The Shattered Tea Cup

I’ve been working on a series of stories for liberal religious kids, and have already posted two on this blog here and here. Yet another story from this work-in-progress:

The Shattered Tea Cup

Copyright (c) 2005 Dan Harper

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a land called Japan, there lived a Zen Master. This Zen Master was very, very wise. People said that perhaps he was the wisest person in all of Japan.

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 how to be good Zen Buddhist monks.

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. Sometimes the best monks would challenge the teaching of the Zen Master in a tradition called Dharma Combat. Only monks who were truly enlightened could match the wit and wisdom of the Zen Master in Dharma Combat. And if one of the monks ever got the better of him in Dharma Combat, the Zen Master laughed out loud in pleasure.

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. All you could hear in the great meditation hall was the sound of the rushing river, and the wind in the trees.

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 worrying so much. Just sit.”


At that time in Japan, a very wise scholar lived far, far away from the monastery at a great University. This wise Scholar had written many books about Zen Buddhism, and in fact he had even lived as a Zen monk for a number of years. But while he was a monk he had never achieved enlightenment, and at last he had left the monastery to become a scholar. In fact, for all his wisdom and learning he had to admit to himself that, having never experienced enlightenment, he had never quite understood what enlightenment was.

One day, the Scholar heard about the wise Zen Master, who was perhaps the wisest person in all of Japan. “Ah!” said the Scholar to himself. “Someone who is as wise as that might be able to tell me what enlightenment is. I will go and visit this Zen Master.”

He called to his servants, “Get my donkey! I will ride to meet this wise man.”

His servants brought his little donkey, and off they trotted. After days and days and days and days of traveling, the Scholar got to the monastery. He and his servants were welcomed in silence by some monks. The Scholar stated his business, and he was led in alone to see the Zen Master.

While the Zen Master prepared tea, the Scholar said, “Zen Master, I have been trying to determine what Enlightenment is.”

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

“They do say you are the wisest person in all of Japan,” said the Scholar. “Now, I have not myself reached the state of enlightenment, but I do know something about it. When I was a Zen monk, I sat and meditated for many hours. I have read the poems of the monk Ryokan, I have read what Boddhidharma said, I have read what Master Sheng-yen says, and many other writers and scholars. It seems that enlightenment is not a state where you know the oneness of the universe, but rather a state of empty mind. On the other hand….”

The Scholar talked on and on and on and on. He told the Zen Master what he, the Scholar, thought enlightenment might be. The Zen Master finished preparing tea. The Scholar kept on talking. The Zen Master handed the Scholar a delicate porcelain cup. The Scholar took the cup, paused to mention how beautiful the cup was, held it in both his hands — but he kept on talking.

The Zen Master began to pour the hot tea. The Scholar kept talking. The Zen Master kept pouring. The Scholar kept talking. The Zen Master kept on pouring, and the delicate cup grew uncomfortably hot. Then the cup overflowed, and some scalding water flowed onto the Scholar’s hands.

The Scholar started in surprise, the delicate cup flew out of his hands, and shattered on the floor beside him.

Upon hearing the cup shatter, the Scholar experienced enlightenment.

The Zen Master took all this calmly. “Here’s another cup,” he said. “Let’s have some tea.”


Notes on the story: In the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (compiled by Paul Reps), you can find 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 have told variations of the Nan-in story a number of times in worship services, 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, acheived 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 acheived 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.

Having the cup shatter seemed a much better ending to the story, so I retold the Nan-in story with this new ending. Of course, now it is no longer a Zen story, it is my story with Zen trappings.