Lao Tzu: The Way of Negative

Osho on Enlightened Tao Master Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu was an enlightened Mystic, who was the founder of Taoism, a Mystical religious way of inner search in ancient China. He is largely respected as a religious deity in various traditional Chinese religious schools of thought. He wrote TAO TE CHING, a book on Tao, in the very beginning he has clearly stated that the truth cannot be said and whatever I am saying is not truth.

Osho explains Tao and says Tao simply means the ultimate principle that binds the whole existence together. The existence is not a chaos that much is certain; it is a cosmos. There is immense order in it, intrinsic order in it, and the name of that order is Tao. Tao simply means the harmony of the whole. No temples have been built for Tao; no statues, no prayers, no priests, no rituals — that’s the beauty of it. Hence I don’t call it a doctrine, nor do I call it a religion, it is a pure insight. You can call it Dharma; that is Buddha’s word for Tao. The word in English that comes closer or closest to Tao is “Nature” with a capital N.

Osho has spoken on Lao Tzu very lovingly and immensely in many of his discourses such as ‘Tao: The Three Treasures’, ‘Tao: The Pathless Path’ but particularly in discourse series ‘Tao: The Golden Gate’.

Osho explains his similarities with Lao Tzu and says I speak on Lao Tzu totally differently. I am not related to him because even to be related a distance is needed. I don’t love him, because how can you love yourself? When I speak on Lao Tzu I speak as if I am speaking on my own self. With him my being is totally one. When I speak on Lao Tzu it is as if I am looking in a mirror — my own face is reflected. When I speak on Lao Tzu, I am absolutely with him. Even to say “absolutely with him” is not true — I am him, he is me.

Few lines from TAO TE CHING:

Tao (The Way) can be infused into the nature and put to use without being exhausted. It is so deep and subtle like an abyss that is the origin of all things. It is complete and perfect as a wholeness that can Round off sharp edges; Resolve confusion; Harmonize with the glory; Act in unity with the lowliness. Tao is so profound and yet in invisible, It exists in everywhere and anywhere. I don not know whose Son It is, It existed before heaven and earth.

Osho Says….













Lao Tzu is one of those few masters who have tried to say the truth as accurately as it is humanly possible. He has made tremendous effort to bring the inexpressible to the world of expression, to bring the wordless experience within the confinement of small words. The words we know are mundane; they are meant for ordinary day-to-day use. And the experience that happens in absolute silence is absolutely beyond them. But still it has to be expressed — if not expressed, at least hinted at. Lao Tzu’s words are fingers pointing to the moon. Don’t cling to the fingers. Forget the fingers and look at the moon, and great insight will descend upon you. There is no other scripture like the TAO TE CHING for the simple reason that each single word in it is immensely pregnant, not only with the unknown but also with the unknowable. Words have been used only as indicators, milestones showing the way, telling you to go ahead, not to stop there.

These words are very significant, but at the first reading they will look very puzzling, confusing, paradoxical, contradictory — unless you have tasted something of meditation. That taste makes everything clear.

Meditation is like eyes. When you talk about light to a man who has eyes, he immediately understands what you mean. When you talk to the blind man about light, he HEARS the word but listens to nothing, understands nothing. His ears are perfect; the word reaches him but empty, with no content. The content has always to be put by your experience. These words are not ordinary words. Unless you come to them with great meditation it is impossible to figure out what is what. If you come with meditation, then things cannot be more simple than Lao Tzu’s words are. He says, “Knowing the not-knowing — that is high.” The highest point is that nothing can be known, that everything is unknowable — and not only unknown, but unknowable. A distinction has to be made between the unknown and the unknowable; these two words have to be pondered over. The first is the known. That which is known today was unknown yesterday. That which is unknown today may become known tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Hence the difference between the known and the unknown. It is not a difference that makes any difference; it is only a question of time. There is no qualitative difference between the two. But the unknowable is qualitatively different. The unknowable is that which has never been known and will never be known; unknowability is its intrinsic nature.

This is the most profound truth, that life in its totality, in its organic wholeness is absolutely a mystery. It is not a problem that can be solved, it is not a question that can be answered. No amount of knowledge is going to demystify it. It will remain mysterious. Mysteriousness is not something accidental to it. You cannot take it away from it; it is its very soul.

And whatsoever we know is just superficial, very superficial. Whatsoever we know is only befooling ourselves.

D. H. Lawrence, one of the mystic poets of this age, and a man I love and respect very much, was walking in a garden with a small child. The child asked him — and only a child can ask such a tremendously significant question…. The knowledgeable people always ask foolish questions because they ask out of their knowledge. In fact, they have already got the answer and they are asking just to see whether you have also got the answer or not. They are searching for an argument to prove their knowledge. Their question is not authentic, is not true. Any question arising out of your knowledge is pseudo. But when small children ask something they mean it; it is not out of knowledge, it is out of innocence, out of a state of not knowing. Whenever there is a question out of not knowing it has immense beauty, splendor.

The child asked D. H. Lawrence, “Can you tell me one thing: why are the trees green? Why not red? Why not blue? Why not black? Why not this, why not that? Why are they green and always green?”

A man of knowledge would have answered very easily. He would have told the child the chemistry of the trees, the biology of the trees. He may have told the child about chlorophyll: “Why are the trees green? — it is because of the presence of chlorophyll.” But D. H. Lawrence remained silent; he closed his eyes. The child was puzzled — such a great man, world famous, author of many books, who could not answer such a small question? The child nudged him and said, “Why have you closed your eyes? Either you know or you don’t know! What are you doing with closed eyes? If you know, say it; if you don’t know, say so.”

D. H. Lawrence said, “The trees are green because they are green.”

And the child said, “That’s right!” He was absolutely satisfied, contented. He said, “That’s right — trees are green because they are green!”

But only a child can ask such a question, and only a child can receive such an answer. What Lawrence is saying is exactly what Lao Tzu is saying. To say that trees are green because they are green, is to accept the ultimate mystery, that nothing can be said. It is so. That was Buddha’s way of answering. His word was TATHATA. Tathata can be translated approximately as suchness. He was asked a thousand and one times, “Why is there death?” And he would say, “Tathata — such is the nature of things.” It is not an answer, remember. What kind of answer is this? “Such is the nature of things — that the water flows downwards and the fire rises upwards.” Such is the nature of things…?

In fact, the word DHAMMA, used by Buddha, which is ordinarily translated as religion, exactly means suchness, the suchness of things, the dhamma of things. “Aes dhammo sanantano” — such is the ultimate nature of things. Nothing more can be said about it. That which is born will have to die. The young will become old, the child will become young, the beautiful will become ugly, the healthy will become ill. Such is the nature of things — but this is not an answer, remember.

And Buddha insisted again and again, “I am not answering your questions, I am only making your questions clear to you.”

This is the difference between a philosopher and a mystic: the philosopher tries to answer your questions, the mystic simply helps you to understand your questions. Whenever Buddha used to go to a new place, his disciples would go ahead and declare to the people: “Please don’t ask these eleven questions. It will be a sheer waste of time, because all that he is going to say is, `Such is the nature of things.’ So WE can say it to you! This will be his answer to these eleven questions: `Such is the nature of things.’ So don’t ask these questions.” Neither is Buddha a philosopher, nor Lao Tzu; in fact, no one who has KNOWN is a philosopher. Philosophers are blind people thinking about light. You must have heard the ancient Panchtantra story….

Five blind men went to see an elephant. They were not five blind men, they were five philosophers, but all these philosophers were blind. That story has two meanings: one for small children — then it is five blind people — and one for those who are a little more mature, and then it means five philosophers. Those five blind men touched the elephant from different sides. Somebody touched his feet and declared that the elephant was like a pillar — and so on, so forth. They all described the elephant according to their very limited, partial observation. And they started quarreling, arguing. A great argument arose, and the whole village gathered. They were very argumentative people. They quoted scriptures, they tried to prove that what they were saying was right. They were philosophers, theologians and scholars. Of course there could not have been any conclusion. Philosophers have never come to any conclusion — they cannot, because a conclusion is possible only through experience, and the experience has to be total, absolute, categorical.

The first experience of the mystic is that existence is not a problem but a mystery; it is unknowable — not only unknown. Science divides existence into two categories: the known and the unknown. Hence science assumes that a day is bound to come when the whole unknown will be transformed into the known. That will be the end of all inquiry. But religion believes in three categories. The known and the unknown belong to the lower world of knowledge, and the unknowable belongs to the higher world of knowledge. That higher will always remain the same; it will be always there to inquire into, to go into; to merge with, to melt into, to become one with. Lao Tzu says: KNOWING THE NOT-KNOWING — knowing that life is absolutely mysterious, that there is no way to know it — THAT IS HIGH. That is the ultimate of experience. There is no beyond to it, nothing more transcendental than that; one has arrived home. The moment you enter the mysterious, you have found the home. No knowledge can satisfy you unless you are merged with the unknowable.


Lao Tzu calls even wisdom an illness, because you are falling from the ultimate health, ultimate well-being.


Even by saying, “I don’t know,” you have asserted something, you have said something, you have claimed some knowledge. For example, if Socrates had met Lao Tzu, Lao Tzu would have said, “You are ill — ill with wisdom! A good illness, but you are just a step below,” because Socrates’ famous statement is: “I know only one thing, that I know nothing.” But there is a claim: “I know.” Although the claim is that “I know nothing,” still it is a claim of knowing, a claim of knowledge. Even though it claims that life is mysterious, the claim has come in.

Even to say that God is indefinable is a kind of definition. To say that truth is inexpressible is in a certain sense giving it some expression. To say that the truth cannot be said means you have said something about it. Your very statement falsifies it; it is self-contradictory. Hence he calls it illness — it is self-contradictory.

Lao Tzu was one of the most consistent men; it is rare to find a Buddha so consistent as Lao Tzu. His whole life he never wrote. All the teaching that he gave to his disciples was not a teaching at all; his whole method was VIA NEGATIVA. The disciple would come to him with all his knowledge, and Lao Tzu would start dismantling his knowledge, destroying his knowledge; that was his whole and sole purpose. He would go on taking away your knowledge brick by brick. A moment comes when the whole building of your knowledge collapses; then you are left in a vacuum. That is the moment Lao Tzu would say, “Now you can sit by my side — just sit in this vacuum.” And of course in a vacuum you cannot ask any question, you cannot expect any answer. If you can ask, if you can expect, it is not a true vacuum yet. A true vacuum means no answer, no question; nothing is left, all has disappeared. The very earth beneath your feet has been taken away; you are falling into a bottomless abyss.

These were the people Lao Tzu had gathered around himself.

They would sit with him, they would walk with him, they would move from one village to another village. But he was not like Buddha or Mahavira, who were teaching, who were trying to convey something of the unconveyable. His whole life he was asked again and again by the kings, by the emperors, by the rich people, “Please write something about your experience for the coming generations. Don’t take it away with you. We know you know, whether you say it or not. We know, because your very presence is so pregnant it is almost tangible. We can touch it, we feel it, we become flooded with it. We know you know! Please write something, just a few words for the future generations to know that a man like Lao Tzu has been in existence.” But he was very reluctant. He would simply laugh, he would not even say no.

Once a disciple asked, “At least just to be polite you can say no!”

And Lao Tzu said, “To say no means you are on the way to saying yes! If they can get a no out of me, sooner or later they will get a yes too, because yes and no are two sides of the same coin.”

And he is right, he is absolutely right. If somebody says no to you, that means there is hope — yes IS possible. There is a possibility; however far away it may be, there is a possibility. The no can turn into yes because yes can turn into no; they go on changing into each other. And you know that your no in the morning becomes yes in the evening, your yes in the evening becomes no in the morning; they are interchangeable. They are not so contradictory as they appear. Somewhere deep down they are joined. Lao Tzu would not even say no, he would only laugh. Now, what to make of this laugh? You cannot make anything out of it. He is neither saying yes nor saying no; he is not falling from his high state. But at the last moment he was forced to write — this is the only document in the whole history of humanity which has been written under compulsion, which has been coerced — because he wanted to go to the Himalayas. The Himalayas divide China and India; in one sense they divide, in another sense they join. You can see — yes and no are not very different! He wanted to go to the Himalayas. His disciples asked, “Why?” He had become very old. He must have been very old for the simple reason that…. The story is beautiful; true or not, that is not the point. I am a lover of beauty; I don’t bother whether it is true or not! Beauty is something higher than truth. Truth is logical, beauty is aesthetic. Truth is of the head, beauty is something deeper — of the heart. I love the story….

Lao Tzu lived in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years! It is almost impossible. When he was born he was already eighty-two years old, with a long beard, long hair, and all white. He was already an ancient man — and then he must have lived at least eighty years more. That has been the habit in the East of all the enlightened people. Buddha lived eighty-two years, Mahavira lived eighty-two years, Krishna lived eighty-two years, but Lao Tzu defeated all of them. He lived eighty-two years in the mother’s womb first! Then to balance things he must have lived at least eighty-two years outside the womb. He was a man of balance! So by the time he started thinking about finding a right place to die, he must have been near about one hundred and sixty years old. He asked his friends and disciples, “Now give me permission. I would like to go to a faraway virgin peak of the Himalayas to die so that no trace of me is left behind, not even footprints on the sands of time. I would simply like to disappear into the wildness of the Himalayas. Nobody will ever know where I died, where my bones are, where my body is, where my grave is. I just want to melt into existence.”

They were sad, but they knew their master — that when he said something he meant it. Reluctantly, they gave him the farewell. When he was leaving the country, the emperor of the country ordered all the guards at all the posts: “Lao Tzu is not to be allowed to leave the country unless he writes down his experience in short, to be preserved for future generations.” He was caught at the border, and the military guards wouldn’t allow him leave until he wrote something. Under such compulsion, he sat in one of the guards’ homes for three days. Day in, day out he wrote his small treatise, TAO TE CHING. These are words from that treatise. And when the treatise was complete, he left. But he begins the treatise with a very strange statement: “TAO cannot be spoken. The moment it is spoken, it is no longer true. Now you can read whatsoever I am writing, it is no longer true; it has already fallen. It has come down from its profound silence into the noisy world of words.”

That’s what he calls illness.

To say something about the ultimate is a fall — you have lost the wholeness. To be whole is to be healthy. That’s exactly the meaning of healthy: to be whole. Nothing is missing; all parts are functioning in deep harmony, in accord, in tune with each other. It is an organic unity. To be ill means some parts are missing, nonfunctioning. The accord is lost, the harmony is no longer there; some trouble has arisen, the balance has been lost. That’s the meaning of illness.


There is an irresistible urge to say when you experience. You want to share it — it is uncontainable. You can see other people searching for it, and you have got it. It is as if you are standing at a crossroads: you know the right way, and people are searching for it; how can you remain silent? It is irresistible! But the problem is, the moment you say, “This is the right road,” it becomes wrong. Saying it is falsifying it. Truth is infinite and words are very finite. Hence Lao Tzu says: The best is not to say, the next best is to say. The best is to be whole, the next best is to be partially true. But remember: because truth is indivisible, you cannot be partially true. Hence his insistence that the moment you say it, it becomes false. To be partially true means to be false, because truth is indivisible. But still he could understand the need of the person who has experienced to convey it, and the need of others who are in search of it, so he allowed it. He says:


…I am not condemning him, I am not saying that he is pathological. All that I am saying is that he is no longer the total, he is now only a glimpse, a faraway glimpse. He is now only a picture of the sunset, not the sunset itself. He is now only an echo. If this can be remembered, then even the echo can be used to find the original source. Then even the picture of a sunset can be of immense help. But people are such fools: they worship the pictures of the sunset, they forget all about the sunset. In fact, if you tell them, “This is not the sunset that you are worshipping, this is only a picture,” they will be angry. Go and tell the Hindus, “The gods that you are worshipping in your temples are not real gods. These are only pictures, photographs, and that too not true to the original, just imaginary, metaphorical!” They will be angry, they will throw you out of their temple. Or to the Christians, or to the Mohammedans, or to the Jainas…go anywhere, they will not listen to you.

Go to a Jaina temple and you will find twenty-four statues of their masters. And you will be surprised — they all look alike, exactly alike. Even Jainas cannot make the distinction! To be able to make the distinction, who is who, they have made small symbols underneath the statues. So they can tell who is who — that this is Mahavira and this is Parshvanath and this is Neminath — they just make small symbols; otherwise the statues are exactly the same. These statues cannot be authentic; they can only at the most be symbolic. Who has ever heard of twenty-four persons exactly alike? — the same noses, the same ears…. You will be puzzled: all their ears are touching their shoulders. The earlobes…all! It may have been that one person’s earlobes may have touched, but now it has become absolutely necessary for a Jaina TIRTHANKARA’S earlobes to touch the shoulders; otherwise he is not a tirthankara. And you can find some absolutely dumb, dull, stupid person whose earlobes are touching his shoulders — just a donkey! That does not mean that he has become a tirthankara, that he has become a great enlightened master; otherwise all donkeys will become great enlightened masters! This is simply symbolic.

What can the symbol be? The Jaina method of meditation is to listen, to listen so absolutely and so silently, as if you have become all ears — that is the symbol. So they have made big ears just to indicate their method of meditation. Their method of meditation is listening: listening to the sound of the wind passing through the pine trees, listening to the birds, just listening to anything. The dog barking or the call of a distant cuckoo…just listening, with no judgment, no evaluation. Jainas say that if a person can listen totally, without any interference of the mind, he can become enlightened — just by listening: nothing else is needed. To show this, to represent it in the statue, they have made big ears. But people are worshipping the statues. They are not trying to find out where the sunset is, they have forgotten all about the sunset. It is as if you have seen the sunset through the window. You have forgotten about the sunset, and you are worshipping the frame of the window. Hence, Lao Tzu says that the best is not to say anything about the truth, about your experience.

Then what is a master supposed to do? He can say how he achieved, he can say what the pitfalls to be avoided are, he can help you to refine your methods; again and again he can put you on the right path, he can stop you from going astray. He can tell you about all the means that lead to the end, but about the end he should remain absolutely silent. That’s what I am doing to you: about the end I am absolutely silent. What I am talking about is the method — the meditation, the prayer. These are the ways. When you have arrived, only then will you know what it is; it cannot be said. The moment you say it, something goes “ill” — something goes wrong, something goes sour. But still, Lao Tzu feels that sometimes the masters have spoken out of compassion for those who are still lost in darkness. Hence he says: “The one who suffers from this illness is not ill.” He himself is not ill, but what he says is ill. He himself is whole, but his statement cannot be whole.


This is an excerpt from the transcript of a public discourse by Osho in Buddha Hall, Shree Rajneesh Ashram, Pune. 

Discourse Series: Come, Come, Yet Again Come

Chapter #11

Chapter title: The Suchness of Things

6 November 1980 am in Buddha Hall


Osho has spoken on Krishna, Jesus, Buddha, Mahavira, Shiva, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Lieh Tzu, Bodhidharma, Nansen, Joshu, Ma Tzu, Hyakujo, Patanjali, Kabir, Nanak, Saraha, Tilopa and many other enlightened Masters” in many of His discourses. More on them can be referred to in the following books/discourse titles:

  1. Vigyan Bhairav Tantra
  2. The Dhammapada: The Way of the Buddha
  3. The Mustard Seed: My Most Loved Gospel on Jesus
  4. The Path of Love
  5. Bodhidharma: The Greatest Zen Master
  6. When the Shoe Fits
  7. Hyakujo: The Everest of Zen, with Basho’s Haikus
  8. Krishna: The Man and His Philosophy
  9. The White Lotus
  10. Yoga: The Alpha and the Omega, Vol 1
  11. The Tantra Vision, Vol 1
  12. Ma Tzu: The Empty Mirror
  13. Nansen: The Point of Departure
  14. Vigyan Bhairav Tantra, Vol 1
  15. Joshu: The Lion’s Roar
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