“A Cup of Tea” is a short Zen story that is quite famous and popular among Western (Zen) Buddhists. It’s a bit of a peculiar story, however, as I hope to make clear in the following. Before we turn to that, let’s start with the story itself:

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 [cup] 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?”1

provenance

“A Cup of Tea” is the first story in 101 Zen Stories collected and/or written by Senzaki Nyogen (千崎如幻, 1876-1958) in San Francisco around the year 1919 and first published in 1939. The story became famous after inclusion of 101 Zen Stories with a few other collections in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones edited by Paul Reps and first published in 1957 (and reprinted many times).

Senzaki was ordained as a Zen monk when he was 19. He studied with Shaku Soyen (釈宗演, 1860-1919) and got acquainted with D.T. Suzuki (鈴木大拙貞太郎, 1870-1966), a lay student of Shaku. The three of them would play key roles in the formation of Western Zen. In 1905, Senzaki accompanied Shaku on a trip to the United States, but when Shaku returned to Japan, Senzaki stayed behind in San Francisco. In the next decades he struggled to make a living, doing all kinds of unskilled labor, while studying Western thought in the public library in his free time. (He studied William James among others, which is interesting considering the immense influence of James’s thought on Suzuki’s and Nishida Kitarō’s (西田幾多郎, 1870-1945) version of Zen. Particularly, the notion of “pure experience” developed in their thought is borrowed from James and is not originally a Zen notion. Due to their influence, it came to play a central role in Western Zen, however.) Only in 1922 started Senzaki to lecture publicly on Zen, and it took him until 1927 to gather a small following.

The story “A Cup of Tea” appears to be virtually unknown in Japan, where it is supposed to originate, until a few decades ago. All Japanese versions of the story that I have been able to find are recent. Most of them don’t mention a source, but they are all (nearly) identical so they must come from the same source. That source (which is mentioned in a few cases) is the Japanese translation of a cartoon (manga) introduction to Zen by the Taiwanese author Tsai Chih Chung (蔡志忠) published in 1998.2 (Tsai, born in 1948, was ordained as a Zen monk in 2020, by the way.)

Tsai’s original (Chinese) version of the book, 《尊者的棒喝─禪說》, was published in 1988 and has also been translated into English.3 Significantly, the main part of the book’s title, 禪說, means “Zen stories”, like the title of Senzaki’s collection. That collection also is the source of Tsai’s version of the story. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones was translated into Chinese and published in Taiwan in 1980 as 《禪的故事 : 禪肉禪骨》.4 (Senzaki and Reps’s collection of Zen stories has never been translated in Japanese as far as I know.)

These last three versions of the story – that is, the Chinese translation of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones and Tsai’s cartoon in Chinese and Japanese – give the name of the monk, Nan-in, in Chinese characters: 南隠 (or 南隐). Nan-in Zengu (南隠全愚, 1834-1904) was a Japanese Zen monk who was mostly active in central Japan (mostly in and around Gifu) during the Meiji era. It makes sense that the Chinese translator(s) of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones assumed that this is the Nan-in in the story. Although we can’t be sure that their guess is correct and this is the right Nan-in indeed, it seems very likely that it is. Allegedly, Nan-in Zengu had many students and Senzaki may have met one or more of those. It is less likely (but not at all impossible) that he ever met Nan-in himself, however, considering that they lived in different parts of Japan.

If a professor visited Nan-in Zengu to inquire about Zen, this must have happened some time between approximately 1870 and 1904, and most likely after roughly 1885. During much of the Meiji period (1867-1912), Buddhism was considered backward in Japan. It was heavily repressed between 1868 to 1872, and the Zen sects were among the most severely affected by this repression. Even after legal restrictions were lifted and the worst hostilities ended, public and popular sentiments with regards to Buddhism remained very negative. This only started to change (slowly) in the second half of the 1880s, mostly thanks to the efforts of Inoue Enryō (井上圓了, 1858-1919), who promoted Buddhist modernism in Japan and coined the term “secular Buddhism” (世間仏教) in 1887. The initial wave of Buddhist modernists were affiliated with Pure Land Buddhism, however – Zen modernism only started to emerge about two decades later (and it took several more decades before it gained prominence).

During the first half of the Meiji period there was no academic interest in Buddhism in Japan. This too changed under the influence of Inoue and a few others in the 1880s. The popular and academic revival of Buddhism didn’t lead to an increase of interest in Zen (or Japanese sectarian Buddhism in general), however (or at least not yet). Rather, the focus of attention was Indian Buddhism mostly (Yogācāra especially), especially among academics.

Given these circumstances, how likely is it that a Japanese university professor went to visit Nan-in Zengu to inquire about Zen? Very few (if any!) university professors around this time would have been interested in Zen. In all likelihood, most of them would have considered Zen backward and useless, and those who were interested in Buddhism (after roughly 1885) would have been interested in other schools. Furthermore, if a professor would have been interested in Zen, why would he seek out Nan-in in Gifu, in a location far away from any university? Why wouldn’t he have gone to a temple in Kyoto or Tokyo or wherever he was based instead (if he even had questions that couldn’t be answered in another way)? It might have made sense that such a professor would have sought out Nan-in if the latter had been very prominent and famous, but that wasn’t the case either.

For argument’s sake, let’s say that some professor indeed did visit Nan-in Zengu and the latter poured him a cup of tea as in the story. Then, how did that story reach Senzaki? The story appears to be (mostly?) unknown in Japan prior to the publication of the Japanese translation of Tsai’s cartoon in 1998, so it is unlikely that the story was widely known around the turn of the 20th century (and/or that it was considered interesting or important). And what would have been the first step in the story’s transmission? The professor probably wouldn’t have told anyone about such an insulting incident (if it occurred), and it doesn’t seem very likely that Nan-in was arrogant and boastful enough to tell others about it either (or even to do something like the story says). So, then, was there a third person in the room? A student of Nan-in, perhaps, who later told the story to Senzaki? That’s possible, of course, but that wouldn’t explain why it appears that no one but Senzaki seems to have known the story until its publication by the latter in 1939.

While it is possible that the story is authentic, there are several aspects of its (supposed) setting, circumstances, and transmission that are dubious at best. A professor visiting a remote and not very famous monk in the Meiji era to inquire about Zen? Possible, but at least somewhat improbable. Transmission of that story to an obscure Zen monk who ended up in the US while the story was lost in Japan itself? Possible again, but quite improbable. A much more parsimonious and much more plausible explanation is that Senzaki remembered the name “Nan-in” and made up the story himself.

the “professor”

If Senzaki made up the story himself – and I want to emphasize once more that that is by far the most likely explanation – then the “Nan-in” character probably either represents Zen Buddhism or Senzaki himself, but what does the “professor” character represent?

As mentioned above, the story was written (or “collected”) by Senzaki around 1919. From 1905 until some time in the middle of the 1920s Senzaki was struggling financially and struggling to find an audience. It is very unlikely that he was visited himself by a real professor during that period, but if the story is some kind of allegory for Senzaki’s own experience, the “professor” doesn’t have to be a real professor, of course. It could also refer to people (i.e. Americans) that Senzaki met during this difficult period: people who were interested in Zen, but who were too full of their preconceived notions to listen to what he wanted to teach. Given that it took Senzaki more than two decades to start building a following, and given that books and articles about Buddhism published around this time would have created an image of Buddhism that may have been very different from Senzaki’s, this is certainly a possibility.

Or perhaps, if we take the “professor” title more literally, that character represents the writers of those books and articles: people like Paul Carus, whose The Gospel of Buddha (1894) influenced many. Or it represents those writers and their readers together, that is, people who believed they understood Buddhism better than he did, despite his years of study and training. Or more abstractly, the “professor” could be a reference to early 20th century Western Buddhism with all its preconceived notions of what Buddhism is and what the Buddha “really” thought. It must be taken into account that Western Buddhist modernism of this period was very Orientalist (and often still is until this day, but that’s another issue). Westerners believed that they were reconstructing the real teachings of the historical Buddha, which had been “corrupted” in Asia (due to backward cultural influences or some other Western supremacist or racist stereotype). Hence, there is every reason to believe that Senzaki encountered very many people whose cup was indeed overfull, and whom he, therefore, couldn’t teach “real” Zen as he envisioned it. The story, then, may very well be an allegory for Senzaki’s struggle with those preconceptions.

If this is right, then this has an interesting implication. As mentioned above, the story is popular among Western Buddhists, Western Zen Buddhists especially. It is most often quoted in attempts to undermine, discredit, or silence any academic or other kind of expertise about Buddhist thought. There is a very strong anti-intellectualist tendency within Western Buddhism (and American culture in general), and the common (ab)use of this story fits that tendency. What the people quoting the story fail to realize, however, is that they are the descendants of the “professor” (i.e. early 20th century Western Buddhism and its representatives). They are the people who have too many preconceptions about Zen and Buddhism in general (preconceptions that are based, moreover, on half-understood Western pop-cultural misinterpretations of Buddhism), and thus, whose cups are too full.5 They are, in other words, much more like the professor than like Nan-in.

On the other hand, the story might not be an allegory for Senzaki’s struggle with Western “Buddhists”, but a parable about Buddhist monks and professors – or about Buddhism and science – in general. Certainly, this is more or less how Western Zen Buddhists quoting the story seem to interpret it (even if they assume that the event described really happened). In that case, the story gets things completely the wrong way around, however, and in a very obvious way moreover. Science doesn’t really have preconceptions or a “full cup” (in theory, at least – given that scientists are only human, it can be somewhat different in practice sometimes). Rather, science has theories and hypotheses, which it aims to test. This doesn’t mean that it has an empty cup either. Perhaps, it has a half-full cup, held by a hand willing to empty (and refill) the cup if its contents prove to be false. Religion, on the other hand, is a collection of more or less fixed preconceptions (most of which are immune to any kind of counter-evidence – hence, a cup that is frozen solid and that cannot even be emptied). While the professor’s cup may be half-full and waiting to be emptied, the monk’s cup is filled with frozen dogma and tradition. Hence, as a parable of the encounter between science and religion, the story fails dramatically.6

I don’t think that this is how Senzaki intended the story. As mentioned above, he studied Western thought (including Western science) in his free time, and was probably much too intelligent and well-read to make such an obvious mistake. (As mentioned, he read William James, who repeatedly emphasized the same point about science that I made in the previous paragraph, so it is very likely that Senzaki was aware of this as well.) Hence, it would be uncharitable to interpret the story in this way. The most likely interpretation is that the story is something like a parable for the encounter between Buddhism and Western preconceptions about Buddhism, roughly as sketched above. That is, the “professor” represents typical Western Buddhists as Senzaki encountered them (and as they can still be encountered today). Ironically, the people who most often quote the story are also the best examples of such Western preconceptions. Their cups are overfull. (And overfull with bullshit, moreover.) Studying Buddhism wouldn’t make their cups any fuller (as they seem to believe), but might actually empty them (of some of their misconceptions, at least).


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Notes

  1. Paul Reps & Nyogen Senzaki (1957/1985), Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings (Boston/Tokyo: Tuttle), p. 19.
  2. 蔡志忠, 和田武司, & 野末陳平 (1998), 『マンガ 禅の思想』 (Tokyo: 講談社+α文庫), p. 27.
  3. While English versions of the story are typically quoted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, I have also seen it quoted from translations of Tsai’s version.
  4. Taipei: 志文.
  5. One of those preconceptions is that Zen (or Buddhism in general) is just a “practice”, ignoring the tens of thousands of pages of Buddhist philosophy that have been written throughout the ages. Zen, particularly, has been one of the most intellectually active schools and has produced a very large written corpus.
  6. That many of the people quoting the story don’t seem to realize this is because they tend to be as ignorant about science as they are about Buddhism, and even fail to understand the extent of their own ignorance.