Emptying the Cup, by Elizabeth Napp

To learn is to be vulnerable. It is to have the courage to say, “I don’t know” and the wisdom to know the difference between knowing and not knowing.

Tara as Prajñāpāramitā, 13th century, Java, Indonesia.
Tara as Prajñāpāramitā, 13th century, Java, Indonesia. (Wikipedia)

To learn is to be vulnerable. It is to have the courage to say, “I don’t know” and the wisdom to know the difference between knowing and not knowing. It is to be the fearless traveler, dropped off in the middle of a formidable desert and yet knowing that water will be found – if not today then before the effects of dehydration set in. To learn is to be willing to look foolish. And if it is hard for an adult to cultivate the intrepid spirit of the learner; it is downright frightening for a child in front of his peers. But as I tell my students, the road to mastery is paved with lots of mistakes. So, how does the teacher cultivate the fearlessness of the learner without minimizing the importance of mastery? While learning is a series of mistakes before mastery, the learner – like the connoisseur of something rare and premium – must learn the difference between mediocrity and excellence while still recognizing that mistakes are part of the journey to excellence. Like some Gordian knot, there is the strand of failure and the strand of mastery and the strand that is not a communism of the worst kind, recognizing all things as equal. There really is a Nureyev and Neil deGrasse Tyson and a Sally Ride. There are the mistakes and the mastery too, a mastery to be admired and emulated. Like Charlie Brown’s foot missing the football, there is an “Arggghhhh!” What is a teacher to do?

In Zen Buddhism, there is the story of the monk and the scholar. The scholar has come to the monk to learn. Upon meeting, the monk pours the scholar a cup of tea but as the hot water reaches the teacup’s brim, the monk keeps pouring. Finally, the scholar can take it no more and blurts out, “It is full. The cup is full.” The monk, as only a Zen monk can do, smiles his Mona Lisa smile and says, “And you too.” There can be no learning when the mind is full. The mind must be emptied in order to learn; the mind must be open. The challenge is even greater the more the learner knows or the more learning the learner has previously acquired. So, the first step to cultivating the spirit of the learner in the classroom is for the teacher to be first and foremost a learner himself and to share insights from his struggles as a learner. Yes, the teacher must be a continual learner and must be willing to step out of her comfort zone and into the unknown regularly. By being the learner, the teacher understands the process of learning and cultivates empathy for the learner. And the teacher must make certain to study new topics and explore new arenas. Thus, if the teacher is a history teacher; perhaps attempting auto mechanics would prove invaluable. In my case, I have been teaching history for many years. Even as I delve deeper into my subject area and learn new information and new skills, I am still in an academic world that I am very comfortable in. So, in my case, I must also study topics that are new or challenging to ensure that I cultivate the spirit of the learner. Sometimes this must be intentional but sometimes it is accidental.

Recently, I purchased a treatise by Bokar Rinpoche on the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is a very short Buddhist sutra but it contains all of the teachings of the Buddha in its few verses – or so I have been told. I have read many books on Buddhism and this treatise has very few pages but it is really challenging me. Sometimes as I am reading, I think, “Is this Buddhism?” I am completely baffled and have to read the same sentence multiple times and then can only conclude that the best I can hope for in my next incarnation is to be a cook in the Rinpoche’s temple. Maybe I could master the art of Tibetan fry bread because I seem to be a bit of tree stump on the road to Enlightenment. This is, of course, wonderful for me as a teacher. I am challenged by this treatise. Even though the print is large and the pages few – so few that it might appear as an elementary school book for a slow reader – it is causing me great intellectual wrangling. Like a cowboy new to the rodeo, I am thrown off the bull by almost every passage. Perhaps even mastering the art of fry bread would be too difficult for me. As my son told me the other day, “You watch a lot of cooking shows but you really can’t cook.” Arggghhhh – what is a knucklehead like me to do?

Well, my reflection is only partially true. It is correct that I am being challenged by the treatise and it is correct that I am humbled by my lack of understanding but I have many years under my belt as a good student. So, my self-esteem is not mortally wounded. It is rather nicked and bruised and even perhaps showing evidence of a hair-line fracture but it is not destroyed. I know what I am and what I am not. I am a lay Buddhist with a devotional or bhakti practice to the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Tara. Some people might even say that I am bit like Buddhism Light but I am sincere in my practice and interested in learning and growing as a Buddhist – perhaps slowly but still steadily. My self-esteem was formed over many years and it was largely formed in classrooms where I was generally successful. Now, if my self-esteem had been primarily formed in the physical education classroom, it would have been quite different. I was always the last child – the absolute last child – picked for any athletic team. It was not that I was horribly formed or that I was impossibly put together. As a teen, I was a lifeguard and an avid hiker and quite good with a Frisbee and a hacky sack. But I am an asthmatic – allergic asthma to be precise. So, if there is too much tree pollen in the air or God forbid, the grass is cut, I cough and cough and cough. I cough so much that people back away fearing Tuberculosis. Running can also trigger my asthma. If I am hiking, I can pace myself but when the runner stops running, she ain’t running anymore. In a physical education class of soccer or baseball, an asthmatic on the team is like a hole in a boat. It doesn’t end well. Fortunately, my weakness was in a subject that was not the emphasis of the school I attended – not that it should have been less valued; a healthy body is worth cultivating – and so I was praised throughout the day for my ability to take tests and receive high marks on tests. My self-esteem was watered in the classroom.

But what of the student who struggles? What message does the struggling student receive; the student who in an academic class is having a kind of asthma attack? How can she be nurtured in a way that builds self-esteem without minimizing the importance of mastery? How can she be valued as readily as the student who effortlessly – or seemingly effortlessly – succeeds?

Perhaps it is always useful to share the journey and not just the outcome. When studying Mohandas K. Gandhi and the independence movement in India, it is useful to reflect on the life of the Mahatma. In particular, an excerpt from Gandhi’s autobiography might prove quite insightful – not for the questions to be answered on the test but for the inspiration needed to stay committed to the journey. In the autobiography, Gandhi shares that as a young man, he was painfully shy – painfully shy. “Is that really possible?” the student thinks. Surely, Gandhi – the Gandhi of the Boycott of British Cloth, the Gandhi of the Dandi Salt March – was not shy. How could a shy Gandhi rouse a nation to civil disobedience, rouse a nation to nonviolently not cooperate and gain independence? But there it is, written clearly on the page. Or is it really true that Thomas Edison failed more than he succeeded and came to view failure as a necessary step on the road to invention? As Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” It is absolutely critical that the learner know that what is deemed failure is simply a method that is not working. If the learner tries it one way and the results are disappointing, then there is another way. Most learning is experimentation.

I always share the story of the day I learned to juggle with my students. I was twelve years old and it was a vacation day. I was old enough to be home alone but not old enough to wander freely. My mother had started working and felt comfortable leaving me alone for the day but preferred that I stay indoors until she returned from work. The night before my father had shown me the basic pattern for juggling three balls; how the balls when thrown into the air must cross and not be thrown vertically up. With nothing much to do, I decided to learn how to juggle and I even decided that I would not leave my room until I could juggle. Hour after hour I threw balls into the air and hour after hour the balls fell to the floor. I spent more time picking up balls then catching balls. Yet with every mistake I came to retrain my body because really that is what juggling is – it is a retraining of the body. Up until that moment, I had been trained to either throw a ball out to another person or vertically up in the air. But I had never had any reason to throw a ball up diagonally. Yes, hour after hour, I retrained myself to throw the ball up diagonally. Once I had mastered that basic step, I could juggle. By the end of the day and before my mother returned from work, I was a juggler.

This is a very important story to share because it shows that much of learning is seeing and then doing or really seeing while doing and then mastering the skill. It requires a lot of patience and a lot of persistence. When the masters are asked what is the key to their successes, they invariably say, “Lots of practice.” Of course, any kind of practice will not do. It must be practice in the most effective way and it must be done again and again and again. As Ernst F. Schumacher said, “An ounce of practice is generally worth more than a ton of theory.” Yet to be willing to practice, the learner must be willing to look foolish as I learned while learning how to juggle. While I looked rather ridiculous, I also learned that foolishness was temporary and that one day I would look magnificent.

A classroom is really the rehearsal room. It is where we can make mistakes; figure out what works and what doesn’t work; and blunder our way to beauty. All masters were once foolish apprentices and to know the process that mastery requires is to also know that self-esteem is not found in perfection but in the fundamental belief that with practice, the learner will improve. I will share one last story on this motif and it is not flattering. When I was an undergraduate, I pursued a dual major in History and Spanish Literature. I graduated with the highest average in Romance Languages in the university and was awarded a special award as a result. To this day, I can understand and read Spanish but I cannot speak it. Award or no award – when I speak Spanish, I sound ridiculous. Now, there is a reason for this disconnect – how someone with great promise in a second language failed to speak that language [and if we are to be brutally honest, what good is an award in a second language that you cannot really speak]. Although it is a bit embarrassing, I will confess the reason. When I studied abroad – mandatory for even a dual major – I rarely spoke Spanish. When I would start to speak, I would think, “My goodness, this would sound so much smarter in English.” And then I would blather away in English. Without practicing speaking, I remained a Spanish reader but not a communicator in Spanish. My ego sabotaged my desire to learn Spanish. I remember vividly the feeling that I wanted people to know I was smarter than my limited Spanish and so my Spanish stay limited. Today, I tell my students what I read in the Science Times, the bilingual brain is smarter and so, even in the beginning, when you are struggling know that with every new word you utter, your brain is getting smarter.

Like a skilled tightrope walker, the student can learn to value mastery while valuing herself on the road to mastery. The goal is transcendence; the goal is excellence, however, the process is riddled with errors. She sees in the master, the form of the superior artist, but she also recognizes that in her imperfections, she comes closer to achieving that perfection. There is a balance between appreciating and striving for excellence but also appreciating perseverance and dedication in the midst of imperfections. And then when she crosses the wire and achieves mastery, she does not rest long for there is another wire to cross – perhaps higher, perhaps more challenging. For while she lives, she seeks the challenges of existence, the temporary taste of sweet victory, and the opportunity to start all over again. Like the wheel of Samsara, she struggles, succeeds, and then starts all over again.

The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:

The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain.
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds.

—Han-Shan, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, 1990, Translated by Gary Snyder, p.46 .

Or in the immortally beautiful voice of Nat King Cole,

Pick yourself up,
Take a deep breath,
Dust yourself off.
And start all over again.♦


By Elizabeth Napp

Elizabeth Napp is a Consulting Editor to Parabola who writes about Teaching and Education.