Empty Your Tea Cup!
One of my favorite stories concerns a Buddhist scholar and a Zen Master. The scholar had an extensive background in Buddhist Studies and was an expert on the Nirvana Sutra. He came to study with the master and after making the customary bows, asked her to teach him Zen. Then, he began to talk about his extensive doctrinal background and rambled on and on about the many sutras he had studied.
The master listened patiently and then began to make tea. When it was ready, she poured the tea into the scholar’s cup until it began to overflow and run all over the floor. The scholar saw what was happening and shouted, “Stop, stop! The cup is full; you can’t get anymore in.”
The master stopped pouring and said: “You are like this cup; you are full of ideas about Buddha’s Way. You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.” I have been teaching guitar for over 28 years. One of the many things I have learned from this is to be present, without expectations, and tune into the student’s needs at that moment.
In my opinion, both the teacher and the student need to “empty their tea cup” in order to tap into a deep, meaningful exchange. I teach a lot of children and young adults guitar, and it’s fascinating to me how different each one is. Some think they already have it together and I have to gently show them areas to improve. Others do not feel so confident in their abilities and need encouragement and validation of their talents and efforts.
Either way, I try to approach each lesson fresh and see what needs to come forth. I try not to insist that they learn what I offer, but instead try to intuitively feel what is most appropriate. This is what we call in zen using “skillful means”. When teaching children, sometimes I need to scale back my preference of what gets shared in order to meet them where they are in that moment. Sometimes, this means embracing them as human beings first and musicians second. Sometimes this means dropping my lesson plan to follow their creative vision.
I recently had a young student who did not take to practicing the guitar. After a week or two, I recognized that his deepest passion was reading fantasy books like The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. I suggested that we compose a suite of music based on the characters in the book. We wrote music for and talked in detail about elves, dwarfs, wizards, orcs and others. This helped the student learn basic skills on the guitar and allowed him to be creative at the same time. The most important aspects were that he was engaged in learning and encouraged to include in his deep passion for fantasy novels.
There are so many variables to keep in mind when a student shows up to a lesson. Some days, they are tired. Other times, something happened in their day that was upsetting to them. Through gently acknowledging what needs to be acknowledged and expressed, we can often shift the energy of a lesson. One of the most amazing things about kids is that they are very honest and not afraid to tell you what they think. I encourage this in my studio because I want my students to feel empowered, to feel that they have a voice, and to know that I hold the space for them to express themselves.This is very important to me as an educator.
In zen, they speak about “form” and formlessness”. The form is that we both agree on a time and place to have a “guitar lesson.” We bring our guitars, materials and meet at the studio. The “formlessness” is that anything can happen in that space and the creative possibilities are infinite. I also believe that the healing possibilities are infinite as well.
In order for this to happen, both the teacher and student must first “empty their tea cup” and be open to any possibility. I would even go further to say that the words “teacher” and “student” are not completely accurate. There is an exchange of both person’s authenticity and spirit, that is all. A good teacher knows when to lead and when to follow, as does a good student. The teacher should know their student’s needs and learning styles. He should know what the student loves and enjoys; where their passion lies. The student should be a good listener and be open to following the teacher’s suggestions as well.
My deepest wish for my students is for them to feel a love for the instrument, a desire to learn and improve and to have the confidence and skills to follow their joy in music. Each student’s path is different and their unique gifts and talents need to be honored. I feel very grateful to be able to share my own passion for music with whomever wants to study with me.