The Vinegar Tasters is a traditional subject in Chinese religious and philosophical painting. The concept of the painting depicts the three founders of China’s three major religious and philosophical traditions: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. The painting engulfs a huge amount of wisdom and knowledge, and an interesting allegory.
We see the Buddha, Confucius, and Laozi standing around a vat full of vinegar, each one of the three masters dip their finger and take a taste of the vinegar. The expression on each man’s face shows his individual reaction, with each man representing a philosophical and religious teaching, the vinegar representing the “essence of life, and the reaction represent each teaching’s overview towards life and its essence. The Buddha is depicted having a bitter look on his face, Confucius with a sour expression, but we find Laozi wearing a smile of satisfaction.
Buddhism, as it is practiced today, was heavily influenced and shaped by Siddhartha Gautama, who lived a very sheltered and extravagant life growing up. As he neared his thirties it is said that he became aware of all the ugliness in the world, and this prompted him to leave his home in search of enlightenment, achieving it when he was thirty-five years old. Several interpretations grew out of the Buddha’s reaction to the taste of the vinegar; one interpretation is that Buddhism, being concerned with the self, viewed the vinegar as a polluter of the body due to its extreme and intense flavor. Another interpretation for the reaction, and the one I personally favor, is that Buddhism reports the life as it is, in which vinegar is vinegar and isn’t naturally sweet on the tongue, rather it acquires an extreme bitter taste. Trying to represent vinegar, which is a metaphor here for the essence of life, as sweet is ignoring and denying what it truly is.
Confucius saw life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people and believed that the present was out of step of the past and that the government had no understanding of the way of the universe, in which the right response would be the reverence of the ancestors and their tradition. Confucius, being concerned with the outside world, viewed the vinegar as “polluted wine”.
Now we come to Laozi’s smile, and satisfactory look, with an excerpt from ‘The Tao of Pooh’ a book by Benjamin Hoff:
To Laozi, the harmony that naturally existed between heaven and earth from the very beginning could be found by anyone at any time, but not by following the rules of the Confucianists. As he stated in his Tao Te Ching, the “Tao Virtue Book,” earth was in essence a reflection of heaven, run by the same laws — not by the laws of men. These laws affected not only the spinning of distant planets, but the activities of the birds in the forest and the fish in the sea. According to Laozi, the more man interfered with the natural balance produced and governed by the universal laws, the further away the harmony retreated into the distance. The more forcing, the more trouble. Whether heavy or light, wet or dry, fast or slow, everything had its own nature already within it, which could not be violated without causing difficulties. When abstract and arbitrary rules were imposed from the outside, struggle was inevitable. Only then did life become sour.
To Laozi, the world was not a setter of traps but a teacher of valuable lessons. Its lessons needed to be learned, just as its laws needed to be followed; then all would go well. Rather than turn away from “the world of dust,” Laozi advised others to “join the dust of the world.” What he saw operating behind everything in heaven and earth he called Tao, “the Way.”
A basic principle of Laozi’s teaching was that this Way of the Universe could not be adequately described in words, and that it would be insulting both to its unlimited power and to the intelligent human mind to attempt to do so. Still, its nature could be understood, and those who cared the most about it, and the life from which it was inseparable, understood it best.
In The Vinegar Tasters, Laozi is found smiling, why? Well, as we’ve said before the vinegar found in the allegory represents life, and certainly in reality, must certainly have an unpleasant taste, as the expressions on the faces of the other two men indicate. Yet, living in harmony and accordance with life and the Tao, this understanding transforms what others may perceive as negative into something positive. “From the Taoist point of view, argues Benjamin Hoff, sourness and bitterness come from the interfering and unappreciative mind. Life itself, when understood and utilized for what it is, is sweet. That is the message of The Vinegar Tasters.”
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