Tea with monastics: CC image credit Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhists

I’ve been bumping into a zen koan for several weeks:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served his visitor tea. He poured until his visitor’s cup was full, and then kept on pouring.

Watching the overflow, the professor could not restrain himself from exclaiming, “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

Nan-in stopped pouring and looked the professor in the eye. “Like this cup,” he said, “you are full. Full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen until you first empty your cup?” (shasekishuu, n.d.) 

Master’s level work can be confrontational and most times what I already think I know gets in my way.

For example, I was irked by what I perceived as a bias the first few times I read Bentz & Shapiro’s chapter on Cultures of Inquiry. Particularly the need to be “socialized into the values, norms and practices of the community of inquirers who work within that epistemology.” (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998. p. 85)

Whoa, I thought. Doesn’t socialized mean putting your thoughts in a group-think box?

Further into Bentz & Shapiro, quantitative methods were described in part as “cool, detached observation” that “seldom adequately captures what goes on in the human sciences” (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998. p. 85)  In advertising (my pre-instructional career), there’s a long history of using mixed-research methods. In my experience, the result is a richer source for interpretation. I initially read Bentz & Shapiro’s words as a bias towards qualitative research methods.

Turns out I was the professor with the overflowing tea-cup, needing to empty it of my bias for mixed methods. My own “knowledge” was interfering with my attempts to learn.

So, now a month into my immersion in the various epistemologies, I gratefully emptied my teacup, then reread the chapter from a more knowledgeable standpoint.

I was finally open to learning. I was able to recognize that the value of understanding the culture of the various epistemologies is the ability to think critically about the work. Now more familiar with the tensions between qualitative and quantitative methods in some of these cultures of inquiry, I understood why the authors were taking pains to explain the value of qualitative work.

The end result? I’m finally able to enjoy sipping from the tea of learning.

Thanks, Nan-in!


Bentz, V. M. and Shapiro, J. J., (1998). Mindful inquiry in social research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Image credit: culturalcorpsofkoreanbuddhism, 2008. Available under a creative commons license. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_Stay#/media/File:%EB%A7%88%EA%B3%A1%EC%82%AC2.jpg