The Three Vinegar Tasters of Chinese Philosophy

The Vinegar Tasters

Monument of Loa Zu

If Laozi (Lao Tzu), the old sage usually associated with Daoism existed, he lived during the Golden Age of Philosophers. The book attributed to him is the Dao De Jing (The Way and Its Virtue) and represents the ideal man living agreeably with nature.

Laozi was probably a librarian in the Zhou dynasty Hall of Records. Realizing the dynasty was failing, Laozi headed off to retire in the wild west. At the western border of the kingdom, a guard recognized him as a great philosopher and asked him to share his teachings. The result of this conversation is the Dao De Jing.

The Dao De Jing’s central concepts are wu wei, de, and pu.

Wu wei is effortless action and is associated with water. Water is soft, but through its unrelenting nature can move earth and carve stone. The Dao (Way) of the Universe works on its own rhythm. Individuals striving to form their own way disrupt this rhythm and pay the price through suffering and an early death.

De is virtue or integrity and is the active expression of effortless action. Aligning your efforts with the unrelenting flow of the Universe is virtuous behavior.

Pu is the uncarved block, or simplicity. Pu represents a state of receptiveness, without preconceptions, and is the true nature of mind when it is unburdened by knowledge or experiences. Pu is achieved through effortless action.

This philosophy of virtue through natural action would have a profound influence on Chinese thought.

Harmonious Society

Statue of Confucius in garden

Confucius (551 – 479 BCE) taught personal and public morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, and sincerity. Confucius hated disorder and disunity and wanted to find ways to overcome the feuds that characterized the latter part of the Zhou era. He admired King Wen, valued continuity, and wanted to sustain the ancient traditions. He unsuccessfully tried to persuade different rulers to put his social and political beliefs into practice. He died convinced that he had failed.

According to Confucius, there is a hierarchical external social order which is mirrored by a personal internal order. He compared the development of both the state and the individual to the structures of the hexagrams of the Yi Jing. He reflected this understanding by attaching commentaries to the hexagrams of the Yi Jing known as The Ten Wings.

Before Confucius’s commentary, the Yi Jing was used primarily for divination. After his addition, the text transformed into a work that has inspired philosophers and scientists for centuries.

In 221 BCE Qin Shi Huangdi assumed The Mandate of Heaven and became the first emperor of China. He considered the idle pursuit of philosophy a threat to his throne and had three-hundred Confucian scholars buried alive. Fortunately, the Qin rule lasted a mere fifteen years, before the Han replaced it.

The Han was the longest-lived imperial dynasty (24 emperors, 426 years). During its rule, The Ten Wings of the Yi Jing and other Confucian texts became templates for state policy.

The Eightfold Path

The Four Heavenly Messages of Buddha

Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (563 – 483 BCE) who endured a period of exploration to become The Buddha or Awakened One. He lived in the northeastern region of the Indian subcontinent, but his teachings helped to shape China’s development.

Buddhists recognize Gautama Buddha as an awakened teacher who shared his insights with others. These teachings describe the true origins of suffering, and how to overcome them. With this understanding, the individual can achieve nirvana. Nirvana is a transcendent state in which there is no suffering, and the subject is released from the effects of karma (the sum of a person’s actions) and samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth). Nirvana represents the ultimate goal of Buddhism.

Buddhism is broadly categorized into two major branches: The Theravada and the Mahayana schools.

The Theravada school is known as The Ancient Teaching and is considered the oldest surviving Buddhist school. Theravada practice puts importance on monastic life. Religious attainment is an exclusive domain of the bhikkhus (religious renunciants). The arhat (monk) is a person who successfully follows the historical Buddha’s teachings. In this practice, it may take many lifetimes before nirvana is attained.

The Mahayana school has a large religious and philosophical structure. Unlike the Theravada school, Mahayana teaches that liberation is universal and not exclusive to religious renunciants. It says that pursuing the release from suffering and attainment of nirvana is too narrow an aspiration because it lacks the motivation to liberate others.

In the Mahayana school, emphasis is on becoming a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is someone that gains enlightened (bodhi) existence (sattva) but rejects nirvana for teaching others. The bodhisattva has a considerable degree of understanding and uses their wisdom to help others free themselves.

Gautama Buddha abandoned practices of asceticism or self-indulgence that were popular paths to enlightenment for his day. Instead he opted for a middle way, or a path of moderation, with the defining characteristic of meditation. The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path summarize his teachings.

The Four Noble Truths:

  1. The truth of suffering teaches that life and everything in it is suffering. From birth through death, beings are in contact with what they dislike and separated from what they desire.
  2. The truth of the cause of suffering teaches that suffering is caused by selfish craving. Discomfort and suffering are not the same thing. We suffer in the mind from our attachments to things and ideas.
  3. The truth to the end of suffering teaches that selfish craving can be overcome with the realization that suffering begins and ends in the mind.
  4. The true path to end suffering teaches us to live in a harmless way by following the Eightfold Noble Path.

The Eightfold Noble Path:

  1. Right Understanding: Understanding the origin of suffering and its extinction as outlined in the Four Noble Truths.
  2. Right Thought: Be free of attachment, ill will, views, and opinions. Direct the mind towards benevolence and kindness.
  3. Right Speech: Abstain from lying, gossiping, and speaking unnecessarily or harshly.
  4. Right Action: Abstain from killing, stealing, and immorality.
  5. Right Livelihood: Maintain one’s livelihood without harming living beings.
  6. Right Effort: Remain aware and unattached in all circumstances.
  7. Right Mindfulness: Be aware of all that one does in speech, action, and thought.
  8. Right Concentration: Be free of mental disturbances such as worry, anxiety, or envy. Be at one with life in this moment.

Buddhism did not appear suddenly in China; it grew gradually during periods of turmoil. At first, Buddha was considered a barbarian god, favored by the non-Chinese ruling in the north. Buddhism saw growth during challenging times as the self-denying life of Buddhist monks appealed to peasants subjected to increasingly despotic rule. The monks would live and work among the people, instead of cloistered away like the elite Confucian scholars.

Buddhist monks, imported from India, embraced the ideals of Confucianism and Daoism so successfully that a new branch of the belief system, Zen was born.

Bodhidharma and Zen

Bodhidharma in Meditation at Shaolin Temple Cave

Bodhidharma (440 – 534 CE), a bodhisattva who traveled to China during the Period of Disunion (220 – 581 CE), played a seminal role in the transmission of Mahayana Buddhism from India to China.

Bodhidharma’s famous meeting was with the emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty (502 – 557 CE) is a Zen Koan.

Emperor Wu was an ardent supporter of Buddhism. The emperor asked Bodhidharma how much merit his building of temples, printing of scriptures, and support for the Buddhist community had accumulated. Bodhidharma replied, “No merit at all.” The Emperor then asked Bodhidharma, “What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?” Bodhidarma replied, “Without holiness.” The emperor Wu then demanded to know who Bodhidharma was to say such things. Bodhidharma responded, “I don’t know.”

Incensed by Bodhidharma’s answers, the emperor had him expelled from the court. Bodhidharma traveled north, across the Yangtze River, where he stopped at the Shaolin temple at Mt. Song.

The Shaolin temple was established several hundred years before Bodhidharma’s arrival, during the Period of Disunion (220 – 581) known as the Three Kingdoms period. Stories differ on how Bodhidharma gained entry to the temple.

In one story, he was refused entry, then sat in meditation outside the monastery, facing its walls, for nine years. Impressed with his dedication, the monks granted him entry to the monastery. In another story, the monks of the Shaolin temple granted him entry upon arrival. Bodhidharma ventured into a cave above the temple where he sat in meditation for nine years. This legend states that he sat in exactly the same place and in exactly the same posture for so long that the sunlight coming into the cave behind Bodhidharma burnt his image into the wall.

In either story, once he was inside the monastery he was dismayed by the poor physical condition of the monks and taught them exercises to promote their physical health. The legends say those exercises were the Eighteen Arhat Hands of Shaolin—a common routine in Shaolin martial arts. It is more likely that these exercises were yoga postures that when mixed with an already developed martial tradition formed the barehanded Shaolin arts we know today.

Bodhidharma’s transformative presence at the Shaolin temple was a keystone moment that forever changed martial training. Mankind had always trained to fight—initially to defend himself from animals or to hunt large game—and the Chinese were using form routines in martial practice before Bodhidharma. What changed at the Shaolin temple, is the use of martial training as a form of physical exercise.

Journey to the West

Painting of Monkey King Journey to the West

In 581 the emperor Wendi (541 – 604 CE) reunified China as the Sui dynasty. Born as Yang Jian in a Buddhist temple Wendi gained the support of elite Confucian scholars and made Buddhism a central pillar of his new dynasty.

The Tang dynasty (618 – 649 CE), however, would deliver an early threat to Buddhism in China. The emperor Taizong (626 – 649 CE) said that the Buddha “was a crafty barbarian who deluded his own countrymen,” and “It is not that I do not understand Buddhism, but rather that I despise it, and refuse to study it.” When a Chinese Buddhist monk named Xuan Zhang returned from his perilous trip to India with 657 sutras on his back and an epic story to tell, Taizong had a change of heart, and took the monk as his spiritual teacher. Xuan Zhang also left a book, Records of the Western Regions, which became the basis for the classic saga, Journey to the West.

Written during the later Ming dynasty, Journey to the West referred to the journey of Xuan Zhang in a fictional manner. The novel includes three fantastic disciples of the Buddhist monk, Sun Wukong (Monkey King), Zhu Baijie (Eight Precept Pig), and Sha Wujing (Friar Sand). Their mythical trip to India is an allegory for enlightenment. Steeped in Buddhist and Daoist morality, the story is a satire of Ming Chinese bureaucracy.


Troy Williams

Troy Williams is a technology and science fiction nerd. The Fundamentals, was his first work of science fiction and there are many more stories in The Fundamental’s Universe. At his day job, he is a web and application developer experienced at coding and managing projects as small as an individual’s website to large enterprise integrations.

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