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? …

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