The Vinegar Tasters is a very interesting subject in Chinese art. It depicts Confucius, the Buddha and Laozi tasting vinegar.

enter image description here

A common interpretation is the following:

Confucius is depicted with a sour face, because in confucionism life is "sour", that's why we need rules etc. The Buddha is depicted with a bitter face, because the Buddha saw life as full of suffering etc, while Laozi is depicted smiling, because the vinegar is sweet to him, because he understands "the perfect nature of vinegar".

Despite the point of view of the Buddha (that life is full of dukkha), he understood that vinegar is vinegar, just as Laozi; and, knowing that, why would he have a bitter face? Is this depiction raising the image of Laozi and daoism and mistreating buddhism as pessimistic? Or is it more like a "Buddha sees the vinegar as it is" thing while Laozi sees it as sweet and thus "lying to himself"?

  • This question is pretty much opinion-based, with answers being subjective interpretations of the painting.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 2:11

3 Answers 3


Well, it is a caricature. And as any caricature it simplifies things while exaggerating and making fun of quite obvious aspects.

The substance they taste is not necessarily vinegar, it is the wine of life, but as it happens in real life the wine is rather not perfect.

To Confucius it is sour because in his view someone responsible did not fulfill his duty. Whether it was the wine maker or the person responsible for its storage - they must have neglected their responsibility and so the wine turned sour. This is how confucianism sees the world, as an interplay of social roles and duties. "It would be perfect, if only those fools followed the rules!"

To "the Buddha" all wine is bitter, an obvious allegory for the First Noble Truth. "Life is inherently imperfect." -- says the caricature.

The Lao-Tzu is supposedly above this viewpoint, in harmony with how things are, seeing the higher kind of inherent perfection even in the perpetually imperfect. This is the view not just of the Taoism but also of Mahayana's Dzogchen.

Who is the real buddha here? Don't tell me it's Lao-Tzu, it's not so obvious. Would the Buddha taste our life in the 21st century and conclude that it's perfect? It's not so simple.

The real Buddha, of course, would understand that reality has many sides and does not have the single taste. Its taste depends on what aspect you focus on.

The wine of life is sour, and it is bitter, and it is sweet. The beauty, as is the dread, is in the eyes of beholder. Unfortunately, most of beholders completely identify with their viewpoints and don't as much as entertain other perspectives, let alone grant them equal weight to their own.

To break free from a single viewpoint is, therefore, to stand above the caricature and to taste the real life.

Certainly, to only focus on the bitter aspect is what Buddha called "to maintain oneself in a maimed and injured condition". Don't do that to yourself.


What ever feeling, good householder, whether pleasant, painful or neither-pleasant-nor-painful, has been declared as dukkha, a cancer, by the Sublime Buddha.

It's neither good to put the Sublime Buddha on the stage of the Niganthas, nor to call equanimity (even that of housholder) as the highest.

If looking for the Sublime Buddha in this images, it's that what does not take on any objectivication there, does not take part on what ever isn't real and will be therefore not traced by any getting absorbed in the world.


That's a questionable interpretation. The expressions aren't about the taste of the vinegar itself, but about the experience of that taste:

  • Confucius looks sour because (in his view) we are obliged to put up with such unpleasant experiences. We have to taste the vinegar even though we don't want to.
  • The Buddha looks bitter because (in his view) unpleasant experiences are conditions we inflict on ourselves through our own determined ignorance. We don't have to taste the vinegar, but we don't know how not to taste it.
  • Lao Tsu looks happy because (in his view) experiences aren't unpleasant or pleasant; they are just what-they-are. Vinegar tastes exactly like vinegar, so no worries.

It's all a bit tongue-in-cheek, obviously, but it does seem to capture the essence of each worldview.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .