The Essence of Zen
Osho on Jewish Mystic Baal Shem
Born in 1698 in Poland, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer known as the Baal Shem Tov or as the Besht, was a Jewish mystic and healer who is regarded as the founder of Hasidic Judaism. “Besht” is the acronym for Baal Shem Tov, which means “One with the Good Name” or “one with a good reputation”. The little biographical information about the Besht comes from oral traditions handed down by his students (Jacob Joseph of Polonne and others) and from the legendary tales about his life and behavior collected in Shivḥei ha-Besht (In Praise of the Ba’al Shem Tov by Kapust and Berdychiv).
A central tenet in the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching is the direct connection with the divine, “dvekut”, which is infused in every human activity and every waking hour. At the core of the Besht’s teaching is the principle of devekut, and he demanded that devekut exist in all daily acts and in social contacts. Man must worship God not only when practicing religious acts and holy deeds, but also in his daily affairs, in his business, and in social contacts, for when a “man is occupied with material needs, and his thought cleaves to God, he will be blessed”. Prayer is of supreme importance, along with the mystical significance of Hebrew letters and words. His innovation lies in “encouraging worshipers to follow their distracting thoughts to their roots in the divine”.
Osho when he talks about Baal Shem recalls an anecdote and says “When Baal Shem was dying, somebody asked, “Are you prepared to meet the Lord?” He said, “I have always been ready. It is not a question of becoming ready now — I have always been ready. Any moment he could have called me!” The man asked, “What is your readiness?” Baal Shem said, “I know a few beautiful jokes — I will tell him those jokes. And I know he will enjoy them and he will laugh with me. And what else can I offer to him? The whole world is his, the whole universe is his, I am his, so what can I offer to him? Just a few jokes!” Baal Shem is one of the great buddhas who has come out of the Jewish tradition, one of the most loved by his disciples. He was the founder of Hassidism.”
IN URUGUAY, EVENING HAS COME. A SMALL GROUP OF FRIENDS LISTEN AS SILENCE SPEAKS. BELOVED MASTER, WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF ZEN?
It is one of the most significant questions that can be asked.
The small word `Zen’ contains the whole evolution of religious consciousness. It also represents freedom from religious organizations, from priesthood, from any kind of theology, from God. This small word can bring fire to your being.
First look at the history of the word, because that will help you to understand the essence of it. The word Zen is Japanese, but it is not Japanese; it is a Japanese pronunciation of a Chinese word ch’an. And you should remember that Chinese and Japanese are nonalphabetical languages, so pronunciation differs. Even in China for the same word you will find hundreds of pronunciations — the land is so vast. And it is not alphabetical, it is just a symbol. That’s why it is very difficult to learn Chinese or Japanese. To be really a master of the Chinese language at least thirty years’ hard work is needed. Being a nonalphabetical language, you have to remember the meanings of at least one million words — that is the minimum — because each word is a separate symbol. In alphabetical languages it is easier. The same alphabet makes different words, but the alphabet remains the same.
In Chinese each word is independent. You have to remember the meaning of the symbol; the language is symbolic, pictorial. But then it is very difficult to keep the same pronunciation; there is no way to keep the same pronunciation, because the symbol has no fixed pronunciation. So you will find the same word being pronounced differently in different parts of China.
Japanese people can read Chinese but their pronunciation will be totally different. The difference between Japanese and Chinese is only of pronunciation — the symbols are the same. But the pronunciations are so different that they have to be taken as two different languages. So it is the Chinese symbol ch’an that the Japanese manage to pronounce as Zen. But in a strange way it has come very close to the original word. Ch’an also is not Chinese. It came to China with the Buddhist monks some two thousand years ago. Buddhists used the language Pali; their word was jhan. It became in China ch’an. The Pali word jhan comes from the Sanskrit word dhyan, so it has a long history of traveling, taking different shades, meanings. It is Dhyan that we are translating as meditation, pure meditation, just witnessing. There is no question of any certain religion. There is no need of any kind of catechism. You simply don’t need anything as a pre-requisite.
Dhyan is complete in itself. It is the beginning and the end of the whole evolution of consciousness, the alpha and the omega.
People know what prayer is because ordinarily all the religions depend on prayer; Dhyan is just the opposite of prayer. Prayer is directed, addressed towards a God which is just a hypothesis. You say something, you repeat a mantra, you chant something, in the praise of God. It is either out of fear or out of greed. Either you are afraid, so you are remembering God, or you are in need of something desperately and you find yourself unable to find it, so you are asking God to help you. But fear and greed cannot be religion, and truth cannot be found by a hypothetical belief. If you begin with belief, you will end with belief; you will never come to know what is in fact the case. Dhyan is just the opposite, not addressed to anyone — no God, no question of fear, no question of greed. It is something that takes you inwards. Prayer takes you outwards, and anything that takes you outwards is just worldly — whether you do it in the church or in the mosque or in the temple, it does not matter. Unless something leads you inwards, to the very center of your being… nothing else is religious.
religion is very simple: just coming to your own center. Dhyan is the process of coming to yourself: leaving the body out, leaving the mind out, leaving the heart out, leaving everything out — eliminating everything by “I am not this” — until you come to a point where there is nothing to be eliminated. And the strangest experience is that when you have eliminated everything, you are also not there as the old person you used to be, the old ego, the old “I.” It was the combination of all that you have eliminated. Slowly, slowly, without knowing, you have destroyed your ego. Now there is only pure consciousness, just light, eternal light.
Dhyan was taken by the Buddhists to China, but in China a great transformation took place because China was under the great impact of Lao Tzu, and his whole teaching was “let-go.”
Gautam Buddha fights to enter into his own being; at the ultimate point he comes to let-go, but that is the last thing. Tired of the efforts, the struggle, the ascetic practices, finally he drops everything. And in that let-go, that which he has been desiring for years happens. It happens when there is no desire for it. Lao Tzu begins with “let-go” — so there has been a beautiful meeting.
Religions have met in other places, but it has been ugly: Mohammedans with Christians, Mohammedans with Hindus, Christians with Hindus, but all their meetings have been conflicts, fights, violence. There has been bloodshed — a great effort to convert the other! The only religious meeting which can be appreciated happened in China between the Buddhist monks and the Taoist monks. They did not argue, they did not fight, they did not try to convert anybody. In fact seeing each other, they immediately understood that they are standing in the same space. Out of this communion of Buddhism and Taoism, ch’an was born. It is the only meeting of two religions which can be said to be friendly, compassionate, loving. There has been no conflict at all, no argument even, but a sheer understanding. In deep silence they both could see that their paths may have been different, but they have arrived at the same peak.
Taoists had no name for it; they have left it unnamed. Buddhists have a name for it, Dhyan. But it was so new they had to make a new symbol for it, and that symbol was pronounced ch’an. It remained the culmination and synthesis of the two greatest and most highly evolved religions — but it remained confined too, to Buddhists and Taoists. When it was taken to Japan by Japanese seekers, it reached a new height; it became free from Buddhism and Taoism too, it became simply Zen. There was no need for all the Buddhist doctrines to support it; nor was there any need for the Taoist philosophy to support it. It was so complete and entire in itself that in Japan, Dhyan in the name of Zen, came to its purest quality. Nowhere else in the world has it happened.
The essence is witnessing. It is completely devoid of any doctrine; it has no teaching. The man of Zen has nothing to teach; he has no philosophy, no religion. He can only explain to you, through different devices, the silence.
And Zen has evolved new devices which were not in the Buddhist jhan nor were they in Chinese ch’an. Zen has taken a totally new course, a new freshness, a new birth.
Even Taoists and Buddhists feel a little strange about Zen. The most orthodox ones laugh at it, that it is absolutely absurd. I have seen prominent Buddhist monks. One was Bhikkhu Sangharakshita. He was an Englishman. He must have become a Buddhist monk very young; now he is very old. He lives in Kalimpong just on the border of India and China. He has his small commune there and he is very respected. He has written beautiful books on Buddhism, but when I mentioned Zen he laughed. I said, “Studying your books I knew you would laugh, because you are still confined to the Buddhist doctrine. You cannot conceive that Zen can exist without any philosophical support. There is no need for any philosophical support; it is a very pragmatic and scientific method. You simply witness your body while walking, sitting, eating, listening, speaking — whatever you are doing, just be watchful.”
There is a Hassid story about Baal Shem, the founder of Hassidism. In the middle of the night he was troubled by some philosophical problem. He came out of his house. The road was empty and he started walking up and down. Seeing him walking up and down, a rich man’s guard came out of the house and asked Baal Shem, “What are you doing here in the middle of the night on the empty road?”
Baal Shem said, “The same question I wanted to ask you. What you are doing here in the middle of the night when the road is empty?”
And the man said, “I am a watchman.”
Baal Shem hugged him, thanked him, but the watchman asked, “For what?”
He said, “I have found the key I was looking for. I was worried how to get out of this worry. The word `watch’ gave me the key. You are my master.”
The watchman said, “I don’t understand what you are talking about.”
He said, “Whether you understand or not does not matter, but you are my master; you have given me the key. I also want to become a watchman.”
The watchman said, “If you want to become a watchman, I can find you a job.”
Baal Shem said, “You don’t understand, and you need not be worried about it. It is not a question of finding a job. My watchmanship is totally different. I want to watch my thoughts.”
The whole process is simple: watching your body, in action, in inaction; watching your mind, with thoughts, without thoughts; watching your heart, with emotions, moods, without emotions, without moods. And when all these have disappeared through watching then your watchfulness goes through a radical transformation: it watches itself, it returns to itself. Just as everything moves in circles in the world — every energy moves in circles and watchfulness is an energy. If nothing obstructs it, it is bound to come back to itself. This has been expressed in different ways. The old man becomes the child… it is the consciousness coming back to the source. Immense innocence is released.
Sangharakshita used to come to me whenever he was passing my way; he made it a point to stay at least one day with me. He was constantly moving around India teaching Buddhism, trying to convert people, but I said to him, “Buddhism has gone far ahead of Gautam Buddha, and you are still hanging on to him.”
The Zen story is: A Zen monk is staying in a Buddhist temple. The night is cold — and in Japan the statues are made of wood — so he takes one of Buddha’s statues and creates fire. The priest was asleep, but he heard the crackling of the fire and saw the light. He came up from his room. He could not believe… Gautam Buddha was burning and that man was sitting by his side enjoying! He said, “You seem to be mad. You have burned one of my beautiful statues of Gautam Buddha. You should be ashamed of yourself. I gave you shelter in the temple and this is the reward? — you have burned Gautam Buddha!”
The monk said, “Wait!” And he took a small piece of wood and started searching in the ashes, but the Buddha was completely burned.
The priest asked, “Now what are you looking for?”
He said, “I am looking for the bones.” Actually he said, “I am looking for the flowers” — because in the East the bones of a dead man are called “flowers.”
“I am looking for the flowers.”
The priest said, “You are certainly mad. How can a wooden statue have flowers?”
The monk said, “That means you agree with me. Then please bring one more, because you have already too many and the night is long and it is too cold. And you have understood that it is just wood — there are no bones, and Buddha cannot be without bones. Just pick up one more.”
But the priest was mad. He said, “I will not let you stay inside for a single moment more. You just get out of the temple!”
While he was pushing him out the monk said, “Listen, you are worshipping dead Buddhas and you are throwing out a living Buddha. You will repent for it.” Only a Zen master could have done that. No Christian bishop, or cardinal, or even a pope can burn Jesus Christ’s wooden statue. He knows it is wooden but he cannot gather courage to burn it. No Hindu can do it. Nobody in the whole world.
Zen has gone far beyond where Buddha left it. If he comes back he will be rejoiced, but these scholars cannot understand that this is the ultimate growth. Now there is nothing more than Zen. There is no possibility I can conceive that can go beyond it. It has left everything possible behind; now only the essential has remained — pure consciousness. Now it has nothing to do with Buddhism, nothing to do with Taoism. It is yours if you do it, whoever you may be: man, woman, black, white, it doesn’t matter.
What I am teaching is exactly pure Zen, without using the word Zen, because although it has gone beyond, still old associations and connotations linger with it. It is still called Zen Buddhism. There are still Zen temples where Gautam Buddha’s statue is worshipped. The greatest Zen masters have gone completely beyond all of these rituals, but there are so many categories. That’s why I am not using the word Zen; otherwise, what I am teaching is exactly pure consciousness, how to enter into it, and how to be it.
This is an excerpt from the transcript of a public discourse by Osho in Punta Del Este, Uruguay.
Discourse Series: The Path of the Mystic
Chapter title: The moment truth compromises, it dies
6 May 1986 pm
Osho has spoken on many Western Mystics like Jesus, Gurdjieff, Magdalen, Rumi, Socrates, Theresa, Zarathustra, St. Francis, Dionysius, Boehme, Eckhart, Baal Shem and many more in His discourses. Some of these can be referred to in the following books/discourses:
- Sermons in Stones
- Come Come Yet Again Come
- Come Follow To You
- Socrates Poisoned Again After 25 Centuries
- The New Dawn
- The Sword and The Lotus
- Beyond Psychology
- The Empty Boat
- I Celebrate Myself: God Is No Where, Life Is Now Here
- Zarathustra: A God That Can Dance
- The Perfect Master
- Sufis: The People of the Path
- The Diamond Sutra