What is an Osho?
a historical tour of a hot word for the here & now
   by oshobob, Dec. 2007
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.
What is an Osho?
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,

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 it's language to
another people.
What is an Osho?
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
Yuezhi clan),  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--his surname, or maybe his
Buddhist initiation name.  So, it would be
for Mr. Wang, or Daoyi Heshang for a
man named Daoyi.  Always written in Chinese

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-deprication 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
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
Heshang, Zhaozhou Heshang, Linji Heshang
etc.  But this is not the only title used for Zen
masters in China.  Also common was
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

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.
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
What is an Osho?
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
shang would be pronounced sho in
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
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
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
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
Hoa thuong in Vietnamese, Hwa
in Korean, and Osho in Japanese.
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,
chan in Chinese, thien in Vietnamese, son
in Korean, and
zen in Japan.  

And the question still remains--what exactly is an

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.
What is an Osho?
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.

(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.)
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.
         oshobob  The Living Workshop                                
                                              What is an Osho?