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; and 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. 

But the relational dynamic is more than a rivalry. There’s also been active borrowing between them. Cross-pollination. Taoism in particular loves to absorb new influences and has never cared about things like correct doctrine and orthodoxy—and this in itself is just one of the many things 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, like today’s online Wikipedia. 

So my point is that positive 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. See it as the natural world and all its processes. See it as plants and animals, weather, land, water. See it as our bodies, our families, our communities, our nations. See it as love, hurt, hate, forgiveness. See it as birth, growth, decline, death. 

The vat of vinegar is all that is nature. 

And while Kung Fu-tse tastes sourness, Lao-tse tastes sweetness. Sour and sweet are opposites, and this small detail has a big meaning: that, because Confucianism and Taoism are indigenous to China, they share a common cultural heritage of certain concerns and issues, which serves only to heighten their rivalry. But as for Buddhism, which tastes in nature bitterness—well, that suggests a completely different angle on things, reflecting how Buddhism is an import from India and is shaped by aims and concepts that are not indigenously Chinese. 

Siddhartha Gautama tastes the vinegar and it’s bitter because he sees being human as merely a stage in one’s spiritual development and something to be transcended. This stage to be transcended is full of suffering. Thus the bitterness. 

But this is not Chinese. For the Chinese, the issue is not transcending the human but on becoming completely fulfilled in our humanity. On being fully at home in nature. 

Nature is not to be transcended so much as deeply lived into. 

So right now, we are putting Buddhism aside and focusing exclusively on the other two traditions which are indigenous to China.

For Confucianism, nature tastes sour; for Taoism, nature tastes sweet. 


Start with what it means for the elder Chinese brother, Kung Fu-tse, to taste sourness. Why? Because for him, nature falls short as a source of guidance for harmonious living. “By the time of Kung Fu-tse,” says one historian, “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!’” That’s what the historian says—and just listen to the voice of that poet, speaking to us from more than 2500 years ago….

(As a side note, would you agree with me that the “large rats” are still around today? The ones eating up most of the government’s PPP loan monies? The ones who swim in the undrained swamp that is Washington? The politicians who have cynically aided and abetted the “stop the steal” nonsense and are as complicit in inciting an armed insurrection of our nation’s Capitol as the President is?)

The point is that, from Kung-fu-tse’s perspective, nature was no check on society coming apart. The harmonious way of life that previous eras had known was not due to a natural instinct people are born with and infallibly reproduce, like the instinct in birds to fly South for the winter. Social harmony is a thing to be created instead. Human heartedness is a thing to practice and develop. 

Thus the message of Confucianism. Civilization will be saved if people 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 stepping on toes. 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. That is why nature tastes sour. 

That’s Kung-fu-tse. That’s Confucianism. 

And to this, Lao-tse says, Kung Fu-tse, listen up. You are putting forth a remedy to our problems that is just like the farmer who once grew frustrated with the progress of his crops. The crops were growing too slowly to meet the needs of a hungry human community. One day the farmer had a bright idea: make the crops grow faster by going out into the fields and getting hands-on and literally pulling them up to a taller height. For a moment it looked like success, but soon he realized that all he did was expose their roots to the heat of the sun, which in turn killed all the crops. All the crops, killed. That’s what all your arts of civilization do to people, Kung Fu-tse. Make things worse, not better. 

Lao-tse makes his point more formally in the work that is traditionally ascribed to him, which is one of the most influential of all Taoist scriptures, the Tao Te Ching (DAO DEH JEENG). In it he says,

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 his “solutions” only make things worse. For nature tastes sweet; nature is sweet; in nature is already a pattern for harmonious living; society is coming apart at the seams because people have forgotten this deep 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 deep pattern for harmonious living. 

“Muddy water left to stand,” says the Tao Te Ching, “will clear.” The problem with Kung Fu-tse, for Lao-Tzu, is that he hasn’t given the muddy water enough of a chance to stand still and get clear on its own. Kung Fu-tse just wants to add more muddiness with all his social rituals. But if people could just trust that inner muddiness would clear up if they just stopped for as long as needed to let the water get clear…. That clear water is the deep pattern for happiness we all long for. It’s there….

And already we are deep into our exploration of Taoism and the sweetness of nature. 

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 close look at its signal concept: the Tao. 

The sweetness that Lao-tse tastes. 

It’s definitely a sweetness that Westerners in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have tasted. For example, as Grace has, through direct participation in some vitalizing practice that aims to increase the amount of energy (or qi) in a person. There have been and are so many of these vitalizing practices: martial art traditions like T’ai Chi or Wing Chun; or health practices like Chinese herbalism, feng shui, and many styles of qigong breath training disciplines. And on and on. 

Practice any of these, and Taoism is there in its emphasis on increasing one’s personal energy and aliveness.  

Taoism has captured the Western imagination. Remember the 1970s television series, Kung Fu? As a kid I LOVED that show, which had actor David Carradine as the wandering monk. “Snatch the pebble from my hand, grasshopper…” Then there are movies like The Karate Kid, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and then, of course, Star Wars. “Use the Force, Luke! Let Go!” “Remember, The Force Will Be With You, Always.”

Those movies inspired me like nothing else. 

Taoism has just gone everywhere—and note especially that this has happened without at all trying to be evangelistic. Taoism is not an evangelistic religion and never has been. Yet it is everywhere. Google the phrase “Tao of…” and what pops up is an endless list: 

Tao of Pooh

Tao of Physics

Tao of Programming

Tao of Psychology

Tao of Watercolor

Tao of Tea

Tao of Jung

Tao of Dating

Tao of Leadership 

Tao of Emotions

(I even saw this:) Tao of Islam

It goes on and on and on. Westerners just sense that in the Taoist concept of the Tao, there is something very sweet indeed. And the core of it is well put 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.” That’s what he says. Again, let your muddy water settle, so it can get clear. When it gets clear, your flourishing will come spontaneously and effortlessly. 

Consider, now, the three meanings that comprise that single word. “Tao.” 

Tao is, first of all, 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, and 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…” Perhaps an analogy might help us understand. Have you ever seen “Magic Eye” stereographs? Know what I’m referring to?

Magic Eye pictures 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 the 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, let your muddy waters clear up. It says, 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. If you and I decide to follow what Taoism says, then what you end up doing might look as funny as putting the Magic Eye image to your nose, then slowly drawing back, and so on, but that’s the way of nature. If that’s what it takes to let your inner muddiness settle, then so be it. 

That’s one meaning of the Tao: mysterious source of all. The next two have to do with how the Tao 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 Tao of it. 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, letting your muddy waters clear. 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 then we start to shrivel. 

All the unlearning is difficult indeed. 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 from Star Wars 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 natural 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 wise things but here is wisdom that is particularly relevant to the creative life. This strategy of clinging to the weak so we are always growing stronger. 

So now, let me ask:

Is the water of your life muddy this morning? 

If so, trust. Trust that there is a deep wisdom within you that knows all about your healing and your health. It’s there. It’s there. Your job is to get still, truly still, and the clarity will come.

“Muddy water, allowed to stand,” says the Tao Te Ching, “will clear.”

What is one thing you can you do today, to let your muddiness settle? 

Imagine again that picture of “The Vinegar Tasters,” of the three people standing around that 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.

Lao-tse then breaks the third wall, he turns to look at you, you who are outside the painting looking back. From 2500 years ago, this mysterious figure dips another cup into the vinegar vat, and he holds it out to you—you, just where you are, right here in Cleveland, maybe elsewhere–and he says to you, “Taste.”

Taste how life is sweet.