• James S.

Bitter, Sour, and Sweet

In my past efforts to escape pain, I found myself drawn away from the cultures and beliefs of my family and culture of origin. I was feeling, and still feel sometimes, so much pain that I couldn’t look back anymore. My old comforts were infected, diseased by the same past. I’ve since learned to notice the flowers that grew in that swampland, but when I first started I needed something, ANYTHING to help not fall back in. I love my past, jagged though it is, but I feel a special love for those books, people, and pieces of art that brought me joy when I needed it most. One of those gifts was the old (ancient?) painting called “The Vinegar Tasters”.

Most people study it in high school or eight grade, and I stumbled across it again by accident. I haven’t been able to find out who painted it, but it depicts the three giants of Eastern thought: Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, all sampling a single tub of vinegar. If you look closely you can see that, after tasting the vinegar, one man has a sour expression on his face, the second has a bitter expression, and the third is smiling. All three react differently to the vinegar, which represents life itself.

Confucius saw the pain of an unordered world and sought to bring order to chaos. To him the taste of life was sour, spoiled with humanity gone wrong. He established a rigid set of practices to ensure people treated one another with respect and which created a harmonious society. Though I admit I never really possessed a love of following the rules, Confucius has been proven correct. If history teaches us anything, it’s that people can be corruptible and cruel. Like James Madison centuries later, Confucius sought (and succeeded) in making a system which held people accountable, creating the greatest happiness for everyone.

Next is the Buddha, who tastes the vinegar with a bitter expression. Buddhism, either as a religion or a secular philosophy, understands that life is full of suffering. All things are impermanent. Everything ends. The Buddha understood that to escape suffering one must comprehend the world as already broken. In effect, he taught his followers to let go of perfection, to accept what is, and embrace the inevitability of pain. Only in rejecting fantasy do people find truth, and only in truth does one find real, lasting love and peace.

Finally there is Laozi, who tastes the vinegar and finds it sweet. It is unknown if Laozi was a single man or a number of ancient philosophers who created a single system of beliefs and practices, but it is known that he (or she) discovered the greatest joy in simplicity and silence. Their movement, still occurring today and called Taoism, embraces a philosophy of moving through life like water, living fully in the present moment. It is a way and religion of noticing. Of looking closely at oneself and the world and seeing, despite all the noise, the eternal beauty and value that is present.

So we return to the painting. Some interpret it as being in favor of Laozi and Taoism, but I personally disagree. Just because Laozi is happy doesn’t mean he’s correct. What I love about this painting is that all three men are right.

If life is tasting vinegar (if I was the painter I might have picked ice cream or whiskey but hey, to each his own), there is no right or wrong way to taste it. Sometimes it will be as sweet as honey, shining as you notice the beauty in yourself and others. Sometimes it’s as bitter as black coffee. People break arms, heads, and hearts, and I know there have been many times in my life when it’s seemed like the bitterness would never end. And finally, people will sour and disappoint you, hurt you even.

In this life pain is inevitable, it cannot ever be truly escaped. And yet…there is joy. Passion. Beauty. Love. All so piercing it makes your heart break for the joy and desire of it. All these come from the same place. They are all real, they all matter.

And that is the message I find in the painting:


Each philosopher, in his own way, came to the same conclusions:

1. Life requires stillness to find joy and peace.

2. People everywhere are in pain, so be kind.

It all matters. All experience. All pain and joy and sorrow and love. We are all unique and of infinite worth, but we a