Vinegar Tasters, how beliefs shape attitudes
When it comes to attitudes, people generally have different approaches to life. Some are cheerful, some optimistic, few are perennially pessimistic, others have a default complaining mode, some rational and others emotional.
The best way forward
You can’t claim one approach to be preferable over the other since many factors like culture, environment, and beliefs influence a person’s outlook on their life.
A perfect example to show how even the wisest men stand divided on figuring out the essence of life is depicted in the Chinese allegorical painting “Vinegar Tasters”.
Vinegar Tasters-The timeless meaning
Have a close look at the picture again.
We see three men standing around a vat of vinegar. Each has dipped his finger into the vinegar and tasted it. The expression on each man’s face shows his individual reaction.
Since the painting is allegorical, we are to understand that these are no ordinary vinegar tasters. They are representatives of the three major religious and philosophical teachings of China. The vinegar they are sampling represents the Essence of Life.
Decoding the expressions
The first one has a sour look on his face.
The second wears a bitter expression.
The third man is smiling.
Who is who and what they represent
First one with sour look is K’ung Fu-Tse (Confucius)
Second, wearing a bitter look represents Buddha.
The smiling face belongs to Laozi(of Taoism)
Why the sour look on Confucius
To Confucius, life seemed rather sour. He believed that the present was out of alignment with the past—mortal world not in harmony with the way of Heaven.
He emphasised for reverence for the ancestors as well as ancient rituals and ceremonies.
One of his sayings goes like, “If the mat were not straight, the Master would not sit.”
An advocate of such perfect harmony and alignment, but found the real world sour and in need of corrections.
Confucianism, being concerned with the outside world, viewed the vinegar as polluted wine.
Buddhism with its embittered perception
To Buddha, life on earth was bitter, filled with attachments and desires, leading to suffering. The world was seen as a setter of traps, illusion and pain. He believed that the bitterness of life could be corrected by understanding the true nature of self and relinquishing futile attachment and clinging.
To find peace, Buddhist considered it necessary to transcend the world of dust to reach Nirvana.
A realistic approach?
Another interpretation for Buddhism is that it reflects the fact as they are. Vinegar is vinegar and isn’t naturally sweet. Trying to make it sweet is ignoring what it is, pretending it is sweet is denying what is while being disturbed by sourness is equally harmful. It seems to be a much sensible and realistic interpretation.
Smiling Lao-tse and Taoist teachings
To Lao-tse, the harmony between earth and heaven existed naturally and could be found by anyone at any time. Every natural thing is intrinsically good as long as it remains true to its nature.
If the man interfered with the natural balance, the further away the harmony retreated. So only if one tried interfering or unappreciative of the natural ways of things, then only sourness and bitterness comes from life.
To Lao-tse, the world was not a setter of traps, but a teacher of valuable lessons.
To each his own
Followers of each religion and philosophical doctrines would uphold their values and views as the perfect method for living life. Ultimately it boils down to the person and what the person is searching for and what nourishes his soul. One man’s food may be another man’s poison.
Not a myopic but a broader understanding
Various manners in which the same experience is explained in the Vinegar tasters demonstrates multiple ways of approaching and evaluating life.
The theme in the painting has been interpreted as favouring Taoism and sceptical about the other two religion.
Navigating the journey of life
Life can be sour, bitter and sweet in succession or simultaneously. There is no single path in life that has a privileged claim to being right; there are no easy answers for any of us. All the life’s lessons that one has accumulated at various stages and from multiple sources may guide one through the maze of life.