Zen and the Art of Learning

The art of learning is a key skill for any successful life. Zen teachings and stories can show us better ways of approaching that art. I became interested in Zen in the mid 90’s, after a journey of self-examination that resulted in deciding that we alone are responsible for our own fate. No supernatural, theistic, god-like interventions for me.
I read many books on the meaning and practice of Zen, building my own interpretation of how I would live. My favorite is Zen Flesh, Zen Bones that contains the original 101 Zen Stories, compiled in 1919.
A Cup of Tea is the first koan in the book, and sums up what I have come to believe is the most important lesson in life. We are burdened by the weight of our own history and opinions. Only by freeing ourselves from that weight can we be fulfilled


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?”

How does this koan help us to be better at learning? Approaching new ideas free from “opinions and speculations” allows a person to absorb them more completely. This learning skill is a requirement for being able to adapt to rapidly changing situations in life and at work.

I have an ability to research, explore, and learn new things quickly. When researching things, I find it helpful to empty my mind of expectations, previous knowledge, and extraneous influences. This way I can quickly filter through multiple sources to find the nuggets of gold. I will then write my results down, making that learning more permanent.  

Finding A Cup of Tea and absorbing what it means was one of my most important life lessons. Learning how to learn is a key to success.

I’ve added a page to the site that contains the links to all of the 101 Zen Stories. Check it out!

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