A Cup of Tea
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
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
(Reps & Senzaki, 1994, p.7)
THIS TYPE of short story can be labeled in a number of different ways--koan, parable, metaphor, anecdote, narrative, allegory--to name a few. What one chooses to call it is irrelevant as long as the tale provokes thought. In fact, the words themselves are "meaningless"; the message they convey is what matters. The proposal that "meaning is the message" is as relevant to general semantics as it is to the study of Zen philosophy. After deep introspection, this insight provoked me to alter my approach to teaching and learning. That's what this article is about.
Take a moment to "empty your cup;" set aside the luggage of symbolism and preconception and allow yourself to experience teaching and learning in a new light, as a process whose means and ends are one and the same. First, a brief description of the indescribable is in order, a comparison of Zen and general semantics.
Uncommon Common Ground
Mime Marcel Marceau, master communicator sans words, once posed a thought-provoking question, "Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words?" To those cognizant of the fact that Zen and general semantics must be experienced in order to be understood, a definition cluttered with words and subjected to over-interpretation is not helpful. However, in a literal and figurative sense, a grey area exists where Zen and general semantics affably co-exist, uncommon common ground where distinctions between the two are imperceptible. Perhaps when all is done and said, you too will be left speechless.
Zen is spontaneity in living. To look at the world as the Japanese master Nan-in suggests, without allowing thoughts to obscure the view, one must remain passive and ignore the natural urge to interpret using symbols and labels. Like thoughts, words tend to get in the way. Without them, birds are not birds, trees are no longer trees, nor are clouds called clouds, etc. Each entity is what it is at a precise moment, and that is all. One must see them for the first time, like a child, and view action with no expectations. The old adages "actions speak louder than words" and "words cannot express" assume new meaning in this context. That is the essence of Zen and the realization to which students of general semantics aspire.
General semantics looks at "language-as-behavior" and takes into consideration how language is used in relation to its influence on people. Furthermore, general semantics is the study of how we perceive, construct, evaluate, and communicate our life experiences. (Institute of General Semantics, 2005) Perception occurs through and is limited by the five senses, and "knowing" is limited by our awareness and memory of previous experience. (Hipkiss, 1995) As in Zen, words, as symbols of reality, can get in the way because true understanding is beyond words; enlightenment defies description because language is too restrictive to relate the experience.
To clarify the connection between Zen and general semantics, consider the example of driving a car over a familiar route, say to or from work. Directions are not the only things committed to memory regarding this daily trip. Every bump, speed limit and pothole is also recorded. The driver may be preoccupied with pressing thoughts, listening intently to the radio, or even be engaged in conversation with a passenger. …