The Vinegar Tasters … is a traditional subject in Chinese religious painting. The allegorical composition depicts the three founders of China’s major religious and philosophical traditions: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. The theme in the painting has been interpreted as favoring Taoism and critical of the others.
The three men are dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it; one man reacts with a sour expression, one reacts with a bitter expression, and one reacts with a sweet expression. The three men are Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, respectively. Each man’s expression represents the predominant attitude of his religion: Confucianism saw life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people; Buddhism saw life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering; and Taoism saw life as fundamentally good in its natural state. Another interpretation of the painting is that, since the three men are gathered around one vat of vinegar, “the three teachings are one”.
Being born in the United States of America during the middle of the 20th century and of mixed European decent, the odds of being born into a Christian family were on my side. I was not disappointed.
The forces of change operating during that era culminated in the Flower Power movement, general struggles for equality, our defeat in Vietnam, rising drug use, and finally the first Arab oil embargo. This forced a general reassessment of our core beliefs.
As an avid reader and a lover of intelligent conversation, it was easy for me to raise my level of awareness to include broader belief systems. Today, I’m comfortable with any religion that remains tolerant. Though still rooted in my Christian upbringing, I have developed a bias towards Asian beliefs in their simpler forms.
There are times and events that make me want to demand order in human affairs that Confucius might appreciate, if he could tolerate egalitarianism and a flatter hierarchy. In my worst moments, I feel the bitterness Lord Buddha speaks of.
Lao Tzu (Laozi) and the Tao Te Jing became my favorite points of entry into this new world. So for me, life is largely sweet just as it should be. In fact, as I continue to observe life unfolding around me, it would not be surprising to find that not only is life as it should be – it is as it must be.
I’ll write of my love for Zen another time.
Chill Out, Everyone. We’re doing just fine.
– Jeffrey A. Limpert
The Vinegar Tasters