Short Sprint – Beginner’s mind

Beginner’s mind is a Zen concept about approaching situations with a non-judgemental, open-minded attitude. There’s a couple of stories which begin to explain it and both involve cups of tea!

In the first teaching, a university professor who has been studying Zen teachings goes to see the Master. On arrival, he states he wishes to learn about Zen and begins to tell the Master all that he already knows. The Master listens and, after a while, suggests they drink tea.

While the professor talks, the Master begins to pour. The cup begins to fill with tea and the Master continues to pour. The professor continues to explain what he has learned about Zen and soon the cup is nearly full. The Master continues to pour as the professor continues on. The tea reaches the brim of the cup and then begins to overflow. The professor’s voice falters as the Master continues to pour and the tea spills out of the saucer onto the table. The professor stops, thinking perhaps his explanations have distracted the Master, but the pouring continues. As the tea runs off the table onto the floor, the professor is unable to stand it any longer and says “Stop, stop, can you not see the cup is full and no more will go in?”

The Master stops, looks up and replies “Like the cup, your mind is already full of what you know and there is no room left until you empty it of your ideas and preconceptions.

What I often see among my running friends is a propensity to struggle because they have become set in their routines. Often when they return from a running break they restart with a schedule that is not much smaller than when they stopped. Or if they’re struggling to make progress, they make only small changes to the training in the hope it will create some kind of large change. Or the same injury flairs up repeatedly. All of it is not that far off Einstein’s “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. None of them seem able to take stock of the fact that what they’re doing isn’t working for them and go back to humble beginnings to build from the ground up.


In the second Zen teaching there is more tea to be drunk. Or rather, more tea to be poured into four different cups.

  • The first cup is upside down. When the teacher attempts to pour tea, it cannot, of course, go in the cup but instead splashes off the upturned china. This is like the student who is so blocked they cannot receive any wisdom.
  • The second cup is the right way up but has a hole in its base. When the tea is poured in, it immediately drains away. This is the student who says they want to learn, who listens to advice but then walks away but doesn’t implement or think any further on it. The advice has gone in one ear, out the other.
  • The third cup is normal but it contains a fine layer of dirt. When the tea is poured in it becomes muddy and undrinkable. This is the student who is already full of thoughts and ideas – the one who lacks beginner’s mind. They’re not receptive to new ideas, but only willing to listen to those which confirms their own preconceived beliefs and ideas.
  • The fourth cup represents the perfect student. It is clean, there are no cracks or holes and it is the right way up. When tea is poured in, it is retained and perfect to drink.

While experienced runners are not new students coming to a teacher to learn how to run; when they are struggling the situation they find themselves in is unfamiliar. If it were familiar, they would know how to run themselves to fitness and there would be no struggle.

Unbeknownst to them they are students approaching the master. They need to open their eyes and take stock of their situation. They need to consider all options before taking action, not just the ones they’ve become accustomed to. Just like the clean, upturned, perfectly formed cup they need an openness to learning anew and to rebuild using methods they may have forgotten from when they were younger or beginners.


Every day of your life is the first day of the rest of your life. The universe is gradual decay and entropy. You have to keep looking at it with fresh eyes and beginner’s mind to remain ahead of it.


(While these stories are often told by Zen practitioners, I have relied on Dr Joseph Parent’s versions in “Zen Golf”)

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