The Vinegar Tasters

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Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.”

Within the last month I have experienced quite a few profound losses. I lost a human friend as well as two of my pets to death all in a month. All very shockingly and very unexpectedly. 

It’s seriously like the worst emotional pain imaginable. The deepest kind of sadness. 

 Then I lost my job, unexpectedly, because the owner is selling the business(i knew it was happening but not so soon). I don’t have much work experience other than years at a store and some work in college I did as a peer educator so it’s not easy finding another job. Not because I wouldn’t be good at it but the employers are wary of taking on employees without experience for whatever the job is. I don’t have much experience for exactly what I want to do but I am very confident I will do a great job and I’m also quite confident someone out there somewhere will give me a chance one of these days! 😀

Then I lost my Temple University system account (e-mail and things) because someone hacked it or tried and it showed suspicious activity so the University suspended my account and since I cannot yet pay back the student loan, they can refuse to talk to me when I call Monday and not restore my account. I use my account for everything even though I’m no longer a current student there. 

Then the media card in my phone broke (it keeps working then not working because my phone itself is too full of files and stuff which I need wifi to transfer it all to a computer, which I will do when I get wifi) and I lost all my pictures and all my songs and everything else on the media card. I think it’s all still there, just can’t be accessed yet. This is very trivial next to the deaths of my friend, Diane, and my pets, Dylan &Lizz , but it is very distressing, especially on top of the other losses.

A few days ago while getting a shower and experiencing raw grief over the losses of my friends(human and animal), it doesn’t go away but the severity and rawness fluctuates – acceptance to seemingly unbearable, back and forth, I began thinking more about the seasons of life and how pain and loss are inevitable. Whether it’s a very tragic, devastating, senseless, unexpected loss or a natural but still devastating loss to old age or a loss of a job or place to live or something, these are all stages and phases and seasons of living and we can learn to accept them. Acceptance doesn’t mean not experiencing pain or not trying to make things better. It doesn’t mean not speaking up against something we disagree with, not taking action. It just means acknowledging that painful things are part of being alive, whether they are fair, unfair, unjust, happen to most people or are rare…., and working along with these painful circumstances and seasons of life. Not denying them, not wishing them away, they won’t go away. Just soaking up every horrible emotion and also the beauty that comes along with it. Using it to our advantage, to strengthen us and our empathy for others, to deepen our wisdom. And knowing we can be happy and filled with joy along with the grief and any other pain. 

Grief and missing someone and happiness in life can reach a point where they are not mutually exclusive. We can feel both, grief/sense of loss & happiness/joy. It’s the same with physical pain and happiness and even with having a depressive disorder. We can have struggles with these and other things but ultimately be happy. 

The more I ponder this, the more I see the beauty in it and accept it. 

“More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning; I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness, and affability? And as time requireth a man of marvellous mirth and pastimes; and sometimes of as sad gravity: a man for a seasons.” ~ Robert Whittinton

I’m reading a book called “The Tao of Pooh” written by a man who finds deep and ancient wisdom threaded throughout the Winnie the Pooh series, Benjamin Hoff. I had this book for a while but never read it yet and coincidentally, I picked it up to read at 4:00 in the morning, not completely sure what it’s about, and I realize it’s about just what I was thinking about during and after the shower that day, accepting and working along with, and even cherishing, all of life, painful and happy, good and bad, joyful and sorrowful. How comforting! How beautiful and inspiring.

In the book, the author tells a little story of “the vinegar tasters.” A painting of three men, said to be Confucius, the Buddha, and Lao-tse, the author of the oldest existing book of Taoism.
These three masters are standing around a vat of vinegar. Each man has dipped his finger into the vinegar and tasted it. Each man’s reaction to the taste is different and each of their faces displays a different expression. 

Confucius has a sour look on his face. The Buddha has a bitter expression. And Lao-tse is smiling.

This painting is not to be taken literally but allegorically. Each man is a representation of “The Three Teachings” of China and the vinegar they are tasting represents the Essence of Life.

So the painting is an allegory for our reactions to life. Confucius, in the painting, views life as sour. He believes that the present is not properly aligned 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. He has a thing for long ago and reveres the Ancestors and ancient rituals and ceremonies in which the emperor, or Son of Heaven, acts as an intermediary for limitless Heaven & limitless Earth.   

The use of precisely measured court music, prescribed steps, actions, and phrases all add up to an incredibly complex system of rituals, under Confucianism. Each ritual is used on a certain occasion for a specific purpose. A quote to convey the gist of this concept is “If the mat was not straight, the Master would not sit.” This shows the extent and rigidity, and a kind of perfectionism, of the ideas and rituals of the school of thought of Confucianism.

As for Buddha, the second man in the painting, life on Earth is bitter. It’s filled with attachments, illusions, and desires that lead to suffering. To him, in the painting, the world is seen as inherently full of traps, a generator of illusions – a revolving wheel of pain for all sentient beings. According to this Buddha in the painting, we must overcome “the world of dust” to obtain inner peace and reach Nirvana (complete liberation, zero suffering), which translates literally to “no wind.”  We must eliminate all the unpleasantness in life, all our struggles, to be truly happy. 

The author explains how the optimistic attitude of the Chinese altered Buddhism, making it more positive, after it extended to China(it originated in India). But the devout Buddhist often viewed the “bitter wind of everyday existence” as an interruption to the process of reaching Nirvana.

To the last man in the painting, Lao-tse, the one pleasantly smiling, there is Heaven on Earth. The harmony that naturally exists between Heaven & Earth and has always existed can be found by anyone at all in almost any circumstances, during any occasion, as long as the strict rules of Confucianism, which leave no room for diversity and imperfection, are not followed. 

According to Lao-tse, in his Tao Te Ching, , the “Tao Virtue Book,” Earth is essentially a “reflection of Heaven.” It’s run by the same laws which are not the laws of humans. These heavenly laws are said to affect the spinning of distant planets as well as the activity of the birds in the forest and the fish in the sea. 

 Lao-Tse in the painting story, believes that the more we interfere with the natural balance produced and governed by the universal laws, the more difficult it is to reach harmony. The more we interfere with the natural seasons of life, the more forcing, the more trouble. 

The author, Benjamin Hoff, states 

“Whether heavy or light, wet or dry, fast or slow, everything had its own nature already within it, which could not be violated without causing difficulties. When abstract and arbitrary rules were imposed from the outside, struggle was inevitable. Only then did life become sour.”

(pp. 4) 

Lao-tse sees life, in all its pain and beauty, as an opportunity to learn valuable lessons. Life is our teacher, our chance to awaken to deep wisdom. Unlike the Buddha in the painting who advocate for turning away from “the world of dust,” Lao-tse advises us to “join the dust of the world.” He speaks of Tao, the Way, the “law” or essence governing everything in Heaven & on Earth. 

Tao cannot be explained in words. It must be lived, experienced. It’s acceptance of life as it is. It is basically and simply working with our life circumstances, pleasant or unpleasant, appreciating all of life, life itself, letting our experiences teach us, working with every single thing that happens in everyday life, going with the flow.

As I have mentioned, it’s not about not working to fix problems that can be fixed for the better. It’s not about never experiencing pain. It’s about acceptance of life, both beauty and pain, and not denying our emotions or circumstances. Acknowledging what is and just flowing with it. 

Lao-tse believes this naturally brings us happiness.  

We can experience great happiness even in the midst of imperfection, struggles, pain…but when we work in harmony with these circumstances, “Taoist understanding changes what others perceive as negative into something positive.” (pp. 6) 

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Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” ~ John Ruskin

According to Taoism, bitterness and sourness are results of being unappreciative and interfering with the essence of life. Life itself is sweet if we understand it for what it is. This is the message of The Vinegar Tasters.

This painting or story is not really about religion or debates or disagreements;it’s a metaphor for life that can be incorporated into any of our lives irrespective of religion or absence of religion. 

I find this concept to be deeply inspiring and very helpful to remembering during difficult and painful situations such as depression, grief, loss, stress….anything.

You can find different versions of the painting in Google images. I found none worth sharing here. In most of the images I looked at, all three men look miserable. Lol

I’m wishing you lots of love & happiness! ❤

Xoxo Kim ❤

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