The New and Improved “Empty Your Cup”

I have a different take on the martial arts saying, “Empty Your Cup”, and I’d like to share it with you.

As the parable goes, a teacher has a student with previous martial arts experience. He is skilled but frustrating to teach, as each time his teacher offers a lesson the student replies, “I already know that” or “In my other style, we do it like this”, or something similar. Frustrated, the teacher suggests they take a break and have tea.

After filling up the student’s cup with tea, the student takes a sip and then the master begins to pour again. “Wait! Sifu! My cup is already full!”

The master replies, “Exactly, how can you take more tea when you have not yet emptied your cup?”

Or something like that.

So, here’s my take. The student has one type of tea. The teacher suggests another type of tea, and the student affirms that yes, he’d like to try it. But before the student could drink the tea, the master is already pouring more. Then–blah, blah, blah.

And this is what I mean:  Although “empty your cup usually refers to pouring out the old before re-filling with the new, I think it is better to do more than finish what you have in your cup… but to enjoy it, savor it, and then absorb it, before taking more tea. Too many martial artists will drink a few sips of this, a few sips of that, and just hop from tea to juice to water to coffee. And what do you think is in his belly after all that? Nothing but piss.

What happens when you eat a plate of good food and then you get a second helping? Is the second helping as good as the first? How about if you got a third helping? Don’t forget about dessert! Food is more satisfying when you are hungry and you take the time to chew it, savor the flavor, and then swallow, and then digest it. Am I right? If you just went from restaurant to restaurant back to back in the first day, you never truly enjoy the food. You never really absorb it and digest it. In fact, all you do is regurgitate what you’ve had. So when it’s all over the sidewalk, passers-by can say, “Okay, it looks like he’s had chicken, and corn, and some green stuff (that’s the Eskrima LOL), and some rice…”

A martial artists who trains and learns this way is not a well-rounded martial artist–he is a martial arts glutton. He’s had this and that, but has not absorbed anything well enough to have mastered his art, and rather than let all that learning become a part of his skill, he just regurgitates the pieces he can hold on to so that when you look at the side walk in front of him all you see is a little of this and a little of that. His art should blend with everything he has learned so well that all the studying he has done becomes a seamless set of fighting skills that can be isolated at will or blended into a whole new art. And I must emphasize the importance of this choice being “at will”. So a martial artist who has truly cross trained can box just as good as a boxer, fence just as good as a fencer, stick fight just good as a stick fighter, kickbox just as good as a kickboxer. This is not a quick process, and you cannot reach this level of proficiency attending part time seminars and studying from guys who really don’t specialize in the stuff they are showing you. The martial arts concept of “cross training” is like the Navy retiree who can say “hello” and “thank you” and “you so pretty” in 6 different languages, but he can’t order dinner in any language but English. He just knows bits and pieces and all he can impress are the guys at the barber shop who only speak one language. Don’t be that guy.

So, you want the master’s tea? Then don’t drink it on the run. Don’t try tasting that tea when you still have a tummy full of beer. It won’t mix well. And when you learn his lessons, learn those techniques as if you knew no other fighting style. Don’t look like a Wing Chun guy trying to box. Because not only won’t it work, but you will only impress non-martial artists and other Wing Chun guys. And while you’re at it, don’t learn how to box from another Wing Chun guy. Learn it from a real boxer. Just like I wouldn’t learn to speak Thai from a retired guy who only docked in Thailand for a week at a time and all he remembers was the food and the price of a Thai whore… what’s he going to teach me about that language? Now, a guy married to a Thai woman? Who speaks fluently? He even thinks in Thai? That’s the guy you learn from. Because he isn’t just regurgitating a few phrases he’s learned–he is speaking a language he knows because it’s a part of his linguistic skills.

The martial artist who wants to learn another style must act as if he knows no other style while he is learning. He must learn that art as if he were a brand new martial arts student with a true “empty cup”; otherwise he is just adding Kool Aid to his water and that’s not tasty.

This is not to say you must discount your previous master’s art. But you should not cheapen either man’s art trying to add one to the other without knowing or doing either of them well.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

Author: thekuntawman

full time martial arts teacher, full time martial arts philosopher, and full time martial arts critic

2 thoughts on “The New and Improved “Empty Your Cup””

  1. lol! Interesting and timely article Maestro Jun indeed, for I have come across many in this vain. lol,lol! For example when I was competing in open tournaments w/ Yang style Tai Chi Chaun there were many martial artists who claimed that their martial art incorporated Tai Chi Chaun in its martial repertoire. They then would demonstrate some of the Tai Chi Chaun of their discipline for me and it was immediately obvious to me that they didn’t have the faintest clue as to what Tai Chi Chaun was. But then there was those who knew a little about Tai Chi Chaun or maybe watched a video & read a book or two but they too didn’t have a clue either. Like you said they didn’t savor their meal, “they took a few sips of this or that” “[their Tai Chi Chaun] looked like Karate”,etc. LOL! So you are absolutely right in your contention. What was more disconcerting was the fact that they thought they could fool someone who savored not only Tai Chi Chaun but Karate (in the form of Tae Kwon Do)! Indeed the art forms are very different when you take the time to learn them.
    It is also refreshing to see that you recognize a distinction between many (though not all!) martial disciplines. For on previous occassions we’ve discussed this issue and you were of the opinion that it was the individual who had the ability to make an art form hard or soft. While I partly concurred w/ this position one has to be mindful that once you start tinkering w/ the principles & martial structure of a martial art you begin to transform that art form into
    something else entirely. Indeed your statement is apropo, “Don’t look like a Wing Chun guy trying to box.” lol,lol
    Paradoxically, however, there are many art forms that bear an uncanny resemblance to one another. Who can deny the uncanny resemblance of Shotokan and Shorin-ryu Karate (indeed they are really the same but politics & ego…)? For that matter Tae Kwon Do, Tang Soo Do, Karate (various forms), Kuntaw (of the IKF) are very similar and with a few modifications here and there one can go from one of these art forms to the other. Yet more than a few modifications is needed to go from these same art forms to say Aikido, Bagua, Tai Chi Chaun, Liu Eh Ba Fa, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu etc.
    Maestro once again you have written a thought provoking post. Martial Artists must not only be affirmed in the virtue of martial arts but must also be continually challenged to think and thus grow. Thank You once again. Peace

  2. This is an excellent piece. I agree fully with the idea of enjoying your cup first. One of my greatest frustrations is dealing with “partial artists” who go to a buffet.

    one individual liked to drop into my sessions every 3rd Saturday of the month because he did Wing Chun the first saturday, Jiu jitsu the second saturday and karate the fourth saturday. He’s only really come to a handful of classes, I treat them as beginners doing their second or third class and have them work on the same basics over and over.

    People like this usually never come back after their third or fourth month.

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