Taoism and the Sweetness of Life

A classic subject in Chinese religious painting is called “The Vinegar Tasters.” It portrays the three founders of China’s major religious and philosophical traditions: Kung Fu-tse (kung FOOdsuh), who founded Confucianism; Siddhartha Gautama, who founded Buddhism; and Lao-tse (LAOdsuh), who founded Taoism. All three stand around a big vat full of vinegar. Kung Fu-tse dips his finger in, tastes it, and it’s sour. Siddhartha Gautama tastes it, and it’s bitter. Lao-tse tastes it, and it’s sweet.

Note the basic elements of the picture: the three figures gathered around the vat; the vat itself; and then the different reactions: bitter, sour, sweet. Lots of meaning here to unpack.

Take the three figures. The suggestion here is that, in China, what you have is a family of religions in constant interaction with each other. Historically, Confucianism is the elder brother and Taoism came second; between them you’ve always had this intense sibling rivalry. And then Buddhism entered into the picture, as an import from India, only to make the rivalry three-way.

Yet there’s also been active borrowing between them, too. Cross-pollination. Taoism in particular loves to absorb new influences and has never cared about things like correct doctrine and orthodoxy, and this is definitely something we Unitarian Universalists can appreciate. For example, the Taoist bible, called the Daozang, contains 1,400 texts, and it’s an open bible—constantly changing with new additions. Relationship, as well as rivalry, is happening around that shared vat of vinegar. When you talk about one religion in China, it’s hard not talking about the others as well.

But now, what about the vinegar itself? See it as nature. The natural way of things. And while Kung Fu-tse tastes sourness, Lao-tse tastes the exact opposite, sweetness. I would suggest that this way of relating the two–as opposites–is a subtle way of affirming how Confucianism and Taoism are indigenous to China and therefore share a common cultural heritage. This serves only to heighten their rivalry. But Buddhism is another matter entirely. As an import from India, its view of nature is shaped by aims and concepts that are foreign. Siddhartha Gautama tastes the vinegar and it’s bitter because he sees nature as fundamentally a process of endless living and dying and being reborn, all of it rooted in suffering. But this issue of life after death is irrelevant to classic Confucianism and Taoism. Classic Confucianism and Taoism don’t even believe in such a thing.

So we put Buddhism aside, not because it is unimportant, but because it distracts us from seeing very clearly the relationship between the two indigenous Chinese traditions. For one, nature tastes sour; for the other, nature tastes sweet.


Start with Kung Fu-tse.

He tastes sourness. Why? Because nature fails as a source of guidance for harmonious living. Says one historian, “By the time of Kung Fu-tse, the [ruling power of China] had been in power for more than a millennium. It now showed many cracks and its foundation was shaking. Feudal lords began to usurp power, setting up virtually independent states, and war was rampant. Autocratic rulers indulged in extravagant ceremonial feasts, displayed fine weapons, and tried to outdo each other in cunning and strategy, all at the expense of the people. […] A poet, echoing the real sentiment of the people, cried bitterly: ‘Large rats! Large rats! Don’t you eat our millet!’” This was Kung-fu-tse’s reality (and ours today—the large rats are still around, eating our millet—but that’s another sermon). Everything coming apart in Kung Fu-tse’s time. The harmonious way of life that previous eras had known, forgotten. So how to restore it? His answer was this: learn the arts of civilization, which include all sorts of social rituals.

At first, it will take sustained conscious effort and will feel mechanical, but the harder people work at it, the more the ritual behavior will lose any trace of awkwardness and become second nature, spontaneous, effortless. People will start dancing together again, as opposed to clashing. Learn the rituals, because your original nature doesn’t supply the pattern for harmonious living. Your original nature is a nothing, or a mass of contradictory impulses. Nothing helpful can be found there.

And to this, Lao-tse says, NO. Kung Fu-tse, you are wrong. You are recommending a solution that is just like the farmer who once grew frustrated with the progress of his crops and thought that he’d found the solution by pulling them up to a taller height. But all he succeeded in doing was exposing their roots to the heat of the sun, and it killed them. All the crops, killed. That’s what all your arts of civilization do to people. Make things worse, not better. Lao-tse makes his point more formally in the work that is traditionally ascribed to him, one of the most influential of all Taoist scriptures, the Tao Te Ching (DAO DEH JEENG):

When the great Way was forsaken,
there was humanness and righteousness;
When the six family relationships lacked harmony,
there were filial piety and parental kindness;
When the state and royal house were in disarray,
there were upright ministers.

This is a screed against Confucianism. It mentions humanness and righteousness, filial piety and parental kindness and upright ministers, and all are related to the specific social rituals that Kung Fu-tse said that people needed to learn in order to live well. But Lao-tse is saying that Kung Fu-tse, bless him, doesn’t know what he’s talking about. For nature tastes sweet; in nature is already a pattern for harmonious living; society is coming apart at the seams because people have forgotten this pattern, and it’s only going to make things worse by learning a bunch of social rituals, which amounts to a double-layer of forgetfulness. “Those who would take over the earth and shape it to their will,” says Lao-tse, “never, I notice, succeed.”

He’s not only talking about earth earth but also the earth of human relationships, the earth of the human mind and body and spirit. “The earth is like a vessel so sacred that at the mere approach of the profane it is marred.” That’s what Confucianism was, for him: profane. Anything that blocked awareness of nature’s pattern for harmonious living.

And already we are deep into our exploration of Taoism. Taoism In China exists in an interdependent web of relationships with Buddhism and Confucianism, and especially with Confucianism, it fights. But I don’t want to give the impression that it’s just a bundle of polemics and negativities. Not at all. For the rest of our time today, let’s take a look at its signal concept: the Tao. The sweetness that Lao-tse tastes.

It’s definitely a sweetness that Westerners in the twentieth century have tasted, fully or only in part. Through direct participation, for example, in some martial art tradition, like T’ai Chi, or Wing Chun.

Or practices which have been intertwined with Taoism throughout history, like Chinese astrology, Chinese traditional medicine, feng shui, and many styles of qigong breath training disciplines. Practice any of these, and Taoism to some extent is there.

Then there’s TV and movies. Remember the 1970s television series, Kung Fu? “Snatch the pebble from my hand, grasshopper…” Movies like The Karate Kid, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and then, of course, Star Wars. “Use the Force, Luke! Let Go!”

Google the phrase “Tao of…” and what pops up?

Tao of Pooh
Tao of Physics
Tao of Programming
Tao of Psychology
Tao of Watercolor
Tao of Jung
Tao of Dating
Tao of Leadership
Tao of Enron (apparently for the CEOs who didn’t get the point of the Tao of Leadership)

Westerners sense that in the Taoist concept of the Tao, there is something very sweet. And the core of it is well said by religious scholar Stephen Prothero: “For Daoists, flourishing is built into the nature of things. Like trees are made to grow, humans are made to flourish. But this is only possible if we live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the Tao.” Flourishing is what the Tao is all about. This is why Taoism is fundamentally a this-worldly religion which aims to increase energy and vitality in people, all to the end of a life well lived.

Consider the first of three meanings of the Tao. Tao as the mysterious, mystical source of all. “In the beginning,” says Stephen Prothero, “was the Tao, which is changeless, formless, and indivisible, but also generative, transforming, and fertile—the mother of all that is to come. Out of this primordial unity comes qi, the life force present in all matter, human and otherwise. This vital energy then gives birth to yin/yang, which gives birth to the three realms of Heaven, Human, and Earth, the Five Phases of water, metal, fire, wood, and earth, and the ten thousand things, which is to say everything else. Everything, including human beings, is made of qi in some combination of yin and yang.” That’s Stephen Prothero. Among other things here, notice how the Tao as source of all is completely mysterious. It is a both/and sort of thing. Changeless but transforming. Indivisible but fertile. To conventional minds, these can’t seem to happen at the same time, but Taoists warn that if we are stuck in rigid conceptual boxes, then we will miss out on what’s happening all around us. We’ll lose track of the Tao, which is not just an origin but an ever-present reality. Transcendent and immanent. Perfection and potential.

All very mysterious—and perhaps that’s why Kung Fu-tse couldn’t see it and therefore tasted sourness. Says Lao-tse, “Those of old who were adept in the Tao were subtly profound and mysteriously perceptive…” For myself, an analogy with “Magic Eye” stereographs helps to understand. Know what I’m referring to?

They are pictures which seem to be just blobs of color, no rhyme or reason at all. But there’s a hidden design waiting to be found. The instructions read, “Hold the image so that it touches your nose. Let the eyes relax, and stare vacantly off into space, as if looking through the image. Relax and become comfortable with the idea of observing the image, without looking at it. When you are relaxed and not crossing your eyes, move the page slowly away from your face. Perhaps an inch every two or three seconds. Keep looking through the image. Stop at a comfortable reading distance and keep staring. The most discipline is needed when something starts to ‘come in,’ because at that moment you’ll instinctively try to look at the page rather than looking through it. If you look at it, start again.” That’s the instructions. Very apt in describing what it’s like to perceive Tao. Definitely involves a lot of unlearning, for society conditions us to see only by staring, and to understand only by naming and counting. Taoism says, unlearn all this, or better yet, expand how you see and how you understand, and then you’ll taste the sweetness in life. Be like the masters of old that Lao-tse talks about. What you end up doing might look as funny as putting the Magic Eye image to your nose, then slowly drawing back, but that’s the way of nature. It’s what will put you into harmony with life.

That’s one meaning of the Tao: mysterious source of all. The next two have to do with how it is both the way the world works and the way of true human fulfillment. Consider these quotes from the Tao Te Ching:

“Reversal is the movement of the Tao;
Weakness is the usage of the Tao.”


“Nothing under heaven is softer or weaker than water,
and yet nothing is better
for attacking what is hard and strong…”


“Thirty spokes converge on a single hub,
but it is in the space where there is nothing
that the usefulness of the cart lies.
Clay is molded to make a pot,
but it is in the space where there is nothing
that the usefulness of the clay pot lies.
Cut out doors and windows to make a room,
but it is in the spaces where there is nothing
that the usefulness of the room lies.”

Paradoxical, all of it—but it’s the way the world works. The world is an interplay of opposites which complement each other—that’s what yin and yang symbolize.

Day and night, good and evil, strong and weak—you can’t have one without each other, and at their extremes they even turn into each other, so that when night gets darkest, day is right around the corner; the harder we try to be pure and good, the harder we fall; too much strength, and the seeds of weakness are planted.

From this essential insight about the way the world works comes guidance about the way of true human fulfillment. Taoism says, find the flow of life, and go with it. You might have to work as hard as a Confucian to get there, but the work is not about learning something new. It’s about unlearning years and years of conditioning. Unlearning all the ways we treat others and ourselves like the farmer in our story from today, pulling others up and pulling ourselves up until their and our roots are exposed to the hot sun, and we start to shrivel up. It can be hard to unlearn. But Taoism says do it, stop being an obstacle to yourself, open yourself to the flow of life which will move you towards your fulfillment and joy if you let it. Life is on your side! Just like Yoda says, “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” Make the natural flow of opposites in life work to your advantage. Cling to the weak so that you are ever growing stronger. Be soft and weak like water, and in the same way that water eventually wears away stone, you can conquer all. Be like the nothingness within a clay pot, and you can hold everything. Bend like the willow, and you can never be broken. “Yield and overcome; bend and be straight.”

There is a natural flow of opposites in life, and the Tao Te Ching’s council is to ride the flow in a direction that benefits you. On the other hand, it says,

“He who stands on tiptoe doesn’t stand firm.
He who rushes ahead doesn’t go far.
He who tries to shine dims his own light.”

In other words, you can ride the flow in a direction that’s not helpful. Go for a position of strength straight out of the box and in nature there is no recourse but for you to grow weaker. Cling to the strong, and you are always growing weaker. Perfectionism breeds imperfection. “Stiff and unbending,” says the Tao Te Ching, “is the principle of death.”

Taoism says a lot of cool things but this is what is most relevant to the creative life. This strategy of clinging to the weak so we are always growing stronger and we are on the side of life. Side with life, for life sides with us.

Lao-tse dips a cup into the vinegar vat, holds it out to all of us today, says taste.

Life is sweet.



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