Empty Your Cup – The Art of Contemplation

Listen to the meditation or read the write-up below

Note that the meditation used here is the sound of silence so there is a limited amount of ‘leading’ within it.

The more I practise, the more I see the value of that Zen story of the master filling the students tea cup. The master keeps pouring and pretty soon the tea cup overflows. But he keeps pouring and the student cries out to him. The master explains that the student needs to first empty his cup.

Buddhist practise is not dogmatic in its approach. Yes it has these things that sit at the background that we are challenged with understanding. Rebirth for example. That is quite a topic.

Last week we touched on Tibetan Buddhist cosmology and everything it carries with it in terms of the different realms that sentient beings can occupy.

But, as a practising Buddhist, we are taught to practise, not taught to learn. It’s interesting this. Although we have the guidance of the Pali cannon writhe the suttras guiding us, we don’t learn the by wrote. We practise with their guidance.

Have you ever built an Ikea wardrobe? You’ve been spoilt. The first wardrobe I ever built was from MFI and the instructions were rubbish! So I had to practise. I would construct a part of the wardrobe, working my way through the instructions and discovering bit by bit what was meant by the very unclear instructions. There were lots of retries and a few big aha moments along the way, when the penny dropped on what the instructions were trying to tell me.

For me, Buddhist practise feels a little like this. The instructions are a little vague, they don’t entirely fit in with the context of this modern world but in places there is very detailed explanations for approaches.

The suttras tell us about the four noble truths and explain that life is suffering. That suffering and the understanding of what leads to suffering, allows us to move towards true understanding and enlightenment. I think in ancient India life would have been much harder and therefore the suffering was probably more obvious. In this modern world with all our wealth, the newcomer finds it difficult to see this suffering. Particularly if come from a privileged background.

But then, the Satipathana suttra goes in to great deal about mindfulness and the practise of meditation. Setting out detail around practises like anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing.

The approach, I suggest to take here is contemplation. So, a little different to what we usually look at in these talks. Normally I am recommending not thinking, just feeling. Here we apply creative thought to take us forwards. We do have this tool after all, so let’s use it. But we don’t approach the contemplation in an acedemic way. We could learn the suttras off by heart but then, later on get angry and fall out with our families. So this wouldn’t have taken us forward at all.

Instead, I recommend applying that same feeling and experiencing process. When I built that wardrobe, even if I had learnt the instructions off by heart, it wouldn’t have allowed me to build the wardrobe any quicker. In fact, if I had stuck to the instructions, I would have finished up with a mis-sharpen pile of MDF instead of a wardrobe. The same applies here, I believe. We should take the texts and see how they work with our life. We can understand something about the end product, so we look at how the instructions might apply to our world.

Some of the concepts are very difficult. I mentioned earlier about Tibetan cosmology. But we don’t have to believe in these realms on a universal scale. We can equate the, to our life. We can look at how these different realms appear in different people and even inside ourselves at different times of the day.

Realm of the gods

Realm of the Demi-gods

Realm of the Human

Realm of animals

Realm of hungry ghosts

Realm of hell.


Here, the human realm is considered to be the most likely place where we can enter into enlightenment. In all the other realms, a mindful existence is very difficult.

We can weave this into another suttra and see how this can transpire. The Bahiya suttra. Here we hear the very clear description of using the pure senses to stay fully present and mindful. The Buddha tells Bahiya, in the seen will merely be the seen, in the heard will merely be the heard, in the sensed will merely be the sensed etc.

Of course we understand this as remaining mindful and present and attempting to not let the ego invade our experience. I.e. the veil of our selves.

We can contemplate how this suttra comes in to our daily lives. Here we are sitting squarely in the human realm. Feeling calm and mindful. Then we finish our practise and head out to our car where we find the tyres have been slashed. Our contemplation can then consider how we react to this. Certainly something more than just seeing and merely seeing will occur. But this is ok. The suttra expresses that the cognised will merely be the cognised. Of course we feel anger bubble up. But if we contemplate on this we can see that we can accept and understand the anger and not feel guilty about it later. Provided we do see the anger, feel it, notice it, accept it and don’t allow it to control us. The knowing or awareness of anger is not anger itself. We learn through mindfulness and contemplation. Otherwise, we certainly will move away from the human realm and slip into one of the others!

So my advice here is, don’t get hung up on what you believe in. Think about what you can reflect on and see how it comes in to your own life. Even difficult concepts like rebirth and the absence of self, we can bring in to our own existence. We don’t have to see them strictly as physical truths. In this way, we empty our cup. Or better still, we see that it was never full in the first place. The stuff we thought was in our cup isn’t really there.

But in order to lead a contemplative approach in this way we need a settled mind first. The more settled and calm the mind is, the more space for acceptance and understanding. We won’t be so judgemental on ourselves and we won’t slip away from the awareness and get caught into the loop of our emotions and their triggered actions.

So, the meditation. First we need to develop that empty cup. So, mindfulness of breathing. Then, we can experience the essence of the Bahiya suttra through passive listening and the sound of silence.