Socrates and the Empty Cup

In The Republic Socrates is famously asked:

What nonsense have you prize idiots been spouting? And why do the both of you give way, ridiculously, to what the other says? I say that if you really want to know, you should not only ask the question. It’s easier when you ask than when you answer.

It’s a common complaint.

Socrates himself admitted it, at least according to Aristotle. To his contemporaries, Socrates simply “did not know.” So what does it mean when Socrates, the corrupter of Athens and father of Western philosophy, tells Meno: “I only know that I know nothing”?

At about the same time, give or take a few hundred years, Maha Maya, princess to a small tribe in modern day India, gave birth to a child in the foothills of the Himalayas. Years later, after Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment, his followers would sometimes teach the Parable of the Empty Cup:

A scholar, noted for his knowledge of Buddhism, determined one day to seek out a certain Zen master, a fellow traveler on the Noble Eightfold Path. The scholar set forth, and after a time, found who he was seeking. Overjoyed, he approached the master, and after introductions, began expounding on his life’s work. So satisfied was he, that even as he spoke, the scholar scarcely noticed the setting of the sun, nor hours later, the frost settling on the morning grass.

The master, attentive to his guest, offered him a cup of warm tea. Slowly the master poured, filling the cup half way, and then completely, so that the tea poured over, first onto the table, and then to the ground below. And still the master poured.

“Stop!” cried the scholar, as he pushed himself away. “Can’t you see that my cup is full?”

“Yes,” replied the master. “You have come to me already knowing all there is. Can’t you see that your cup must be empty?”

And the scholar, being a fellow traveler, knew that it was so.

Half a world away and the same idea: From ignorance comes wisdom.

If this idea, the idea of the beginner’s mind, is in fact the beginning of wisdom, count me in with the Philosophers.

The Theologian

I know someone, a gifted martial artist in her own right, with a somewhat different perspective. In her world, wisdom is a top down affair. For her, there is no path to wisdom from reason, no bridge between natural and supernatural revelation. The source of all reason is inspiration, and all reasons are ultimately His.

Let’s call her the Theologian.

I can already hear some of you: “She’s wrong, of course. In Aikido, we’re told to keep a beginner’s mind. I’m supposed to keep my prejudices off the mat. Right?”


Tokyo, 1925

Here’s how he later described what happened:

I felt the universe suddenly quake, and that a golden spirit sprang up from the ground, veiled my body, and changed my body into a golden one. At the same time my body became light. I was able to understand the whispering of the birds, and was clearly aware of the mind of God, the creator of the universe.

And Aikido came to be. O-Sensei here is not speaking the dry language of philosophy. On the contrary — this is revelation.

“Aha!” my young friend might say, as she moves irimi, “How can you practice honestly, when you can’t honestly acknowledge the Founder’s own experience?”

How indeed?

Is my friend, in fact, correct? Has my skeptic’s eye turned against me, keeping me off the Path?

Honestly, I don’t know.

29 thoughts on “Socrates and the Empty Cup

  1. Dark Knight, MM:

    I don’t like to moderate comments normally, but I wanted to give this topic a chance to breathe, so to speak.

    Was my post that difficult?

  2. I got it after reading it twice…stopping to go play some Mortal Kombat Vs. DC, then came back to read it again..

    Somebody got beat by a branch off the tree of Zen it seems 🙂

  3. There’s a few themes I’m thinking about: faith alone as opposed to faith and reason, our Western religious tradition as opposed to something different, and the problem of applying shoshin, or beginner’s mind, to Aikido (a Buddhist concept when the Founder practiced Shinto).

    I’m also struck by the similarities between the role of revelation in certain Protestant religions and what O-Sensei experienced.

  4. As for if someone can train with ignoring O’Sensei’s religious background… Yes they can. The 1-10 system we have was made in the middle east (0 came latter) before had been settled, but you don’t need to worship Babylonian god to count. I don’t see why one would avoid Aikido purely due to the religious tradition of one man who one has not met previously… Just my 2 cents. Disagree if you want.

    As for an “empty cup” I think it is important to do when learning anything. Coming in with an idea about something before you know about it leads to assumptions that one might never recover from. I don’t mean this in a religious sense, but this is the best example I can think of, and I like the quote:

    “I prayed about it all night and god told me no, but I knew that I was right and did it anyway.” -Peggy Hill

  5. I think that; even though you can do a martial art(or anything else) without being the same faith or culture as it’s inventor; if your deepest principles are “perceptibly” polar to the inventor of that said art, there comes a point where you must reconcile these said differences of principles before you can proceed in your practice.

    I think this path to reconciliation has to be honest, and it can’t be something to decide on lightly. I think it takes an earnest investigation and deliberation to either find your reconciliation, or deem the issue irreconcilable.

    In the end the, this type of conflict might seem unwanted or bothersome. However, these types of tribulations of the heart are blessings in my opinion. They force us in a position to seek knowledge. Not just knowledge of other cultures and philosophies, it also forces us to seek further knowledge of our own principles and philosophies.
    If there was one prevailing law of this world I have come to respect, it is this: What does not grow is dead.

  6. This is why I leave religion in the church…if I am conflicted with what I am doing martially as far as what I believe faithfully…I may be killed

  7. Thus the dilemma, DK. The Founder was very spiritual. He certainly believed in a greater purpose to Aikido.

    On the other hand many Aikidoka, several of whom I greatly respect, do not. At least not in that sense.

    And there are overtly Christian Aikidoka, just as there are those who leave religion at the door.

    Nothing about our practice is “religious” in the slightest. We don’t clap, chant, or treat the kamiza as anything other than it is (a picture and some kanji). We just train. Heck, when was the last time we talked about anything at the dojo other than how to complete effective technique?

    These are just some personal ramblings.

  8. O’Sensei was very clear in one of his articles that Aikido was never intended to become a religion. He hoped however it could help amplify, or illuminate the practitioner’s life. He was marked as saying that Aikido was the way in which he devised to worship God. …not “the gods” or a sacred “being”(kami) , but the word “Shin”. The “Shin” is the Japanese expression for the Creator of The Universe, Earth, man and Heavens.

  9. I don’t see a differance between being one faith and practicing Aikido as from being Christian and celibrating Christmas or calling the days Sunday through Saturday verses first day through seventh day. Christmas was originally the festival of the winter solstice (paid homage to the “nature spirits” that controlled the harvest, I believe). Jesus wasn’t born in the winter (what Shepard tend their flocks in the fields in winter?), but we do traditions to celibate the solstice and call it “Christmas”. The days of the week are also named after pagan gods, this is why Wednesdays are seen as bad, I believe that is the day of the Nordic god of death. Most religions can’t fit the idea of luck in there without a contradiction, but people still say, “bad luck” when something bad happens. Sometimes a Monday is just the start of the work week, not a call to worship pagan gods.

  10. Yes…But Aikido has an explicit ethical message. It’s not an accident of history like, say, Odin’s Day (Wednesday).

    I’m not certain your analogy is apt.

  11. I remember it as Woden’s day (who chose who died in battle), but my Nordic mythology is pretty rusty… Anywho, it was and is a big deal to a Seventh day Adventist (still an active and relevant religion in parts of the county), who refused to use the normal naming system in favor for first day, second day, third day… To them it does have religious connotations.

    Aikido has been staked out by Zen Buddhists, Shinto practitioners, and the Omoto Kyo sect as a part of their religious practice, but they are distinct from one another and want different things from it. They don’t confuse themselves with each other, why should we confuse ourselves with them?

    If you are a practicing Christian, I am reminded of the question one of the churches had for Paul. They asked him whether it was ok for them to eat meat that had been offered to idols. He said that the strong in faith (those that did eat the meat) did nothing wrong because their faith in that God’s protection and love of them was greater than any idol’s power to harm or deceive them, but their actions should not offend the weaker in faith (those that did not eat meat offered to idols) because it would breed dissension in the congregation. I read that to mean a strong person in the faith can eat the meat as long as they don’t rub it in the weaker person’s face while they do it. That ends my opinion on this matter, because it doesn’t become relevant for me any further.

  12. “Philospohy is a walk on the slippery rocks; religion is a light in the fog.”

    Yes, Edie Brickell. I majored in religion (and the 80s) and took just one philosopy class. It was enough.

  13. Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner Mind” may be the definitive book on the subject of, well, Zen and the beginner’s mind (and the nature of Zen).

  14. dichotomy: Odin = Woden, if I remember correctly. Good points, though.

    Buck: Great song, but you are showing your age! 🙂

    For most of our history, (and by “our” history I am referring to Western Civilization, broadly), it would have made no sense to a certain category of persons to separate “philosophy” from “religion.” Philosophy was the handmaiden of theology, and was what we would today call a prerequisite before studying “religion” (or more properly, theology) at the great medieval universities.

    I’m not so certain that philosophy can’t lead to wisdom, on or off the mat. There are some towering thinkers (St. Augustine, St. Anselm) who bridged, or attempted to bridge, the divide between reason and revelation.

    Maybe the Founder had something to contribute here as well?

  15. Buck and Jerry, I think that is the problem of the “Theologian”. They are unwilling to learn about the subject from any sources they feel are “unchristian”. The situation has compounded difficulty because the prospective of zen, O’sensei, or anyone who is not on a pulpit of their choosing is automatically wrong. I don’t think such sources of information or thought will address the issue if we are talking from the “Theologian’s” point of view.

    Having gone to a “christian school” most of my life, I do feel for the “Theologian”, but the truth of the matter you are talking to someone who has been indoctrinated instead of educated on the subject of theology. I am of the opinion that true theology is the result of free thinking and as such, needs fear no thought overtake it.

  16. To play devil’s advocate, though… 😉

    What if the Theologian is correct? There are also some pretty heavy duty thinkers which support her position. (Matthew, Paul, and the other Apostles).

    And O-Sensei’s experience also speaks to the truth of direct revelation.

    Judging her position on its merits, (and leaving out the ad hominem), I’m not at all certain that she is “incorrect.” Hence my post.

    As always, though, dichotomy, you raise provocative issues.

  17. I wouldn’t be so bold as to speak for Paul, Matthew, other Apostles, or Jesus. I believe it is a fundamental flaw of pride that *you* (the hypothetical you, not referring to any one person) can understand the mind of the greatest theologians and the faiths of the greatest members of your faith, let alone God himself. I have the same problem with people saying that they know for certain that someone went to heaven or hell, only God can decide that from a Christian dogma, you have just supplanted God in your own faith. A good book to read on this line of thought is the Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis.

    I am not saying she is correct or incorrect, though. No one but God can, but I am giving my opinion based on my own studies of the Bible. My reference to the question that the church raised to Paul was meant to make that clear, but rereading it, I realize that I left a part off. The weak in faith considered it wrong to eat meat offer to idols, so Paul confirmed for them that is was wrong for THEM to eat the meat. They believed that eating the meat would corrupt their souls, so them doing it would be a willful act of rebellion against God. The strong in faith viewed eating the meat as an issue of if they were hungry or not, so if was moral for THEM to eat the meat because they it did not act as a stumbling block for their spiritual lives. It would be immoral for the “theologian” to continue to train if she views it as a hindrance for her faith, but it sad for the weak to stay weak…

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