Teachings on Emptiness and Fullness from Paul, a Zen Master from Ocean Parkway and Avenue P

When I was on my existential mystical quest in my mid 20s (and paying the bills with office temp work) I learned that there was a home-grown Zen master named Paul in my own backyard in Brooklyn.  He lived in one of those huge apartment buildings you pass going down to the ocean on Ocean Parkway — the kind that have ancient people in folding beach chairs in front schmoozing and playing chess or dominoes and reading newspapers in the language of their native countries and that have huge dark lobbies with a sweet dank cabbagey smell and peeling circulars from the 70s pinned on a very dimly lit announcement board.

I pulled the gate back on the elevator and walked to his corner apartment on the fourth floor.  He was an Italian American of medium height with heavy metal hair and a Kiss t-shirt.  He was not from a Zen lineage but had read some Suzuki before dropping out of high school and had achieved satori a couple of years later.  He looked to be in his mid-2os but could have been older — there was a bench press in the living room next to a poster of Boddhidharma and a zen cushion so he probably kept himself in shape.

“So what can I do for you?” he asked.

When you get time with a spiritual master it’s good, in my experience, to go right for the deep stuff, cause generally they’re so nice that if you ask them about their family they’ll tell you and ask you about yours and then you’ll exit the ride without any enlightenment.  So I took out my paper and asked him “I’m puzzled by the Dogen question.  Either I’m already enlightened in which case what should I be doing, or I’m not, but if I’m not how could I become enlightened?  I mean from a cosmic standpoint if reality is non-dual I’m already part of that non-dual reality.  But still I’m unhappy.  So…?”

“Do you want some tea?” he asked me.

“Sure.” I said.

He went to the kitchen (everything was pretty dirty — I remember that now.  It reminded me of a widowed grandpa’s apartment — maybe it had been) and took out a pitcher of iced tea and started pouring it into a plastic cup.  He kept pouring and it overflowed.

“I know this one.” I said.

“Sure.  You know that if your mind is so full of ideas the Zen master can’t give you any new ideas.  You even know that idea.”



“So I want you to empty my mind of ideas.”

He gave me an empty cup.  “Empty it out.”

“I can’t — it’s already empty.”

“Right.  You’ve got two cups.  One is empty and you want to empty it.  One is full and you want to add stuff to it.  What do you do?”

“I don’t know.  Pour from one into the other?”


“I don’t know.”

“Think about it.  You’ve got two yous — one of them is too full and one is too empty.  Make sure you put stuff in the right one and take stuff out of the right one.  Listen I gotta go but just think about that.”

“Wait” I said as he hustled me into the elevator.  “There’s also me, the person with the two cups.  So I have three “mes”?  Right?”

“What?  Oh sure.  Three.  Call me if you need anything.”

He was a good guy and a pretty good Zen Master.



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