Book Excerpt
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 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?”


As artists, there are times when we can become full of ourselves. We can forget that the creative process is one in which we’re asked to keep ourselves empty so that we can be filled over and over again by our Muse.

We must allow ourselves to become perpetual students, not seeking mastery of certain artistic skills for mastery’s sake, but emptying ourselves to the possibility of lessons yet to be learned.

For years, I thought of myself as a filmmaker, but I rarely picked up a camera. It was far more important for me to keep my cup full by cramming it with books, lectures, and videos on the techniques of filmmaking. How could I truly be a filmmaker without knowing the “rule of threes”? How could I call myself a filmmaker without viewing the entire film collection of David Lynch? And Martin Scorsese? And Jean-Luc Godard? And Alfred Hitchcock?

I was afraid to pick up a camera. I wanted to cram my mind with all sorts of filmmaking information and techniques to avoid picking up a camera.

As any Zen master will tell us, we learn Zen by doing Zen. As any poet will tell us, we learn poetry by writing poetry. As any filmmaker will tell us, we learn to make movies by making movies. But first, we artists must let go of the illegitimate fears that flow through us.

We simply empty ourselves to do our work because the work is all that there is.