14 March 2010

San Jiao He Yi: Three Teachings Harmonious As One

In East Asia, the three teachings, known as the San Jiao (三教) in Chinese, are considered to be Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The use of the phrase the "three teachings" as an aggregate title of these three belief systems first occurred during the Wei Dynasty and Jin dynasty. Many Buddhists consider Confucist and Taoist teachings as part of their religion. The three teachings may also be interpreted as a non-religous philosophy so a Chinese of a monotheistic faith such as Judaism, Islam or Christianity may accept the philosophy of the three teachings.

The phrase the "three teachings harmonious as one (三教合一)" has both an academic meaning and a common one. Academically, this was the name of the sect founded during the Ming Dynasty by Lin Chao-en that combined Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist beliefs. The common understanding of "three teachings harmonious as one," however, has little to do with this ancient sect. Today, many Chinese take the phrase to simply reflect the long history, mutual influence, and (at times) complementary teachings of the three belief systems.

In Henan Province's Shaolin Temple, a stone tablet represents the concept of the "Three Teachings Harmonious as One." The tablet is an optical illusion. Looked at in one way, it appears to be a single, fat monk holding a scroll; looked at in another way, it is clearly an illustration of three monks bent over the same scroll. The man on the left is Laozi, the founder of Taoism. The man in the middle is Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, and the man on the right is Kongzi (Confucius), the founder of Confucianism. If you look closely, the three men have only one nose—this represents the ultimate harmony of their respective faiths.

The Vinegar Tasters (uncommon names: 三酸圖, three sours; 嘗醋翁, vinegar tasting old-men; 嘗醋圖, 尝醋图), is a traditional subject in Chinese religious painting. The allegorical composition depicts the three founders of China's major religious and philosophical traditions: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

The three men are dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it; one man reacts with a sour expression, one reacts with a bitter expression, and one reacts with a sweet expression. The three men are Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, respectively. Each man's expression represents the predominant attitude of his religion: Confucianism saw life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people; Buddhism saw life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering; and Taoism saw life as fundamentally good in its natural state. Another interpretation of the painting is that, since the three men are gathered around one vat of vinegar, "the three teachings are one".

The painting was popularized in the Western world by the American Taoist writer Benjamin Hoff's book, The Tao of Pooh. As mentioned in the book, the scroll painting was a popular piece of art in ancient times. However nowadays it is rarely painted in China anymore.

  • Confucianism, being concerned with the outside world, viewed the vinegar as "polluted wine." 
  • Buddhism, being concerned with the self, viewed the vinegar as a polluter of the body and soul of the taster. 
  • Taoism saw life as fundamentally good in its natural state ad so everything is sweet.

"From the Taoist point of view, sourness and bitterness come from the interfering and unappreciative mind. Life itself, when understood and utilized for what it is, is sweet. That is the message of 'The Vinegar Tasters'".
—Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh
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