The Vinegar Tasters

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Who were The Vinegar Tasters?

Lao Tzu, Confucius and Buddha. Chinese philosophy and culture stems from a blending of these three traditions.

The Vinegar Tasters

In the painting we see the three men standing around a vat of vinegar. Each has dipped his finger into the vinegar and tasted of it. The expression on each man's face shows his individual reaction.

Three teachings

The painting is intended to be allegorical and each of the three men represent one of the three teachings of China. The vinegar they are tasting represents the essence of life.
The first man has a sour look on his face, the second wears a bitter expression, but the third man is smiling.


To Confucius, life seemed rather sour. He believed that the present was out of step with the past and that the world would be a much better place if there were strict rules.
Confucius emphasized a strict order which ruled the affairs of all in his land. Anything that did not fit into the established order was considered bad.


The second figure in the painting - Buddha - considered life on earth to be bitter.
He saw this world to be filled with attachments and desires that led to suffering; a setter of traps, a generator of illusions and a revolving wheel of endless pain.
In order to find peace, Buddha maintained that it was necessary to transcend this world. The Buddhist sees the path to happiness constantly being interrupted by the bitterness of this world.

Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu is the third man in the painting. According to Lao Tzu, the world was governed by the laws of nature, not by those of men.
He maintained that the more man interfered with the natural order of things, the more out of balance the world became. As things became unbalanced, trouble followed.


Lao Tzu is smiling because sourness and bitterness comes 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.


Huanchu Daoren's book Back to Beginnings illustrates how ancient Chinese thought was often a synthesis of these three teachings. Any situation can be regarded from three points of view.
Like Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats?

  1. Confucius seeks to determine and apply the rule, the law, the convention

  2. Buddha considers how your thoughts and emotions affect how you see the situation

  3. Lao Tzu examines balance and equity; recognising that human law and natural order are not necessarily congruent

3 hats

Consider: Someone fails to adhere to the rules...

The Confucian point of view notices this and is aware of the correct method.
The Buddhist perspective recognises that how you react to the incident will produce certain emotions; potentially harming you more than the offender.
The Taoist understands that whilst rules exist, people do tend to treat them flexibly and evaluates a course of action with this in mind.
The resultant action is ultimately a synthesis of these three approaches to thinking.

Modes of thinking

Once, people thought in terms of magic and superstition. This was later replaced by religion and then eventually science. Yet, this model of progression is simplistic.
Taoism and other ways of thinking existed alongside superstition, religion and science. These alternate modes of thinking were often based on loss of self/ego. Not implicating oneself in everything.

Beyond ego

Scientific thinking has its merits; especially when people talk about qi (superstitious thinking). However, we don't need to know or understand in order for something to work.
Just avoid jumping to conclusions? Not knowing is fine. If you can discover the answers, then do so. If not, be okay with that. Ground your thinking in what is, not in what you already know.

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Page created 1 June 1996
Last updated 04 May 2023