The Vinegar Tasters is a common theme in religious artwork of China which depicts three great thought leaders, Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tzu. These men of course represent three differing philosophies, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.
The gist of the image is that each of the men sticks a finger in a ceramic vat of vinegar and takes a taste. Confucius declares it “sour,” while Buddha finds it “bitter.” The scowls on their faces express these perceptions. But Lao Tzu, always the laughing Taoist, declared the vinegar “sweet.”
The image is a reminder to the viewer how the three philosophies differ. It serves as an important challenge for us to decide what we want to conclude as we take our taste of the world.
“If the mat was not straight, the master would not sit.”
Confucianism is a formal way of looking at how to engage in society. Those who follow this viewpoint believe all the old ways are better than the newfangled ideas of today. Moreover, it is important to learn proper protocol and follow it to the letter. In short, be a sourpuss and follow the rules.
It has been said that Confucianism is an appropriate system to follow when one is young and engaged in society. As one ages and has a foundation of their own wisdom to draw from, societal niceties and social graces can be cast aside in favor of a more authentic existence that contemplates larger issues than the placement of a sitting mat.
“The root of suffering is attachment.”
Buddhism has over a billion adherents in modern times, which makes you wonder if they all find life as bitter as the Buddha found this vinegar. A major concept of Buddhism states that we suffer greatly because of our attachment. We are attached to material possessions, to our jobs, to family members — but most of all we are attached to our ego and perception of ourselves.
Because loss is a normal part of life, we invariably suffer due to this attachment. We should ideally transcend all attachment to avoid unnecessary suffering, or we will find the vinegar, and our lives, to be bitter. Of course, this is easier said than done.
“Be content with what you have. Rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
Taoism is a philosophy that finds no fault in the way things are. Vinegar is (philosophically) sweet to a Taoist because it tastes exactly the way it is supposed to.
While the Confucianist is angry that vinegar is sour on his tongue instead of sweet and pleasant, and the Buddhist sighs at yet more suffering from this bitter vinegar, the Taoist contemplates using the vinegar to marinade meat and have a cookout in the garden with friends. And therefore he smiles.
Once you understand the meaning of the image, you realize each of the men tasted the same vinegar, yet came to different conclusions because of their personal philosophy. From this, you can decide how you want to taste the world. Will you find it sour, bitter or pleasantly sweet?