Saturday, July 8, 2017

Empty Your Cup: What Bruce Lee Taught Me About Spiritual Practice

I’ve had a deep and abounding love for martial arts for as long as I can remember.  The strict discipline, the cool uniforms, and the ancient traditions all led me to eventually earn a black belt in Isshin-Ryu karate.  It also led me to watch a ridiculous number of martial arts movies.  Of these, the Bruce Lee films were always my favorites. 

Bruce was a physical genius.  In fact, his punches were so fast that he had to purposely slow down in order for the camera to pick up his movements.  But he was also a great  intellectual.  Now that I’m older, I’ve started to appreciate his philosophy more than his skills with nunchakus

Bruce taught his students that they must become "empty cups" in order to be effective in combat.  That is to say, they had to let go of preconceived notions around punch/ kick combinations, and simply flow with what ever the moment demanded of them.  He called this fighting style Jeet Kune Do, and he summed up its core teaching by saying:

          "Empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality."

In other words, Bruce was telling his students that they must be "empty" of everything they thought they knew about technique if they were going to become complete fighters.  This is an excellent ethos for martial arts, but I think it applies equally to spiritual practice.

 Our habits might tell us that anger is the only way to respond to injustice, and some people are deserving of our disgust.  But this is a recipe for suffering.  We must be willing to let go of of our preconceived notions in order to progress on the spiritual path.  And that's where Zen Buddhism comes into play.

Zen is a rude house guest, and we’re the soon to be empty cup.  It tips us over each time we sit in meditation until our inner most thoughts come pouring out.  It waits until the red wine of our mental habits seep deep into our white carpet, and then it walks away.  “It’s your wine,” Zen says dismissively, “You clean it up.”

And that’s a problem because we don’t like being empty.  In fact, we’ve carried around our suffering/  mental habits for so long that we’re not sure we can be a cup without them.  So, we dutifully clean up the mess as best we can, and then we refill ourselves with new helpings of anger, anxiety, worry, etc. 

We justify it, of course.  “This is an important project,” we say as we scrub the carpet, “If I don’t have anxiety, that means I don’t care.” “He shouldn’t have said that,” we mutter as we reach for the bottle, "I deserve to be angry.” But Zen is nothing if not patient, and it keeps tipping us over until one of two things happen.
1.       We quit, and move on to another spiritual practice.
2.       We learn that being empty isn’t so scary, after all.
Sadly, there isn’t much to say about the first option.   But the second one is interesting.  Because if we can learn to be okay with emptiness, life becomes simple.  Empty cups don’t make messes when they tip over.  And they can be a container for whatever life needs them to carry.

In fact, when we make the choice to stop filling ourselves with anger, it leaves room for compassion to grow.  And when we break the mental habit of worry, life fills us with contentment.  If we’re really lucky, we realize that white carpet is impractical.  And we learn to enjoy the multi-colored messes that Zen brings to the surface because each one is an opportunity to grow in our practice. 

Bruce Lee was an "empty cup", and he became the greatest martial artist of all time as a result.  Imagine what we could accomplish if everyone followed his example, and let go of their mental habits.

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  1. Nice post,Buddhist and Taoism meditation on emptiness teach you the same, it is so profound that you will to see life from other perspective and you will never be the same...

  2. I enjoyed this writing very much. Being a newly seeker in Buddhism, i appreciate the words of wisdom.