New Learning: Is My Cup Empty?

A professor from the nearby university hears about Nan-in, a famous Japanese Zen master from the Meiji era. One day the professor finally decides to make a trip to Nan-in’s village and listen to his words on Zen.

As per tradition, Nan-in receives his guest and goes on to first serves tea. The master quietly pours tea into his visitors cup. However, Nan-in continues to pour tea to the brim, and much more. The professor watches the overflow and he just could no longer restrain himself. “It is full. No more will go in!” the professor blurts out. 

Nan-in relies “Ah- ha. That is the exact question! When you have come to learn, is your cup empty or full? Like this cup, you may be full of your own opinions and ideas. If full, unfortunately, I cannot teach you anything. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” 

This Zen story puts forth a simple but profound message.

It is always the perceptual limitations of our own mind that prevent us from seeing the truth. “All the powers in the universe are already ours. It is we who have put our hands before our eyes and cry that it is dark.” -Swami Vivekananda, one of the most influential spiritual leader in Hinduism once said. One will have to unlearn all our preconceived notions and prejudices before one can learn anew.

This becomes ever so important in today’s world as we transition from the linear growth to an exponential growth of human knowledge. The “Knowledge Doubling Curve” indicates that until 1900, human knowledge doubled approximately every century and by the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. With this explosion in information  it is predicted that the “internet of things” will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours. The Internet is currently estimated to be 5 million terabytes of which Google has indexed roughly 200 TB or just 0.004% of its total size and several billion petabytes of data storage would be needed to index the entire human brain!! Unfortunately, much of the information one learns in college will be obsolete in just a few years.

So, as the story implies, the key to new learning is to open ourselves to the endless possibilities. Intellectual curiosity is the secret sauce and ingredient for this glorious future. “The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. ” Albert Einstein advised the youth (1).

As Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher rightly said “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”Furthermore, the fact that our optic nerve is 30 times thicker than our auditory nerve is an invitation for a multi-sensory mode of learning.


So, we may have to just relax, kick off our shoes, take a deep breath, shut up and listen (2),  as we open our minds to the endless future possibilities.


  1. “Old Man’s Advice to Youth: ‘Never Lose a Holy Curiosity.'” LIFE Magazine (2 May 1955) p. 64”
  2. Shut Up and Listen: Communication with Impact. Theo Theobald, Cary Cooper: Publisher-Palgrave Macmillan UK: DIO-10.1057/9780230362987


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