Empty Cup & Open Mind

There is a classic Zen tale about a Japanese master who was visited by a university professor inquiring about Zen. As the master poured his visitor a cup of tea, he continued to do so even after the cup was full. The professor tried to remain patient, but eventually felt compelled to declare, “It is overfull. No more will go in!” But the master replied, “Like this cup…you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”1

This brief narrative resonates with the spirit of the Oregon High School Ethics Bowl, which places emphasis on collaboration rather than competition. For collaborative efforts to be effective, individuals must strive to be actively receptive to ideas and positions other than their own.

 Whenever doing philosophical inquiry, it is essential that one do so with a disposition toward open-mindedness. This entails being willing to revise one’s own beliefs. Furthermore, it demands a sense of humility and a willingness to accept one’s own fallibility. Individuals are often fallible due to their fervent beliefs and presuppositions. Like the professor’s cup, a person can become overfull with his or her own opinions and speculations, which can lead to the acceptance of erroneous assumptions and mistaken conclusions.

 It is particularly important to remain open-minded when doing philosophy with other individuals. A rigid mind and stubborn attitude can impede the inquisitiveness of others. However, this does not mean there is no place for disagreement. On the contrary, disagreement can often be a path to deeper understanding when done in a productive and respectful manner.

 Disagreement should become an opportunity for collaborative inquiry where parties put aside their prejudices and learn from each other, rather than a confrontation with winners and losers.

 Although remaining open-minded is not always an easy thing to do, it is a fundamental part of having a fruitful philosophical discussion. Unlike other disciplines of study, philosophy often presents questions that do not have definitive answers. This means that when investigating philosophical issues we are likely to come up with answers that are either wrong or plausible at best. Many great thinkers have been shown to be wrong, but we still respect and admire their thoughts. The notion of an open mind allows us to continue to contemplate their concepts and views—wrong or otherwise—and to learn from them.

 We must be considerably mindful of this when discussing complex and open-ended ethical cases. Even reasonable well-informed people tend to disagree on ethical issues. One reason for this is that our ethical positions are often inadvertently influenced by our cultural and personal presuppositions and beliefs.

 Persistent awareness of the influence that cultural and personal presuppositions and beliefs can have on our ethical positions allows us to develop more insightful and reasonable analyses of complex and controversial ethical issues. This awareness compels us to carefully question our own views and to consider the diverse views of others. Therefore, one of our main objectives as mentors and coaches of Ethics Bowl participants is to encourage them to take an open-minded approach to investigating, analyzing, and discussing ethical case studies. One method of accomplishing this goal is by setting a positive example with our own actions and behavior. Moreover, an open mind allows us to not fear being wrong ourselves, and to actively listen to and respect the thoughts of others.

 An empty cup contains the potential to be filled with various substances. A full cup cannot take in anything more and only has the potential to be emptied. Likewise, an open mind contains the potential to consider and contemplate various views and concepts. A closed mind cannot take in anything more and only has the potential to be opened.

1. Reps, Paul. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen & Pre-Zen Writings. Garden City, N.Y.,: Anchor/Doubleday, 1961. Print. 

Post by Dan Pelley, a PSU Philosophy Major at Portland State University and an OHSEB coach

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