“The Vinegar Tasters” has been a popular subject for Chinese art from hundreds of years ago to the present day. It depicts the three giants of Chinese thought and religion; Confucius, the Buddha and Lao Tzu, standing around a vat of vinegar tasting its contents. Each of their reactions to the taste reflects the views of each school of thought. The expression of Confucius is sour. The face of the Buddha shows bitterness. Lao Tzu wears a sweet smile. I see the vinegar as representing the outside world and the way in which each sage receives it alludes to the world view of each.
Confucianism is built upon laws governing social order. The aim of Confucius was very terrestrial compared to the other two. He sought to find the ideal ruler that could restore harmony to the dysfunctional culture he saw. A successful society as he saw it was built upon everyone fulfilling their role and following the rules regarding laws, familial piety, ancestor worship and social interactions. Confucianism is a reactionary school at root because it yearns for those “good old days” when "folks were decent." The world he saw was filled with chaos and disorder and he wanted to impose these rules on every aspect of people’s lives to keep them in line. Therefore, Confucius tastes the vinegar and tastes the sour because he lives for this golden past and the present world does not live up to his ideal. Thus, the vinegar and the outside world in general, are unacceptable and crude, and thus cannot be accepted by Confucius.
The Buddha Siddhartha Gautama never set foot in China. He was born, did his work, and lived his whole life in India. However, the introduction of his religion into the Middle Kingdom altered Chinese culture forever. Buddhism states that suffering is inherent in life as long as we chase desire. Only by giving up the objects of desire, and the desire itself, can one be free. Since these objects of affection are usually of worldly appeal; possessions, men or women depending on your preference, family and friends, the outside world is seen by Buddhists as an unreal collection of phantoms and demons who only want us to suffer and distract us from our true Buddha Nature. Forming attachments to these temporary phenomenon is what causes desire, and in turn, suffering. And so, when the Buddha tastes the vinegar all he tastes is the bitterness of the inherent suffering of all mankind. The outside world offers no solace to Siddhartha. The only respite from the suffering caused by the world is “nirvana,” literally the “blowing out” of all desire and want.
It is interesting that Confucianism is concerned with only worldly affairs and Buddhism worried only about personal spiritual matters, but both have a negative reaction to the vinegar. I think this is because both deny some part of reality. Confucianism refuses to recognize change in the world and when they look at the world they can only pine for the great days past that probably never existed. Buddhism denies that any truth can be gleamed from the outside world. They deny that the largest part of people’s lives as being anything of value. The man who remains in the outside world will continue to participate in the endless cycles of attachment and suffering and be reborn on Earth again and again until he eventually must become enlightened.
Lao Tzu, the traditional founder of Taoism, is the only one who reacts in a positive way. He quaffs the vinegar and smiles. The Tao is the spiritual source in Taoism. It is the universal laws that govern everything and the all pervasive energy that accompanies them. Taoists believe that you can understand the Tao as it works through nature, and then try to apply lessons from natural phenomenon to your own life so as to be more centered in the Tao.
One of the most common metaphors for the Tao is water. Water’s behavior and properties embody the virtues of the Tao quite nicely. Water seeks the lowest, most humble places. Water can be a destructive rushing torrent or a fine mist or gentle wave. Water goes around things gradually wearing them down rather than directly confront anything with force. The example of Taoist’s reverence for water shows the extent that they derive meaning from and worship natural phenomenon.
Taoism is all-inclusive where Buddhism and Confucianism exclude. It is concerned with better managing both worldly and spiritual affairs. It is the balance between two extremes. This balance of respecting and valuing the mundane and transcendent explains why the influence of Taoism has inspired Chinese cuisine, kung fu and tai chi, Chinese medicine, Feng Shui, sexual arts and even the search for eternal life. The broad way that it has applied and adapted to diverse fields shows how Taoism includes all things into its spirit. Nothing can be ignored. If we ignore something, we ignore a part of our self.
The Tao will seek any route to reach its goal. That is the secret of Lao Tzu’s smile. The world around us is filled with chaos and suffering, but full of beauty as well. We cannot deny our relationship to the world around us is part of our existence and ignoring it won’t change that basic fact. Lao Tzu tells us that it is ok to enjoy the gifts nature has given us, but still warns of the double edged sword of dependence upon them as well. Lao, like Confucius, speaks of an ideal leader who embodies these virtues, but Lao Tzu makes no distinctions in class or rank and his words can be taken by any person who wants to become the emperor of their own lives. Lao Tzu’s philosophy is about balance, yielding and acceptance. Fighting or denying those things that don’t agree with your theory does not remove them. Adapting and always smiling at what the universe gives you despite the taste is the way of the Tao.