living successfully requires adaptability and this can only come from being open-minded and through understanding there is no right or wrong way to approach any situation. We can develop open-mindedness in our lives by starting it in the dojo.
  • The mission we all have is to continually empty our cup. It doesn’t mean to forget what we know, or to discard it. It simply means when presented with new information, to listen and learn – even if it challenges our current ideas or contradicts them completely.
  • You have likely heard this advice before, but do you actually practice it? Or do you find yourself dismissing other points of view because you KNOW your way is best? People who always ‘have to be right’ are seldom happy. They’re so intent on proving their point, they rarely learn anything new and their karate and life skills stagnate. Take some time to think back to the last time someone challenged your beliefs – what did you do? Did you defend your methods trying to prove your way was best, or did you listen intently and attempt to discover something new, another road that would lead to the same destination? Another question is this, do you regularly use the words ‘I always…’ or ‘I never…’ in your life? If you do, then it is a sure sign that you have closed minded habits.


Shihan Anthony Ryan

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