To Buddha, the second figure in the painting, life on earth was bitter, filled with attachments and desires that led to suffering. The world was seen as a setter of traps, a generator of illusions, a revolving wheel of pain for all creatures. In order to find peace, the Buddhist considered it necessary to transcend “the world of dust” and reach Nirvana, literally a state of “no wind.” Although the essentially optimistic attitude of the Chinese altered Buddhism considerably after it was brought in from its native India, the devout Buddhist often saw the way to Nirvana interrupted all the same by the bitter wind of everyday existence.
To Lao-tse (LAOdsuh), the harmony that naturally existed between heaven and earth from the very beginning could be found by anyone at any time, but not by following the rules of the Confucianists. As he stated in his Tao To Ching(DAO DEH JEENG), the “Tao Virtue Book,” earth was in essence a reflection of heaven, run by the same laws – not by the laws of men. These laws affected not only the spinning of distant planets, but the activities of the birds in the forest and the fish in the sea.
The three masters are K’ung Fu-tse (Confucius), Buddha, and Lao-tse, author of the oldest existing book of Taoism. The first has a sour look on his face, the second wears a bitter expression, but the third man is smiling.
To Kung Fu-tse (kung FOOdsuh), life seemed rather sour. He believed that the present was out step with the past, and that the government of man on earth was out of harmony with the Way of Heaven, the government of the universe. Therefore, he emphasized reverence for the Ancestors, as well as for the ancient rituals and ceremonies in which the emperor, as the Son of Heaven, acted as intermediary between limitless heaven and limited earth. Under Confucianism, the use of precisely measured court music, prescribed steps, actions, and phrases all added up to an extremely complex system of rituals, each used for a particular purpose at a particular time. A saying was recorded about K’ung Fu-tse: “If the mat was not straight, the Master would not sit.” This ought to give an indication of the extent to which things were carried out under Confucianism.
Let’s imagine that we have walked down a narrow street in a large Chinese city and have found a small shop that sells scrolls painted in the classic manner. We go inside and ask to be shown something allegorical – something humorous, perhaps, but with some sort of Timeless Meaning. The shopkeeper smiles. “I have just the thing,”, he tells us. “A copy of The Vinegar Tasters!” He leads us to a large table and unrolls the scroll, placing it down for us to examine.
“Excuse me – I must attend to something for a moment,” he says, and goes into the back of the shop, leaving us alone with the painting.
Although we can see that this is a fairly recent version, we know that the original was painted long ago; just when is uncertain. But by now, the theme of the painting is well known.We see three men standing around a vat of vinegar. Each has dipped his finger into the vinegar and has tasted it. The expression on each man’s face shows his individual reaction. Since the painting is allegorical, we are to understand that these are no ordinary vinegar tasters, but are instead representatives of the “Three Teachings” of China, and that the vinegar they are sampling represents the Essence of Life.
To my mind, the Taoist part of this whole exercise is learning to not fight the laws of the universe. It takes time to learn 108 moves – more time for some of us than for others – and that is all right. Your mind will be exercised as you try to remember what comes next, which is good, but it is mainly muscle memory that will win the day, and that will only come with practice.
While we are on the subject of Taoism, let me tell you a bit more about it, through a story about the Vinegar Tasters (an excerpt from The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff).
“You see, Pooh,” I said, “a lot of people don’t seem to know what Taoism is…”
“Yes?” said Pooh, blinking his eyes.”
So that’s what this chapter is for – to explain things a bit.”
“Oh, I see,” said Pooh.
“And the easiest way to do that would be for us to go to China for a moment.”
“What?” said Pooh, his eyes wide open in amazement. “Right now?’
“Of course. All we need to do is, lean back, relax, and there we are.”
“Oh, I see,” said Pooh.
If exercise is one of the reasons that you are doing Tai Chi, take advantage of the moves to fully twist and stretch. For example, when doing the Wave Hands Like Clouds move, turn fully towards the right and fully towards the left, rather than just waving your hands; when doing the Grasp Birds Tail sequence, take time to told the stretch when you reach the two-handed push; and so on. And throughout the set, remember to “square up” your hips so that your whole body is facing the way that your lead foot is pointing.
Meditation is all about learning to attend to what is present, and Tai Chi can be a moving meditation, strengthening your ability to concentrate on what is happening (in this case, on what you are doing and how that is affecting your internal state). And what you are doing is twisting, turning, and stretching; learning to attend to what is going on in your body; and improving your balance. The latter is enhanced when the set is done slowly, consciously placing most of your weight on either one foot or the other – you learn something new every day, and this shifting of weight is my latest discovery, after three years of practice.