Zen Koans seem like paradoxes at first. The reason is that Koans are not meant to be understood by the intellect, but by intuition. Pondering over these riddles can help us unravel greater truths about our world and ourselves. This breakdown isn’t meant to substitute the insight the Koans are meant to invoke, but merely aid in getting there.
From “101 Zen Stories”:
“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?”
This riddle is very popular and explains an important, but simple, concept. Learning something new requires an open mind. This is easier said than done because it’s difficult to keep an open mind about certain things, like the importance of material things and appearances. We are programmed by our genes and culture that society’s opinion of us is of highest priority. In order for us to see things differently, we need to keep our minds open to the possibility that this is not true. This can be applied to many of our beliefs that we take for granted.
The story sets the tone of the book, reminding readers that it is important to empty our minds before proceeding. Emptying our minds of what we think we know will help us understand these riddles more effectively. A good way to do this is through meditation, but there are other ways, like exercising or doing something that requires a lot of focus.