Stephen Karcher asks us to imagine an ancient Chinese scroll painting in his introduction to Ta Chuan: The Great Treatise (2000). Here’s what he says,
Three men are shown grouped around a large open cask where vinegar is fermented. They have each dipped a finger into the cask, drawn it out and tasted the vinegar. Each of the men has a different expression on his face.
However, these are no ordinary people. We know from their features and the way they are dressed that they are the three great figures of Chinese spiritual life, Kung-fu-tz’u or Confucius, the Buddha and Lao-tz’u. They represent the three Teachings of Ways of Chinese spiritual life. So we know, too, that this is no ordinary vinegar. It is life itself, everyday life, the dust of the world, the Red Chamber Dream.
Confucius stands on the right of the picture. He finds the vinegar sour and scowls in distaste. The Confucian Way is based on the ideal of an ancient Golden Age from which we have sadly fallen. Everything must be perfectly ordered through proper ritual, belief and social relations to try to re-create that lost past. The present moment is sour indeed. Can we ever hope to attain the moral grandeur of the ancient rulers and sages?
The Buddha stands in the middle. He tastes the vinegar and finds it bitter. His face is full of repugnance. For Buddha, this life is illusion and sadness. It can bring only suffering. He stands for a place that is completely beyond time and change—Nirvana, where the winds of desire are stilled.
On the left stands Lao-tz’u. He is the legendary writer of a series of Teachings on the beauty and mystery of the Tao or Way. Lao-tz’u smiles. He finds the vinegar sweet. His smile is the smile of the valley spirit, mingling with the dust and becoming one with the continual change of things. He mocks Confucius’ concern for propriety and he waves away the Buddha’s ostentatious suffering. The moment now is all we need. The power of the Way is endless. Stop thinking about it! Find the uncarved block, the face you had before your mother was born. Life, as it is, is sweet. (pp. 10-11)