Empty Means Full

Fall Maples

Changing leaves. Photo by Celia

“Let there be an opening into the quiet

that lies beneath the chaos,

where you find the peace

you did not think possible

and see what shimmers within the storm.” ~ Jan L. Richardson

 “Create a clearing in the dense forest of your life and wait there patiently, until the song

that is your life falls into your own cupped hands and you recognize and greet it.”

~ Martha Postlewaite

“Now, looking through the slanting light of the morning window

toward the mountain presence of everything that can be

what urgency calls you to your one love?

What shape waits in the seed of you

to grow and spread its branches

against a future sky?” ~ David Whyte

“Treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.” ~Rumi


Dear Friends,

There was frost on the ground this morning. The dogs were delighted and came back jostling and excited by the cold. I was less delighted seeing the wilted sweet potato vine and thinking I really should pull it out, thinking about December and wondering when the earth will freeze hard enough to burst the terra cotta pots that I should really move indoors. The clocks turned back last week and for us in New England, this time can be filled with trepidation. The daylight hours shrink, and the sun sets before five o’clock. There is letting go—the leaves falling from trees, the letting go of warmth, of the summer flowers and growth—and with these shifts comes the tendency to look at change as a hardship and frame it in the negative. When we believe we can lose things, we look at the world with the perception of loss and deprivation. We believe that our world can become empty of light and warmth but when we understand change and the truth of emptiness, the ebbing of what we are accustomed to can be an opportunity.

There’s an old Zen story about a Buddhist scholar named Tokusan and the Zen Master Ryutan who lived in China during the ninth century. The scholar was an expert on the Buddhist texts and wanted to discuss a fine point of the Dharma with Master Ryutan. Master Ryutan served tea to his guest while they spoke about the teachings. As Ryutan refilled the cup of the professor, who was explaining his views in great detail, the tea reached the brim of the cup and spilled over the edge onto the table. Tokusan couldn’t contain himself, “Stop!” He stared at the Zen master who was calmly pouring tea as it pooled into the floor. “The cup is overflowing.”

“Yes,” answered the Zen master. “You are like this cup. You come full of opinions and beliefs and you have no room for anything but your own ideas. For you to learn anything, first, you must empty your cup.”

Red leaves Blue skyWhen we are full of our ideas and concepts, we have no room for anything else. We don’t live in accordance with the Dharma which knows the truth of suffering, impermanence, and the truth that we are not a small, limited egoic self. When we are able to empty ourselves of certainty, of our ill will, and ignorance, what fills our cup? Are we insisting our cup stays full of the very same conditions we are accustomed to, the ones that cause of pain? Are we unwilling to let go of what we have outgrown even when we can see that everything is changing?

The language of the Buddha’s teachings is framed in negative terms with the highest plane of awareness being nirvana [extinguishing or cessation]. The Buddha taught the end of suffering, the unbinding of the ten fetters, and the doctrine of non-self. All this can sound very dry and reserved for people who don’t want to enjoy things or have some special ability to cheerfully live lives of deprivation and hardship. But what is the end of suffering—happiness, contentment, peace, and ease? What do we make room for when we empty ourselves of the egoic driven belief we are separate and alone? We become connected to everything and everyone that has even been on this Earth or will ever be here.

When we empty of our self, there is space for the recognition that someone else’s good fortune is not bound by the contours of their body—there is the realization of mudita [appreciative joy], the connectivity of kindness and happiness. Emptying our cup of prejudice and ignorance makes space for universal friendliness (mettā) for compassion (karuna), and wisdom (prajna, Sanskrit/ pañña, Pali). When we move away from our attachment to the idea of ourselves, we gain the freedom to make mistakes. We aren’t bound by how others see us—we gain authenticity and confidence.

When we understand we are empty of a separate self, we have the space to claim our true inheritance—our connectivity to what is wholesome and brave. There is no vacuum or empty space that isn’t filled with the mind of love (bodhicitta) that is always present. When we remove what the Buddha called the defilements, the ten fetters, we are released and free to see what has been there waiting the whole time. The seeds of enlightenment, of Buddhahood which are always present in us all—when we empty our cup enough, we can give these seeds the space and attention they need to flourish.

Removing the thorn of hatred from our hearts is like removing the blockage that restricted the circulation of love. When we see what we are full of, it is a very different experience than focusing on losing things. We’ve all experienced moments when we’ve felt that predictability and safety vanished—maybe when we heard of a tragedy in the world, the state of our Earth, or a personal change when we lost a job, money, a home or someone dear to us. These moments are the emptying of the cup. We stop believing that life is unfolding according to a script and we step onto what can be very shaky new ground. In these moments we have a choice about what we want to fill our cup with—fear and worry, or equanimity, compassion, and wisdom, which understands pain and knows that we are capable of meeting our own suffering and the suffering of others with love, wisdom, and balance.

The highest qualities of the mind and heart, the heart that quivers with the suffering of another and knows the way to help is not outside of us. These beautiful qualities are waiting patiently for us to make space so they can rise to the surface. The same way the trees shed their leaves to make room for new growth in the spring. We empty to fill with something. We cannot inhale until we’ve exhaled. Seeing we are always in the process of emptying, what do we want to fill our lives with, fear and resistance, or with understanding and compassion? The choice is ours and as we see the cup empty, we can smile, knowing that empty means we are ready to receive.

May we all trust our light,


we are already what we want to become

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