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Interview with Professor Richard Gombrich

Kathleen Gregory

Richard Gombrich is Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford. He was in Australia as part of the Australasian Buddhist Convention (reviewed in the last edition of Ordinary Mind). Professor Gombrich is the author of a number of books and numerous journal articles dealing particularly with early Buddhism. Ordinary Mind had the good fortune to catch up with Professor Gombrich at the Convention.


Ordinary Mind: Professor Gombrich, could you begin by saying how you came to study early Buddhism?

Professor Richard Gombrich: When I was a schoolboy, I read some books about Indian religion and found them very interesting. My father had taken an amateur interest in China and Chinese philosophy and religion, so he actually had some books on Buddhism. I began that way. Then I had to do military service, which was compulsory in those days, and it so happened, purely by chance, that I got to know a German Buddhist family very well. They were Theravadins, so I learnt much more about Theravada Buddhism. When I went back to Oxford, where I had been doing Latin and Greek, I continued those for a while, then I switched to Pali and Sanskrit. I then got to know a bit more about Theravada as I always rather specialised in Pali; although I have done some Sanskrit Buddhism as well.

OM: It seems that your particular interest lies in creating and understanding the context within which the Buddha was responding; that your research is aimed at more clearly understanding his intention?

PRG: My early research work was, in fact, what you would call anthropological. I went to Sri Lanka and wanted to understand what Buddhism meant to Buddhists in a given context. I clearly found that to take the Buddha's words out of their context, without knowing the cultural background, is liable to give you total misconceptions. For instance, you can simply read that all Buddhists believe that everything is suffering. If you take that seriously, you will think you are going to meet a population of depressives. Of course, Buddhists are quite different to that, which leads to the question, 'How do Buddhists interpret that everything is suffering?'

Gradually it dawned on me that any religion has to be interpreted in this way, whether it is ancient or modern. Of course, being a Sanskritist as well, it wasn't so difficult for me, because I could read the texts that the Buddha was responding to in his day. I discovered, indeed, that they are highly relevant and that the Buddha accepted certain things in them. For instance, he accepted the idea that we are in an endless cycle of rebirth – although he changed the meaning of that very considerably. However, he did have that basic presupposition given to him, along with a lot of other things as well. For example, he was given an alternative idea of what 'religion' was about. It did not just have to be about how human beings can save themselves by resorting to the power of some omnipotent deity.

It immediately became obvious to me that this was an important way of learning more about what the texts mean. Doubly so, because the commentaries seem to be completely unaware of the things to which the Buddha was responding. Of course, we must read the commentaries. They are full of valuable and interesting material. It is just that they don't say the last word on the matter.

OM: It seems from what you were saying – at the Australasian Buddhist Convention – that the last word on the matter has not yet been said. You have made the comparison that the Bible has had so much commentary, and that there is now much more time for critical analysis of early Buddhist texts.

PRG: As an academic, I am committed to the firm belief that the last word will never be said. Otherwise, of course, we could all go home. I think that recently – in the last ten-fifteen years – we have made some extraordinary discoveries, which somehow have not permeated to the wider world, even to the wider world of Buddhists.

For example, I have established the dates of the Buddha, but nobody seems to know or care! I don't know if it is of any religious importance, of course, but these things have been done. Not just by me, but by my pupils, associates and so on – the group of people working around me, shall we say – which is not a formal, organised research project.

I think we have made very, very fundamental discoveries about Buddhism. I would venture to say that one or two of those discoveries are probably as fundamental as any made in ancient times, let alone in modern times. When I say 'about Buddhism,' I mean about what the Buddha himself was preaching. That happens to be my own field of research. Of course, there is a vast amount to be studied in Buddhism, which developed later than that. But you also have to account for the fact that later Buddhism is very diverse. Now, is this just due to random error? No, probably not, on the whole. It is due to different interpretations of the Buddha's words. It is very helpful to see where he was ambiguous and how his words were sometimes taken in different ways by different schools.

OM: Could you talk about some of these discoveries?

PRG: Probably the most important single one relates to the Theravada doctrine, which said that kindness, compassion, sympathetic-joy and equanimity are very desirable, but if we only achieve those, we will only be reborn in a higher heaven called the 'Brahma-world.' This is a complete misunderstanding of what the Buddha actually meant. The Buddha was simply using brahmanical language at the time. What he meant was that they are salvific states and that we reach nirvana through them. Therefore, the criticisms that the Mahayana make of the Theravada: that it is selfish because it doesn't give enough value to compassion, are in one sense justified because the scholastic interpretation didn't make this distinction. However, if it is meant as a criticism of the tradition of what the Buddha actually said, then it is unjustified.

The other crucially important thing is that the Pali Canon says that the doctrine of Dependent Origination, with its twelve links, is extremely obscure. The Buddha even reprimands Ananda for saying that he understood it. A Polish lady called Joanna Jurewicz has finally understood it. [*] Without denying the mainstream interpretation, she has shown that the links are in the order that they are and are the specific links that they are, because again, the Buddha was taking off from Vedic cosmology.

OM: What are the implications of these discoveries for contemporary Buddhism?

PRG: I think the implications are pretty massive in a way. If, for instance, you show that the Buddha thought that compassion was salvific, it could be of interest to many Buddhists.

OM: It seems that what you are trying to do in your work is be true to what the Buddha himself said and to create a context that is also true to Buddhist teachings. What implications does that have for contemporary Buddhism, as it finds it way more and more into the west, both scholastically and in practice?

PRG: The main implication that I am trying to stress all the time, is that it is very sad that there is so little interest in intellectual enquiry into the history of Buddhist texts and the development of the religion, especially in the Theravada tradition. Anything that Buddhists are told, they say, 'That's what the Buddha taught.' No matter if there are plenty of contradictions, or it doesn't make sense. There just isn't that kind of critical interest – unfortunately. I think it is a shame to be so lethargic intellectually. Of course, the basic principles of Buddhism are not affected by what I am saying. On the contrary, what I am doing is trying to strengthen them.

OM: What about in terms of dialogue with other schools of Buddhism?

PRG: This would be of interest to all schools of Buddhism. But then, one would have to do more research, of course. For instance, there is some very interesting research being done on the early origins of Mahayana. I don't know if you know that the theory that used to hold sway until a few years ago – that the Mahayana was a lay movement – has been totally exploded. I don't think any of the best scholars believe that now at all.

OM: What connections do you make between Buddhist and western philosophies?

PRG: That really is not my field. Other people do that, but the trouble is, if they don't fully understand what the Buddha meant, they are not going to make any fruitful connections. In some ways, the Buddha said some things that were – how should I put it – very sophisticated. Western philosophy really only caught up with certain things that he said in the twentieth century.

OM: Is the methodology for your research just going back to original texts?

PRG: Yes, certainly. It is just reading the original texts and trying to read other texts that were known to the Buddha. Even if the form in which we have them now is not exactly how it was then, the Buddha apparently knew the content and was reacting to it.

OM: Do you think that, given where we are at the moment in terms of Buddhist ideas and terminology in the west (where short-hand definitions or assumptions have been made), that some deconstruction in terms of critique and challenge is necessary?

PRG: I would say that my work is the opposite of deconstruction. There are certain scholars who do go down that road and say that we can't really know what the Buddha meant. That is quite fashionable in some circles. I am just the opposite of that. I am saying that there was a person called the Buddha, that the preachings probably go back to him individually – very few scholars actually say that – that we can learn more about what he meant, and that he was saying some very precise things. I regard deconstructionists as my enemies.

OM: Are there many texts that have not yet been translated, or is it more a matter of needing to re-translate texts?

PRG: Virtually none of the commentaries have been translated and that is it a huge body of literature. Virtually the entire Pali Canon has been translated – about eighty- ninety percent of it very badly and so needs redoing. It will probably keep on needing to be redone, because the last word will not be said. It is very odd, for example, that the Lotus Sutra is so important in the world at large and yet the Sanskrit version of it has only been translated once in the nineteenth century. It was a good effort for the nineteenth century, but we now know it is full of very simple errors. It is strange that no one has re-done that. It has only ever been been re-translated from the Chinese version, not the Sanskrit one.

OM: How many students do you have?

PRG: I am supervising twelve PhD students. That has been about the number for the last few years. I have supervised about thirty doctorates in my time, which is quite a lot.

OM: Are you are a practising Buddhist?

PRG: I am not a Buddhist, but I very much admire Buddhism and especially Buddhist ethics. I am not a Buddhist in a technical sense. In one way, you could say I am more of a Buddhist than most Buddhists, because I believe that the Buddha was an intellectual genius and had some extraordinarily interesting things to say. This is something that most Buddhists simply don't take any interest in.

OM: Thank you, Professor Gombrich.


[*] Jurewicz, Joanna: 'The Rgveda 10, 129 – an attempt of interpretation,' Cracow Indological Studies Vol.1: International Conference on Sanskrit and Related Studies September 23-26, 1993 (Proceedings), Cracow, Enigma Press, 1995, pp.141-49.

Jurewicz, Joanna: 'Playing with Fire: The pratityasamutpada from the perspective of Vedic thought,' Journal of the Pali Text Society, vol.26, 77-103, 2000.


Source: http://www.ordinarymind.net  , January 2003.

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last updated: 06-09-2008