In Japan, many years ago, it was the tradition among Buddhist monks to travel from monastery to monastery, seeking the teaching of the masters. As was the custom, the master would serve his guest tea and they would talk.
One young monk was a particularly outstanding student. In fact, he was so exceptional, he had made a bit of a career out of showing up lesser masters with his skill and tremendous intelligence.
One day, he called at a very famous monastery attached to one of the most sacred temples in all Japan. The master there was old and most wise. The young man begged an audience with the master, in hopes of being accepted as his pupil, to live and study with the great man.
The young man – whose reputation had preceded him – was ushered into the master’s chambers immediately. This was most unusual, and the young monk was greatly flattered.
The master entered and they bowed to each other. They sat across a low table on the tatami mat floor and talked.
The young man told the master of his journeys, of the teaching he had heard, of the monks he had ‘bested’ in his search for Truth. It was a most impressive tale. The master listened intently and acknowledged the young monk many times for his wit and intelligence.
A teapot and cups were brought in, and the master began pouring tea for them both. The young man addressed the Master: ‘I wish to remain here and study with you, for I sense that here, unlike with the others, there is much you have to offer me . . .’
And all of a sudden, the young monk cried out in pain and alarm, jumping up from his place on the floor, shaking his robes and dancing about. The scalding hot tea had spilled all over his lap!
The master sat calmly and continued pouring tea – which was overflowing the student’s small cup and spilling out over the table onto the straw-matted floor where the young man had been sitting.
‘‘What are you doing!?!’ the young monk demanded. ‘I have been burned! Stop pouring! The cup is overflowing!’
Go away from me, young man,’ the master said. ‘I have nothing to teach you. Your cup is too full . . . overflowing with all that you know and all that you think you don’t know. Come back to me when your cup is empty and you are ready to receive what I have to give.
We sat in silence for a long time.
As I recall, it was the first time in a long time that there were no thoughts at all rattling around in my head.
I had stopped talking to myself.
Finally, he spoke up. “You want very much to be a success in your business, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“You know some things about how to do this business – true?”
“And you know, too, that there are many things that you do not know about how to do this business – true?”
“Yes,” I replied.
He sat up a bit, away from the back of the couch, and faced me directly as he spoke this next thought, carefully measuring out his words.
“There is nothing which you now know, and nothing about what you think you don’t know, that will help you create the success you desire.”
He paused for a moment, and continued.
“The key to your success lies only in what you don’t know that you don’t know. Do you understand?”
“No,” I told him truthfully. “I have no idea what you’re saying. How can I know what I don’t even know that I don’t know?”
“You can’t,” he said. “That’s the secret.”