Oshobob's "What is an Osho?"

This page is part of the historical background relating to "What Is an Osho?", a slick, sannyas-paradigm-shifting policy paper written by Amrito and circulated in 1998. A deconstruction of Amrito's paper is presented on this site, introduced here.

The author of this piece, "Oshobob", is a Chinese scholar with a deep interest in Osho and Chan / Zen. At one time he 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 Amrito's doc.

What is an Osho?
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 extinguished.

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 of Jesus, two 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 Buddha's ideas 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 someone from 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 Heshang.
he-shang etc
The Chinese use a title word like this after the name of the person -- his 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 Chinese 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 transformed.

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 master Linji Heshang in 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.

I 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.
[This list is not actually preserved at Archive.org, but many of Oshobob's pages are. And those relating to Osho's talks about these Zen masters have been adapted in another section of this site, including a lineage chart from Buddha through to the Japanese Zen masters.]

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 "meditation" in 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 anyone can.  

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 Rajneesh's original 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 no news'."  

Seems to be very true.

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(New 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 this.)
[The 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.]