Oshobob's "What is an
The author of this piece, "Oshobob", is a
Chinese scholar with a deep interest in Osho and Chan / Zen. At one
had a huge site with hundreds of pages exploring many aspects of these
themes. That site has disappeared from the regular internet but most
pages have been preserved at Archive.org.
The page below, an extensive exploration of the origin of
the word "osho", is one of them. The title of the article and its
discussion of trademark leave no doubt that it has been created in
response to Pune mgmt's 1998 doc What is
What is an
a historical tour of a hot
word for the here & now
by oshobob, Dec. 2007
The word "osho" has in
modern times been a cause of both confusion and contention, propriety
and property rights. Though this word has existed for nearly two
thousand years, not many people know much about the actual reality or
history of it, submerged as it is in the vast landscape of Asian
religion, language, and now catapulted into the present global
environment of world culture.
To understand the significance of this word, you need to take a trip
through the movement of Buddhism from India to Asia and on to the
Western world. The expansion of Gautam Buddha's insights,
starting over 2,500 years ago, though never missionary in instinct, has
had more of a lasting effect on the consciousness of mankind than
probably any other force -- religious or otherwise. Political
systems come and go, economic theories are created, collapsed, and
reformed, cultures morph constantly, religions are continually waiting
for the paradise to come. Only Buddha's insistent focus on there
being a place in man, a silent
conscious center, a place beyond the everyday conditioned and
utilitarian mind, establishes his never ending legacy in the world.
It still grips at something in mankind's gut
-- an atavistic pure awareness that may be lying dormant, but is never
Osho is a Japanese word -- at
least at first blush it seems to be. If you ask a Japanese person
who speaks English what the word osho means, the common
reply will be "monk", implied of course, a Buddhist monk in Japan.
Sometimes though, it has the meaning of a "Buddhist priest",
which seems to be a little higher on the hierarchal ladder of
religious titles. But words have many different meanings, depending on
time and space, and this word is no exception. To get a more
all-encompassing view, we need to go back to the time when Buddhist
thought was leaving India and beginning to enter Asia, about the time
thousand years ago...
Buddha spoke and taught in the language Pali, the spoken tongue of the
area that he lived in -- the Bihar region of what's now called northern
India, though at that time there was no "India", only a conglomeration
of feudal type kingdoms, a mosaic of clan-raj fiefdoms. As the Buddhist
monks and priests started to get squeezed out of their native land by
the resurgence of Hindu chauvinism, they started finding themselves in
strange lands -- eastern Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle Kingdom
itself -- China.
Strange lands -- with strange languages...
Nepal, Afghanistan, and the Gobi Desert area to the northwest,
and Tibet over the hump of the Himalayas. Burma, Thailand,
and the Khmer Region, now modern Laos, Cambodia, and southern Vietnam.
Also, by sea to what's now Malaysia, Indonesia, and up to southern
China, which included at that time present-day northern Vietnam.
Put yourself in the shoes
of these people if you can. For the Indian Buddhist's part, they were
leaving the confines of their home territory, and venturing into
foreign cultures. They were the guests. From the host side, these
outsiders were probably viewed as fairly benign visitors -- Buddhists
being generally 'nice guys' -- no weapons, no economic or political
agenda, no sexual threat, They didn't even eat very much.
Whether these first century Buddhists were mahayana (expounding
for the benefit of all) -- by choice (compassion), by necessity
(diaspora), or maybe a combination of both causes, is irrelevant to the
one overriding problem they had, that being, without a doubt, language.
The languages and dialects of the the world's people were as
troublesome to communication back in those days as they are today.
Added to that, the reality of trying to convey an unknown
spiritual package using an unknown language -- it really boggles the
mind to even start to imagine how they did it. It took
generations, centuries of tortuous pantomime, attempts at rudimentary
translation (I don't think bilingual dictionaries, and they would be
all handwritten at that point, would have been much in existence), and
sheer persistent optimism to keep this project going. Can you
imagine a Buddhist monk trying to impart the meaning of nirvana to
Afghanistan, who might be wondering why he gave a free bowl of rice to
this strange guy in the first place. It's said by someone that after 40
attempts at translating the word nirvana, the Chinese finally gave up
and just resigned themselves to transliterating it -- whatever sounded
close to it in Chinese phonemes.
Stop and think for a moment, was the great Zen master Bodhidharma so
brief in his comments to Emperor Wu ("Nothing, no holiness.") because
of his raw, unadorned
truthful personality, or simply because his knowledge of Chinese was
lacking? I guess we can assume that Wu didn't understand the native
dialect of south India that Bodhidharma spoke. As this encounter
took place shortly after Bodhidharma's arrival in China, no matter how
much of a sharp intelligence he possessed, his level of language
proficiency had to be fairly low at this point. A spontaneous
verbal encounter between two people whose native languages are
different, as any modern student of a second language can attest to, is
probably the most difficult thing conceivable. Maybe Bodhidharma
sat in his cave for nine years "facing the wall", for the same
practical reason, who knows? Did his Chinese disciple Huike cut
off his arm in the snowstorm to show his master he was serious about
this Zen business, out of a need to show his great desire for
enlightenment, or was it simply that he wasn't able to speak his native
Chinese to this "foreign barbarian."
Getting back to the word osho, in this context of
language, when Buddhism first started to be learned by the east Asians,
there was a city called Khotan (officially spelled Hotan now), which
was at the
northern drop slope of the Qinghai Plateau, or where the Himalaya
mountains flattened out into what's known as the Tarim Basin. This is
now in the Xinjiang Province of China, but at that time, though it was
not part of China proper, it was a western oasis of sorts, and a place
where Buddhist learning and translation happened. It was a major stop
on the southern route of the old Silk Road, a route that connected
China with everything west. There were teachers, students, translators,
calligraphers -- whatever type of people exist in the environment of
transferring a religion and its language to another people.
As the new Buddhist
students and scholars, who eventually became teachers and
practitioners, had to give a name to themselves, they came up with a
name in Khotanese dialect that supposedly translated the Sanskrit word
upadhyaya which meant "teacher". It
is also possible that it is a translation (or transliteration) of the
Sanskrit word acharya, an Indian word that has
a higher connotation -- a teacher of religion, or the truth itself.
I have never seen what that old word is -- this is probably an
extinct language now (part of the Tocharian dialects, what the Chinese
called the Yuezhiclan),
but eventually (maybe centuries later) the Chinese used the word
"he-shang" -- written as 2 Chinese characters, and meaning in loose
translation, "harmonious respect".
This looks plausible -- a Buddhist student/monk/scholar, learning the
new religion, who eventually starts teaching others in his own
language. As he is continuing to learn from the newly translated
Buddhist tripitaka, the "three baskets" of
sutras, rules, and commentaries, he is also transmitting this as a
teacher who develops a status as a kind of "reverend" personality -- a
The Chinese use a title word like this after the name of the person --
surname, or maybe his Buddhist initiation name. So, it would be
Wang Heshang for Mr. Wang, or Daoyi Heshang for a man named Daoyi.
Always written in Chinese characters.
Now let's fast forward a few centuries to the beginnings of Chan (Zen)
in China in the sixth century. When the Zen masters referred to
themselves, or their disciples addressed them, they would often use
this word, heshang. As it
originally meant simply a "self-taught Buddhist monk/teacher" Zen
masters would often speak of themselves in this vein --
"this old heshang is going to sleep now." -- indicating a kind of
self-deprecation in front of their students -- as if "I am just like
you, not more advanced or better, just a student really."
But as it is with disciples, this is hard for them to accept, the
master is of course much more evolved, much higher. When a Zen
disciple used this word heshang to address his master, it took on a
much more reverential connotation, as if combining high respect and
love simultaneously. When the literature of Chinese Chan was eventually
written down in the middle era of the Song Dynasty (around 1000-1250
CE) these expressions were common. The Transmission of the
Lamp, The Blue Cliff Record, The Book of Serenity, The Gateless Gate --
the major Zen books -- all
had many references to Baizhang Heshang, Zhaozhou
Heshang, Linji Heshang, etc. But this is
not the only title used for Zen masters in China. Also common was
Dashi, meaning "master", and when
they received posthumous titles from the emperors (sometimes centuries
later), the usual honorary title was Chanshi, meaning "Chan
master". Heshang was more of an in-house
thing it seems, a kind of intimacy between the Chan people themselves.
When Buddhism was eventually transmitted into Japan, starting sometime
around the 6th century for general Buddhism, and around 1300 for Zen,
the same situation arose as centuries earlier between India and Asia.
Language problems -- big time.
You might be surprised to know that Japan at this time did not have a
written form for their native spoken language. They developed,
out of their contact with China -- specifically the transmission of
Buddhism -- a written phonetic syllabary called kana, and the entire
character system was imported -- probably the biggest "cut & paste"
job in the history of mankind.
The Japanese, in their inimitable way of doing things to perfection,
studied and copied the original Chinese Zen texts, and basically turned
Chinese Chan into Japanese Zen. Though it's said the truth of
meditation (Zen) cannot be changed through cultural transmission, the
outer trappings of it, language being the most important, do become
At this point the Japanese
not only developed their entire written language, but also began to
expand their spoken language to include the pronunciations of the
Chinese characters themselves -- this is basically "mispronouncing"
Chinese. This is called the "on" reading of a Chinese
character. For example, the Chinese character shang would be
pronounced sho in Japan. Dao would become "to" (or "do").
Similar, but a
little different. The other reading of a Chinese character would be the
"kun" reading -- this is the native Japanese spoken language -- a
translation of the meaning of the Chinese character.
Now, maybe you can feel it, we are getting closer and closer to the
Japanese word osho. When the Japanese Zen
students would read the original literature in Chinese -- now also
Japanese -- they would be looking at exactly the same writing that the
Chinese wrote and read in the original text centuries before. The
meaning of the written characters would be the same -- "self-taught
Buddhist monk/teacher", maybe having taken on the meaning of "reverend"
also, but if they spoke it, they would use the "on" reading -- Japanese
"mis"pronunciation of Chinese. So, Chinese heshang becomes Japanese
osho. "He" is pronounced "o",
meaning "harmonious". Shang is pronounced "sho",
meaning "respect". The names of the Chinese Chan masters are also
changed in this way. So Chan master Zhaozhou Heshang in Chinese
becomes Joshu Osho in Japanese. Chan
Chinese is pronounced Rinzai Osho in Japanese. The written
form remains exactly the same in both languages, in characters that is
-- when they are spoken they sound different, and when they are
romanized they look different. We can also be fairly certain that
the Zen masters themselves stayed the same, unchanged, alive or dead,
it all would make not a bit of difference.
have listed on this website a list of Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean,
and Japanese Zen masters -- 15,000 in all, all of them are titled with
love and respect, Heshang in Chinese pronunciation, Hoa thuong in
Vietnamese, Hwa sang in Korean, and Osho in Japanese.
list is not actually preserved at Archive.org, but fortunately, those
relating to Osho's talks about these Zen masters are. The lineage
chart is the central hub for all of them.]
Now, let's get to the
modern time-zone -- as they say in Zen, the here & now.
Again, for the third time,
we have a transmission of Buddha's basic practice of dhyan, called
English, called chan in Chinese, thien in Vietnamese, son in Korean,
and zen in Japan.
And the question still remains -- what exactly is an "Osho?"
As meditation and Zen spread beyond Asia to the so-called "Western
world", and even back to India, problems seem always to be rising over
these hot words, what they mean, and now even, who "owns" them, if
There is a very high profile, notorious, world-famous self-proclaimed
Buddha who took the name Osho for himself shortly before he supposedly
"left the body" in 1990. This is a euphemism for what most of us know
as "dying". Before that he was known as Osho Rajneesh (for a few
months), before that Zorba the Buddha (for a few days), before that as
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (20 years or so), before that as Acharya
Rajneesh (10 years), and in his illustrious childhood as Rajneesh
Chandra Mohan Jain, or simply Rajneesh. Again, we are dealing
with a change in language, with words, in the ever moving flux of time
and space. But the subject here is "osho" -- is Osho an osho?
Sure, why not. He is in the original sense of the word being formed
nearly 2,000 years ago, a self-taught monk, practicing meditation,
reading, experimenting with his own transformation, eventually teaching
and guiding others, even going so far as to declare himself a living
Buddha, an awakened or enlightened man. I would say Osho
definitely is an osho,
Some people say that his disciples gave him this name in 1989, shortly
before he exited the stage, so to speak. That could be, and
having read most of Osho's books over the years, I can say that he
would have had to like the name and accept it also, he would not take
anything without a good reason, and his reasons for doing or not doing
things are not well known to most people, including even his disciples.
At the time he took this
new name, he was in the middle of speaking discourses on the old Zen
masters, Mazu (Baso Osho), Baizhang (Hyakujo Osho), Linji (Rinzai
Osho), Nanquan (Nansen Osho), Shitou (Sekito Osho), Guishan (Isan
Osho), Yaoshan (Yakusan Osho), and so on. So he definitely knew
what this name meant in the history of Zen. He explained the
meaning of it quite a few times in these talks. He also said it
came from William James description of the "oceanic" experience of
man's spiritual search, and that he simply liked the sound of the word
too. Who can argue with that?
I have seen in some of Osho's beautiful books what his disciple editors
have determined the word Osho means, coming up with some really wild,
extended phantasmagorical definition that only a devotional-type person
could concoct -- something like, "one on whom the flowers of supreme
consciousness descend and shower with ever expanding illumination of
scintillating vibrations of love and bliss," or some such baloney.
You would definitely have to pay a Chinese or Japanese scholar
some heavy moolah under the table to
testify to the accuracy of that bloated and inaccurate meaning.
The actual feeling of the word osho is almost the exact opposite
-- simply a friendly, intimate, respectful word. But like all
words, if you want it to mean something
else, something more, what's the harm -- why not?
As I mentioned above, and I think this is the first time this
possibility has been floated up, just as the Indian word dhyan
eventually became the
word "Zen" in Japan, the word acharya became
"Osho". That would be an amazing thing, as this was Acharya
title 40 years ago.
But trademark the word
osho? I don't think so, because it's more than a football being
grabbed at and claimed by antagonistic groups of Osho disciples.
They have forgotten that this is a word in the Japanese language,
the Chinese language (they created it), the Zen religion's language,
and language is for all to use. Can you imagine if anyone with
money and power in the legal system wanted to trademark words in the
common language of people and take them out of circulation. The
people of the world would end up unable to write or speak, without
having to send a notarized, certified letter to the legal owners for
permission to do so, and then wait for a "it's ok", or not ok,
reply. Not a good reality to even imagine.
Now how about the ownership issue? That is really a separate thing.
Can you own a word and the products associated with it, and why
would you want to? I suppose one good reason for the people
charged with carrying on Osho's vision, and publishing and distributing
his books, active meditations, photos, mp3's, etc. is that, if they
don't, people with rotten intentions will use and abuse this stunning
collection of works. It really is a work of art. In a better
world, with aware and responsible people alive, copyrights wouldn't be
necessary, but unfortunately we don't live in that world yet.
But I would say the controversies sure are good for advertising
purposes -- a battle always gets in the news -- or as Osho himself said
in a book I just finished reading, something like "The common saying is
that 'no news is good news', but I want to add also that 'good news is
Seems to be very true.
- - - - - - - - - -
discovery ! -- Nov.
2007. The word for Osho may also be derived from the original
word for the folded hands greeting, called namaste in India and hezhang
in China. Click this link for more on
dating is a bit peculiar here. The page
linked to, a supposed sequel, is dated a month earlier than this
article. Perhaps Oshobob's main "What Is an Osho?" page is dated this
way because of minor additions. If it matters.]