on Notable People — 06 May 2015

Heraclitus was born in Ephesus (near modern-day Selçuk, Turkey) ca. 535-475 BCE.

He was a Greek philosopher, known for his doctrine of change being central to the universe, and for establishing the term Logos (λόγος) in Western philosophy as meaning both the source and fundamental order of the Cosmos.  


He criticized his predecessors and contemporaries for their failure to see the unity in experience. He claims to announce an everlasting word (Logos) according to which all things are one, in some sense. Opposites are necessary for life, but they are unified in a system of balanced exchanges. The world itself consists of a law-like interchange of elements, symbolized by fire. Thus the world is not to be identified with any particular substance, but rather with an ongoing process governed by a law of change. The underlying law of nature also manifests itself as a moral law for human beings. Heraclitus is the first Western philosopher to go beyond physical theory in search of metaphysical foundations and moral applications.


I have been in love with Heraclitus for many lives.

In fact, Heraclitus is the only Greek I have ever been in love with – except, of course, Mukta, Seema and Neeta!

Heraclitus is really beautiful. Had he been born in India, or in the East, he would have been known as a buddha. But in Greek history, Greek philosophy, he was a stranger, an outsider. He is known in Greece not as an enlightened person but as Heraclitus the Obscure, Heraclitus the Dark, Heraclitus the Riddling. And the father of Greek philosophy and of Western thought, Aristotle, thought that he was no philosopher at all. Aristotle said, “At the most he is a poet,” but that too was difficult for him to concede. So later on he said in other works, “There must be some defect in Heraclitus’ character, something wrong biologically; that’s why he talks in such obscure ways, and talks in paradoxes.” Aristotle thought that he was a little eccentric, a little mad – and Aristotle dominates the whole West. If Heraclitus had been accepted, the whole history of the West would have been totally different. But he was not understood at all. He became more and more separate from the main current of Western thinking and the Western mind.

Heraclitus was like Gautam Buddha or Lao Tzu or Basho. The Greek soil was absolutely not good for him. He would have been a great tree in the East: millions would have profited, millions would have found the way through him. But for Greeks he was just outlandish, eccentric, something foreign, alien; he didn’t belong to them. That’s why his name has remained just on the side, in a dark corner; by and by he has been forgotten.

At the moment when Heraclitus was born, precisely at that moment, humanity reached a peak, a moment of transformation. It happens with humanity just as with an individual: there are moments when changes happen.

[…] Twenty-five centuries ago there were born in India, Gautam Buddha, Mahavira the Jaina; in China, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu; in Iran, Zarathustra; and in Greece, Heraclitus. They are the peaks. Never before were such peaks attained, or if they were attained they are not part of history, because history starts with Jesus.

Heraclitus is a
really rare flowering,
one of the most highly
penetrating souls…

You don’t know what happened these twenty-five centuries ago. Again the moment is coming, we are again in a fluid state: the old is meaningless, the past doesn’t have any significance for you, the future is uncertain – the gap is here. And again humanity will achieve a peak, the same peak as there was in Heraclitus’ time. And if you are a little aware, you can use this moment – you can simply drop out of the wheel of life. When things are liquid, transformation is easy. When things are fixed, then transformation is difficult.

You are fortunate that you are born in an age when things are again in a state of liquidity. Nothing is certain, all old codes and commandments have become useless. New patterns have not settled in. They will settle soon; man cannot remain forever unsettled, because when you are unsettled there is insecurity. Things will settle again, this moment will not last forever; it is only for a few years.

If you can use it, you can reach a peak which will be very, very difficult to reach in other times. If you miss it, the moment is missed for twenty-five centuries again.

Remember this: life moves in a cycle, everything moves in a cycle. The child is born, then comes the age of youth, then old age, then death. It moves just as seasons move: summer comes, then rains follow, then comes winter, and it goes on in a circle. The same happens in the dimension of consciousness: every twenty-five centuries the circle is complete and before the new circle starts there is a gap you can escape through; the door is open for a few years.

Heraclitus is a really rare flowering, one of the most highly penetrating souls, one of those souls who become like Everest, the highest peak of the Himalayas. Try to understand him. It is difficult; that’s why he is called Heraclitus the Obscure. He is not obscure. To understand him is difficult; to understand him you will need a different type of being – that is the problem. So it is easy to categorize him as obscure and then forget him.

Heraclitus is a rishi

There are two types of people. If you want to understand Aristotle you don’t need any change in your being, you simply need some information. A school can provide some information about logic, philosophy; you can collect some intellectual understanding and you can understand Aristotle. You need not change to understand him, you need only a few more additions to your knowledge. The being remains the same, you remain the same. You need not have a different plane of consciousness; that is not the requirement. Aristotle is clear. If you want to understand him, a little effort is enough; anybody of average mind and intelligence will understand him. But to understand Heraclitus is going to be rough terrain, difficult, because whatsoever you collect as knowledge will not be of much help; just a very, very cultivated head won’t be of any help. You will need a different quality of being – and that is difficult – you will need a transformation. Hence, he is called obscure.

He is not obscure! You are below the level of being where he can be understood. When you reach that level of being, suddenly all darkness around him disappears. He is one of the most luminous beings; he is not obscure, he is not dark – it is you who are blind. Remember this always, because if you say he is dark you are throwing the responsibility on him, you are trying to escape from a transformation that is possible through encountering him. Don’t say that he is dark. Say, “We are blind,” or, “Our eyes are closed.”

Heraclitus is called
“that Riddler.”
He is not,
he is true to life.

The sun is there: you can stand in front of the sun with closed eyes and you can say the sun is dark. And sometimes it also happens that you can stand with open eyes before the sun, but the light is so much that your eyes temporarily go blind. The light is too much to bear, it is unbearable; suddenly, darkness. Eyes are open, the sun is there, but the sun is too much for your eyes so you feel darkness. And that is the case – Heraclitus is not dark. Either you are blind, or your eyes are closed, or there is also the third possibility: when you look at Heraclitus, he is such a luminous being that your eyes simply lose the capacity to see. He is unbearable, the light is too much for you. You are not accustomed to such light so you will need to make a few arrangements before you can understand Heraclitus. And when he is talking he looks as if he is riddling, he looks as if he is enjoying riddles, because he talks in paradoxes.

All those who have known always talk in paradoxes. There is something to it – they are not riddling, they are very simple. But what can they do? If life itself is paradoxical, what can they do? Just to avoid paradoxes you can create neat and clean theories, but they will be false, they will not be true to life. Aristotle is very neat, clean; he looks like a man-managed garden. Heraclitus looks like riddles – he is a wild forest.

With Aristotle there is no trouble; he has avoided the paradox, he has made a neat and clean doctrine – it appeals. You will be scared to face Heraclitus because he opens the door of life, and life is paradoxical. Buddha is paradoxical, Lao Tzu is paradoxical; all those who have known are bound to be paradoxical. What can they do? If life itself is paradoxical, they have to be true to life. And life is not logical. It is a logos, but it is not logic. It is a cosmos, it is not a chaos – but it is not logic.

If you want
any parallels
to Heraclitus
in the East,
then you will
find them in
Zen masters…

The word logos has to be understood because Heraclitus will use it. And the difference between logos and logic also has to be understood. Logic is a doctrine about what is true, and logos is truth itself.

Logos is existential, logic is not existential; logic is intellectual, theoretical. Try to understand. If you see life you will say there is death also. How can you avoid death? If you look at life, it is implied. Every moment of life is also a moment of death; you cannot separate them. It becomes a riddle.

[…] But logic tries to be clear, and just to be clear it avoids. It says life is life, death is death – they are separate. Aristotle says A is A, it is never B. That became the foundation stone of all Western thought: avoid the contradiction – love is love, hate is hate; love is never hate. This is foolish because every love implies hate, has to; that’s how nature is. You love a person and you hate the same person, you have to; you cannot avoid it. If you try to avoid it everything will become false. That’s why your love has become false: it is not true, it is not authentic. It cannot be sincere, it is a facade.

Why is it a facade? – because you are avoiding the other. You say, “You are my friend and a friend cannot be an enemy. And you are my enemy, you cannot be my friend.” But these are two aspects of the same coin – the enemy is a hidden friend, and the friend is a hidden enemy. The other aspect is hidden, but it is there. But it will be too much for you. If you see both it will be unbearable. If you see the enemy in the friend you will not be able to love him. If you see the friend in the enemy you will not be able to hate him. The whole life will become a riddle.

He is one of the
most luminous beings;
he is not obscure,
he is not dark –
it is you
who are blind.

Heraclitus is called “that Riddler.” He is not, he is true to life. Whatsoever it is, he simply reports it. He has no doctrine about life, he is not a system-maker – he is simply a mirror. Whatsoever life is he represents it. Your face changes, the mirror represents it; you are loving, the mirror represents it; next moment you become hateful, the mirror represents it. The mirror is not riddling, it is true.

Aristotle is not like a mirror, he is like a dead photograph. It doesn’t change, it doesn’t move with life. That’s why Aristotle says there is some defect in this man Heraclitus, some defect in his very character. For Aristotle mind should be clear, systematic, rational; logic should be the goal of life and you should not mix the opposites. But who is mixing them? Heraclitus is not mixing them. They are there, mixed. Heraclitus is not responsible for them. And how can you separate them if they are mixed in life itself? Yes, in your books you can try, but your books will be false. A logical statement is basically going to be false because it cannot be a life statement. And a life statement is going to be illogical because life exists through contradictions.

Look at life: everywhere there is contradiction. But nothing is wrong in contradiction, it is just because it is unbearable for your logical mind. If you attain to a mystic insight it becomes beautiful.

[…] What is the message of Heraclitus, the deepest message? Understand so you can follow.

He does not believe in things, he believes in processes – process is God to him. And if you watch closely, you will see that THINGS don’t exist in the world; everything is a process. In fact to use the word ‘is’ is existentially wrong, because everything is becoming. Nothing is in a state of isness, nothing!

You say, “This is a tree.” By the time you say it, it has grown; your statement is already false. The tree is never static, so how can you use the word, is? It is always becoming, becoming something else. Everything is growing, moving, in a process. Life is movement. It is like a river – always moving. Says Heraclitus, “You cannot step in the same river twice,” because by the time you come to step into it the second time, it has moved. It is a flow. Can you meet the same person twice? Impossible! You were here yesterday morning also – but am I the same? Are you the same? Both rivers have changed. You may be here again tomorrow, but you will not find me; somebody else will be here.

Life is changing. “Only change is eternal,” says Heraclitus – only change never changes. Everything else changes. He believes in a permanent revolution. Everything is in revolution. It is how it is there. To be means to become. To remain where you are means to move; you cannot stay, nothing is static. Even the hills, the Himalayas, are not static; they are moving, moving fast. They are born, then they die. The Himalayas is one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world, and it is still growing. It has not reached its peak yet, it is very young – every year it grows one foot. There are old mountains whose peaks have been attained; now they are falling down, old, their backs are bent.

This is the
deepest message
of Heraclitus:
everything flows
and changes…

These walls you see around you, every particle of them is in movement. You cannot see the movement because the movement is very subtle and fast. Now physicists agree with Heraclitus, not with Aristotle, remember. Whenever any science reaches nearer to reality, it has to agree with Lao Tzu and Heraclitus. Now physicists say everything is in movement. Eddington has said that the only word which is false is rest. Nothing is at rest, nothing can be; it is a false word, it doesn’t correspond to any reality. “Is” is just in the language. In life, in existence, there is no “is”; everything is becoming. Heraclitus himself, when he says about the river – and the symbol of the river is very, very deep with him – that you cannot step in the same river twice, he also says that even if you do, you are the same and you are not the same. Just on the surface you look the same. Not only has the river changed, you have also changed.

It happened: A man came to Buddha to insult him – he spat on his face. Buddha wiped his face and asked the man, “Have you anything more to say?” – as if he had said something. The man was puzzled, because he never expected this type of response. He went away. The next day he came again – because the whole night he couldn’t sleep; he felt more and more that he had done something absolutely wrong, he felt guilty. The next morning he came, fell at Buddha’s feet and said, “Forgive me!”

And Buddha said, “Who will forgive you now? The man you spat upon is no more, and the man you were who spat is no more either – so who will forgive whom? Forget about it, now nothing can be done about it. It cannot be undone – finished!… because nobody is there, both parties are dead. What can be done? You are a new man and I am a new man.”

This is the deepest message of Heraclitus: everything flows and changes; everything moves, nothing is static. And the moment you cling, you miss reality. Your clinging becomes the problem, because reality changes and you cling.

Life moves through one opposite to another. And Heraclitus says this is the secret, the hidden harmony; this is the hidden harmony. He is very poetic, he has to be. He cannot be philosophic because philosophy means reason. Poetry can be contradictory; poetry can say things which philosophers will be ashamed to say – poetry is truer to life. And philosophers just go around and around: they never hit the point in the center, they beat around and around the bush. Poetry simply hits directly.

If you want any parallels to Heraclitus in the East, then you will find them in Zen masters, Zen poets, particularly in the poetry known as haiku. One of the great masters of haiku is Basho. Basho and Heraclitus are absolutely close, in a deep embrace; they are almost one. Basho has not written anything in a philosophical way; he has written in small haikus, just three-line, seventeen-syllable haikus, just small pieces. Heraclitus has also written fragments; he has not written a system like Hegel, Kant; he is not a systematizer – just oracular maxims. Each fragment is complete in itself, just like a diamond; each cut to its perfection in itself, no need to be related to another. He has spoken in an oracular way.

The whole method of the oracular maxim has disappeared from the West. Only Nietzsche wrote in the same way again: his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra consists of oracular maxims – but since Heraclitus, only Nietzsche. In the East, everybody who has been enlightened has written in that way. That is the way of the Upanishads, the Vedas, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Basho: just maxims. They are so small that you have to penetrate them, and just by trying to understand them you will change and your intellect cannot cope with them. Says Basho in a small haiku:

Old pond frog jump
in water

Finished! He has said everything. Pictorial: you can see an ancient pond, a frog sitting on the bank, and… the jump of the frog. You can see the splash, and the sound of water. And, says Basho, everything has been said. This is all life is: An ancient pond… a jump of the frog, the sound of water – and silence. This is what you are; this is what everything is – and silence.

The same way Heraclitus talks in his river fragment. First he uses the sounds of a river – autoisi potamoisi; before he says something he uses the sounds of the river, and then he gives the maxim: You cannot step twice in the same river. He is a poet, but no ordinary poet – a poet Hindus have always called a rishi. There are two types of poets. One who is still dreaming and creating poetry out of his dreams – a Byron, a Shelley, a Keats. Then there is another type of poet, a rishi, who is no longer dreaming – he looks at the reality, and out of the reality poetry is born. Heraclitus is a rishi, a poet who is no longer dreaming, who has encountered existence. He is the first existentialist in the West.

Osho, The Hidden Harmony, Ch 1 (excerpts)