Three Sages Tasting Vinegar
Three old men stand around a large earthenware pot with furrowed brows. One is holding a spoon, so it seems each has tried tasting the pot’s contents. So what kind of flavor has caused these frowns?
All three are men of China’s Northern Song dynasty, which lasted from the latter half of the 10th century to the start of the 12th century. They are the poets and renowned calligraphers Su Shi and Huang Tingjian, and the Zen priest Fo Yin.
When the two poets visited Fo Yin, the three men tried tasting a food called tokasaku that Fo Yin had obtained. The painting depicts them grimacing at the sheer sourness of the taste.
In fact, the three men symbolize Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism and this picture represents the “unity of the three creeds.” The idea is that vinegar tastes sour to practitioners of all three creeds, no matter what their individual beliefs are. This suggests that, ultimately, there is only one fundamental truth.
At one time in China, there was a long-running debate about which was the superior creed: China’s home-grown philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism, or Buddhism, which originated in India. From the start of the Southern Song dynasty in the 12th century, though, China saw an increase in the number of Zen priests whose background lay in the Chinese literati tradition, which itself was influenced by Confucianism. Zen priests and members of the literati also began to mix with practitioners of Taoism. It is believed the idea of the unity of the three creeds sprung from these melting-pot conditions. Japan was also influenced by this idea, with many similar works painted from the Nanbokucho period onwards.
We tend to think of Zen paintings as being very serious and formal, but as this picture shows, they were sometimes full of humor, too.