The Four Vinegar Tasters: Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity

There is a famous Taoist painting called “The Vinegar Tasters”, showing together the three greatest prophets of Chinese philosophy:  Confucius, the Buddha, and Lao Tzu (the founder of Taoism).  Each of them is taking a taste from a great pot of vinegar.  Confucius tastes the vinegar and scowls; the Buddha tastes the vinegar and has no expression; Lao Tzu tastes the vinegar and smiles.

The painting is perhaps unfair to the Buddhists, for while Buddhism is sometimes characterized as cultivating a Spock-like lack of emotion, it actually encourages a lack of wrong attachments, i.e. attachments to inappropriate things and feelings; and once these attachments are dropped, what remains is not emotionlessness, but Nirvana, i.e. endless rapture.  This is why statues of the Buddha often show him smiling.  (The painting may be unfair to the Confucists, too, but I know very little about Confucianism.)

Nevertheless the Vinegar Tasters is a powerful painting, and it strongly makes the Taoist point that unpleasant experiences need not be avoided or expunged, but can be enjoyed as an integral part of the flow of the world.

What Would Jesus Taste?

I have often wondered what Jesus would be doing in this painting. Would he scowl in anger, as he did at the money-changers in his father’s temple?  Would he react with indifference, as when he callously said “You’ll always have the poor, you won’t always have me”?  Or would he smile, as when … hmmm…  did he ever smile? …

Or would he simply wave his hands and change the vinegar into wine?  (My girlfriend, with typical reverence, laughed and said, “You know that Jesus, always ready for a party.”)

I bet Jesus would do exactly that.  He often seems to take the easy way out — healing the sick, creating loaves and fish out of nothing, walking on water, bringing people back to life, and otherwise making the life of virtue look simple.  Frankly it would be a lot easier to follow Jesus’s example in this world if we also had his supernatural powers.

Quickening the Dead

Comparing the examples of Lazarus and Kisa Gotami is instructive in this regard.  In Lazarus’s story, his sister, Martha, asks Jesus to cure him, but Jesus arrives too late; Lazarus is dead.  Jesus grieves, but assures Martha that Lazarus will be resurrected.  Martha thinks Jesus is referring to the afterlife, and is, understandably enough, ticked off.  Then Jesus says “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”  Then Jesus brings Lazarus back to life.  Very kind of him, of course, but what does Lazarus and his family learn here?  Does this help them deal with death?  After all, eventually Lazarus will die again, and at that time Jesus won’t be around to help him.

In the story of Kisa Gotami, a grieving woman comes to the Buddha and begs him to bring her son back to life.  The Buddha agrees to do so; she simply needs to bring to him a mustard seed from a home in which no one has died.  She goes from house to house, looking for the seed, and in each home someone has died.  As she faces family after family, and hears each tale of death and loss, she finds herself oddly comforted, and realizes that death is an unavoidable part of life.  She goes back to the Buddha, now enlightened, and eventually founds a Buddhist convent.

Buddha 1, Jesus 0?  Well, it’s not that simple.

Metaphors of the Natural

First, as Ali pointed out to me, some Biblical scholars suggest that the Lazarus story isn’t so much about dealing with death as it is about Jesus’s willingness to sacrifice himself.  The revival of Lazarus is the last straw that causes Jesus’s enemies to decide that he would have to be killed.  Jesus knew that by saving Lazarus, he was effectively sacrificing himself; and thus, the revival of Lazarus is symbolic of Jesus dying for everyone’s sins.

But I think another interpretation is possible, too.  Jesus knew that Lazarus’s death was temporary, and Jesus’s own death would be temporary, and indeed all deaths are temporary:  death is nothing but a door between this life and the next.  By bringing Lazarus back to life, Jesus was doing nothing but demonstrating overtly a covert truth:  we all come back to life.  Similarly, when he turned water into wine, it could be viewed (as C. S. Lewis noted) as a supernatural demonstration of the natural process of water turning into wine through the cultivation of grapes.  The abundance of the loaves and fish would be a demonstration of the natural abundance of the Earth.

Jesus’s miracles, perhaps, were not supposed to be showpieces of his compassion and supernatural prowess (though that might have been the primary effects).  Instead, they may have been intended to reflect the compassion and natural prowess of the world itself.

So perhaps Jesus would turn the vinegar into wine for the same reason that Lao Tzu smiles when tasting it:  when the doors of perception are opened, the vinegar really is wine.

All well and good.  But now I can’t help wondering:  what would a pagan do?

15 responses to “The Four Vinegar Tasters: Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity”

  1. This pagan would probably try to make bread with it… 🙂

    Of the three original choices, I definitely resonate most strongly with the Taoist. Buddhism is all well and good, but I don’t actually *want* to achieve liberation at this time – I’m still too busy learning lessons from the world.


  2. How would a [devout, enlightened] pagan react to vinegar? What lessons does paganism have regarding death?

    Interesting question… What is the pagan outlook on life? Unfortunately, paganism is too broad of a religion to answer specifically… Even Wicca, a specific religion within the umbrella of paganism (just as Christianity is under the umbrella of Mosaic religions, also including Judaism and Islam) is too decentralized.

    If I visited an enlightened pagan, and asked for my wife to be brought back to life, how would they react?

    Personally, I think that they would take on the aspect of the Crone… We already have the answer from the Maiden: instant resurrection in the same body… We have the answer from the Mother: understand the grieving of others… Perhaps the Crone would guide the querent to understand death the “hard” way… by sending them to the afterlife to retrieve their spouse directly.

    In regards to the vinegar tasters… Jesus would return the vinegar to wine, while the Eastern philosophies/religions are already named… Showing that people can find life distasteful, overcome, accepted, changed… but there must be a fifth option… The Crone would use the vinegar, regardless of her personal taste… I could picture the Crone with a frying pan filled with hot oil, peeled and sliced potatoes, and an ample supply of salt, getting ready to make some salt and vinegar chips… To the witch, at least, life is an ingredient in something larger, and it is, most certainly, an acquired taste.

    How would an Apollo led druid react to a bowl full of vinegar, and what dealings would he have with death?


  3. Oh, this is a good one! I’m not tempted to try to answer that last question, for whatever reason. (Hm. Maybe because, as a Quaker, I want to sit silently with the query for a while!)

    But this is a good post. I am enjoying turning the kaleidoscope: Confucius, Lao Tsu, Buddha, Jesus… Turn, turn, turn the idea around.


  4. Adam–Brilliant! There are so many stories of heroes braving a journey into the Underworld in order to restore a loved one to life, I can certainly see that being the Pagan response.

    Actually, the more I think about it… the more it seems that even the story of Lazarus is a kind of journey into the Underworld, undertaken this time by (a) god himself. Perhaps not the Underworld of literal death, at least not right away, but more the “shadow” world of suffering, isolation and helplessness that is very much a part of this world that we all live in right now. The death of Lazarus, and the grieving doubts of Martha, is metaphorically a fore-shadowing of the god’s own journey through suffering, just as Lazarus’s restoration hints at the coming demonstration by deity itself that life continues. Isn’t this very similar to the Pagan conception of cycles of life and death, and the “hero’s journey” through suffering and exile to redeem not only those he loves but also himself?

    Set that in contrast with the Eastern views, all of which share a pretty straight-forward attitude towards the “vinegar.” Confucius, known for his focus on political and social concerns, takes the vinegar at face value, so to speak, but the two others see through this apparent reality to the “illusion” and respond with centered peacefulness or amusement. But there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of tension between the “illusion” of distaste and the “reality” of something else–you have one or the other, and the self is what responds. In the Western traditions–Christian or Pagan–the self goes on a journey of discovery, and has an active role in actually shaping and even changing death into life! That’s pretty fascinating, if you think about it. The self participates in the details of the world, not disengaging from them but also not swept away by their apparent static solidity.

    So perhaps Jesus would turn the vinegar to wine, not only to lay bare the natural processes of an abundant and amazing world, but also to manifest our own roles in how that world is created, shaped and sustained.


  5. I’m loving this post and all the comments!

    I tend to agree with Jeff regarding Jesus. It seems to me that his teachings are rather subtle in most regards, and I always find it strange to see anyone taking them at face value.


  6. LOL. I was think along the line so Adam – taking the vinegar and using to do good (provide a meal). Very interesting ideas.

    And as far as Jesus smiling – I think he just like us and did know how to have a good time. Just think of him with the children. Have you ever know a person who loves children to be out of humor? On the contrary you have to have a sense of humor (and smile) to enjoy the presence of child – otherwise they’ll annoy the crap out of you!


  7. I believe the point of the 3 tasters is being lost. The wine represents the world and all that is in it. The first man Confucius, is frowning. He see that the vinegar (the world) as bad. The second man Buddha, has no expression. He sees the vinegar as nothing. The 3rd man Lao Tsu, is smiling. He sees the world is what you make it to be. He thinks it is good vinegar. I guess in that case Jesus would be more like Lao Tzu, I believe he would think the vinegar is good as well. Lao Tsu was way ahead of his time because we have a saying these days along the same line, “Make the best of what you have”. Or, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade”.


  8. Jesus WAS offered vinegar (mixed with gall) during his crucifixion. By all indications, he didn’t derive much joy from the appertif.
    Considering his circumstances, can’t say as I blame Him.


  9. I’d like to correct this metaphor by suggesting that Jesus would be in the background suggesting that it was he who made the offering, after having just turned water into vinegar.


  10. Hmm, Buddhists and Taoists ARE pagans, so I guess it depends on what kind of pagan you are. (pagans are those who are not Christian, Muslim, or Jew.)


    1. Brett, by ‘pagan’ I meant my own religion: (neo)pagan. For an extensive discussion of the origin and current (evolving) meaning of the term, check out my other posts here:


  11. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to mention that I’ve really loved browsing your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing for your feed and I’m hoping you write once more very soon!


  12. 4AM insomnia and lying there, trying to remember the 3 men-pot of vinegar story, and it sort of reinvented itself the following way:
    A Christian monk, A Buddhist monk and a Taoist were to taste the vinegar. The Christian finds it bitter, spits it out and says, “This is because of my sins,, a reminder and punishment for them”. And he goes off top pray to God for forgiveness to end his suffering.
    The Buddhist takes a spoonful and grimaces, “So sour! This represents the suffering that all living creatures must endure”. And he goes off to meditate, to transcend and disassociate his identification with the suffering.
    The Taoist takes a spoonful, loudly smacks his lips and exclaims, “Whoa! That’s some good vinegar! Let’s make some hot and sour soup!”


  13. Q: Do you know the difference between a Buddhist and a Taoist?
    A: Buddhists meditate, and Taoists take naps. 🙂


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