Category — the Way
Within the opening paragraph of The Tao of Pooh is the story of The Vinegar Tasters.
“We see three men standing around a vat of vinegar. Each has dipped a finger into the vinegar and tasted it. The expression on each man’s face shows his individual reaction. Since the painting is allegorical, we understand that these are no ordinary vinegar tasters. They are representatives of the “Three Teachings” of China. The vinegar they are sampling represents the Essence of Life. The three masters are K’ung Fu-tse (Confucius), Buddha, and Lao-tse, author of the oldest existing book of Taoism. The first has a sour look on his face. The second wears a bitter expression. The third man is smiling.
To K’ung Fu-tse and the Confucianists life is sour. They believe that the present is out of step with the past, and that the government of man on earth is out of harmony with the Way of Heaven, the government of the universe. Therefore, they emphasize reverence for the Ancestors, as well as for the ancient rituals and ceremonies in which the emperor, as the Son of Heaven, acts as intermediary between limitless heaven and limited earth. Under Confucianism, the use of precisely measured court music, prescribed steps, actions and phrases all add up to an extremely complex system of rituals, each used for a particular purpose at a particular time. A saying was recorded about K’ung Fu-tse: “If the mat was not straight, the Master would not sit.”
To Buddha, the second figure in the painting, life on earth is bitter, filled with attachments and desires that lead to suffering. Through Buddhism, the whole world is seen as a setter of traps, a generator of illusions, a revolving wheel of pain for all creatures. In order to find peace, the Buddhist consider it necessary to transcend “the world of dust” and reach Nirvana, a state of “no wind.” Although the essentially optimistic attitude of the Chinese altered Buddhism considerably after it was brought in from native India, devout Buddhist often see the way to Nirvana interrupted all the same by the bitter wind of everyday existence.
To Lao-tse, the harmony that naturally exists between heaven and earth from the very beginning can be found by anyone at anytime, but not by following the rules of the Confucianists. As he states in the Tao Te Ching, the “Tao Virtue Book,” earth is in essence a reflection of heaven, run by the same laws—not by the laws of men. These laws affect not only the spinning of distant planets, but also the activities of the birds of the forest and the fish in the sea. According to Lao-tse, the more men interfer with the natural balance produced and governed by the natural laws, the further away the harmony retreats into the distance. The more forcing, the more trouble. Whether heavy or light, wet or dry, fast or slow, everything has its own nature already within it, which can not be violated without causing difficulties. When abstract and arbitrary rules are imposed from the outside, struggle is inevitable. Only then does life become sour.
To Taoists, the world is not a setter of traps. It is a teacher of valuable lessons. Its lessons must be learned, just as its laws must be followed; then all will go well. Rather than turn away from “the world of dust,” we encourage y’all to “join the dust and dirt of the world.” What we see operating behind everything in heaven and earth we call the Tao, ”the Way.” A basic principle of Lao-tse’s teaching is that the Way of the Universe can not be adequately described in words, and it is insulting both to its unlimited power and to the intelligent human mind to attempt to do so. Still, its nature can be understood, and those who care for it, and the life from which it is inseparable, understand it best.
Over the centuries Lao-tse’s classic teachings have been developed and divided into philosophical, monastic, and folk religious forms. All of these are included under the general heading of Taoism. The basic Taoism that we are working with here is simply the way of appreciating, learning from and understanding everything that happens in everyday life.
From the Taoist perspective, the natural result of this harmonious way of living is happiness. Happy serenity is the most noticeable characteristic of the Taoist personality, and a subtle sense of humor is apparent in the most profound Taoist writings, such as the twenty-five-hundred-year-old Tao Te Ching. In the writing’s of Taoism’s second major writer, Chuang-tse, quiet laughter bubbles up like water in a fountain.
“But what does that have to do with vinegar?”asked Pooh.
“I thought I had explained that,” I said.
“I don’t think, so,” said Pooh.
“Well, then, I’ll explain it now.”
“That’s good,” said Pooh.
In the painting, why is Lao-tse smiling?
Through working in harmony with life’s circumstances, Taoist understanding changes what others perceive as negative into something positive. From the Taoist point of view, sourness and bitterness come 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.”
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October 16, 2010 4 Comments