Buddha and the Knotted Handkerchief – Osho

I am reminded of a story. Gautam the Buddha one day comes into his morning discourse; ten thousand sannyasins are waiting for him, just like every day. But today there is something surprising.

Everybody is puzzled and looking at each other, because Buddha is coming with a handkerchief, it is very costly – perhaps some king has presented it to him.

But he does not accept that kind of thing, so everybody is looking, thinking, what is the matter?

And why should he bring it just in his hand ahead of himself almost saying to everybody, “Look, look well”? And then he comes and sits; and keeping the handkerchief in his hand, says to his sannyasins, “Look very carefully.”

They all look. There is nothing to look at, just a beautiful silken handkerchief.  And then Buddha starts putting knots in the handkerchief; he puts five knots in it. There is immense silence… everybody is simply watching what he is doing. Then Buddha asks them, “Is this the same handkerchief the same that I had brought with me, or is it a different handkerchief?”

Sariputta, one of his chief disciples, stands up and says, “Why are you joking with us? You have never done such a thing. This is the same handkerchief.”

Buddha says, “Sariputta, think once again – because the handkerchief that I brought had no knots, and this has five knots. How can this be the same?”

Sariputta could see the point. He said, “I am sorry. I do understand. Although it is the same handkerchief now it is in a very knotted condition – such as a man in anguish. He is the same man; a man in suffering is the same man but in knots.”

Buddha said, “Exactly right. That’s what I want to show to you: that the man who is in suffering is not different from Gautam the Buddha. I am just a handkerchief without knots. You are a handkerchief with five knots.” Of course Buddha has his philosophy of five basic problems that trouble man: violence, greed, untruthfulness, unawareness, and the ego. You can find many more knots; these are just the main ones according to him.

Secondly he said, “I would like to ask you one thing more. I am trying to open these knots. Look at me – will this help to open the knots?” He pulled both the ends of the handkerchief; the knots became smaller and tighter. Somebody shouted, “What are you doing? This way those knots will never open. Such fine silk and you are pulling so hard! The knots are becoming so small that it will become almost impossible to open them again.”

Buddha said, “You can understand about this handkerchief so clearly – can’t you understand yourself? Can’t you see yourself in the same, understanding way? Have you been pulling your knots or not? Otherwise why do they go on becoming smaller and smaller, and tighter and tighter?

”A child is loose, relaxed. Look at the old man, just knots and knots. Certainly, whatever you are

doing is wrong. You are pulling the handkerchief. You are trying hard; your intention is good, you want to open the knots. You are taking much trouble – but your doing is your very undoing. You are making things more and more complicated, worse and worse. And the more complicated they become, the harder you pull, because you think, what else to do?”

Buddha asked, “Then I would like to ask you, what do you suppose I should do?”

One monk stood up and he said, “I would like to come close, and first I would like to see how the knots have been put together.”

Buddha said, “That’s a scientific way. Before you can undo something, you have to know how it has been done, because if you know how it has been done, you have already known all that is needed to undo it; you have just to reverse the process.”

The monk looked at the handkerchief and he said “The knots have been done in such a way that if we relax the handkerchief and allow the knots to become looser rather than tighter, and help them to become loose, it is not going to be very difficult. They are simple knots.”

Buddha gave the handkerchief to him and the man opened the knots one by one. Buddha said,

”Today’s sermon is finished. I am not going to speak anymore today. Just go and meditate about your knots, and how you have managed to make them so tight. And just do the reverse.”

Any small problem, just look at it, at how you have been trying to solve it and it goes on becoming worse and worse. Certainly in your doing there is something which is becoming a  nourishment to it rather than a killer. You are not poisoning it; you are nourishing it, feeding it. And don’t try to work on so many knots together. Just choose one small knot, the smallest you can find in yourself; by smallest, I mean the most insignificant.

People have the tendency to choose the most significant; even when they are choosing to solve their problems, they choose the greatest problem first. Now, that is simply foolish. Just become a little aware, alert. Start from the small things, very small things.

In one sermon Buddha was speaking, and a man sitting in front of him was moving his toe continuously. Buddha was not like me; otherwise he would have stopped him immediately. He tolerated it, tolerated it, tolerated it – but it was too much, because the man was just in front of him and he went on, went on, went on.

At the end Buddha said, “What is wrong with your toe?” The moment he said, “What is wrong with your toe?” the man stopped. Buddha said, “This is what is wrong with your toe: you are not aware of it. You were not doing it, it was happening almost unconsciously. It is just a habit; you must be doing it everywhere you are sitting. Now it goes on doing it by itself knowing that the master needs it. The master is not even aware that it is happening, because the moment I asked you about it, it stopped immediately. That means the moment your awareness went to the toe there was a complete break.”

Now, start with such small things which have not much investment in them. People start with their ego – they want to become egoless. Now, you are taking on such a big problem. You are so small, and the problem is so big, that you are going to fail.

In fact that’s why you have chosen the big problem, because you want to fail, you don’t want to succeed. Perhaps this too is the way of the ego, to choose the biggest problem. You are no ordinary man trying to change small things here and there; when you want to change, you want to change the real problem. Perhaps this is the ego coming in from the back and deceiving you.

Now choose something very insignificant, which makes not much difference. But the beauty is,

the smallest problem has the same properties as the biggest problem, the same ingredients as the biggest problem and the same solution as the biggest problem.

All problems are one problem.

If you can solve a small problem – dissolve it, get rid of it, be finished with it – you know the master key.

Now you can go on opening all the locks in your house. And there is not going to be any trouble.

The basic key is awareness.

And while solving a small problem, you are starting to learn the ABC of awareness.

Choose something meaningless with no investment; it will be easier to work with. And once you have worked with it, you will be surprised: you have the secret, the whole secret of your puzzled, knotted life.

Solve it, then man is born in you. Before that, you are only a problem.


Taken from the series From Misery to Enlightenment, chapter 19.

Copyright© OSHO International Foundation

An audio file of this discourse can be downloaded from Osho.com, or you can read the entire book online at the Osho Library.

Both audio and pdf files can be downloaded from Osho World.

5 thoughts on “Buddha and the Knotted Handkerchief – Osho”

    1. As far as I am concerned, you are free to use anything that you find on my blogsite. If you want to provide a link so they can find other things that interest them that is okay too. Cheers.


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