Dr. Richard Gombrich has spent much of his life studying Buddhism, but he does not call himself a Buddhist. The only child of two educated and broadminded parents, he was brought up to hold humanistic values, notably reason, and to look on religion as irrational and best left alone. He became a historian like his father, Ernst Gombrich, and since his father seemed to have Europe well covered in his work, the younger Gombrich turned to Asia, specifically India. He learned Sanskrit and Pali, and encountered the ideas of the Buddha in his reading. Having decided early on that he was an atheist, yet following his parents in placing a high value on morality, Gombrich was drawn to Buddhism because, he says, “it is atheistic and also emphasizes ethics.”

Gombrich’s early research focused on Sri Lankan Buddhism; more recently he has devoted his time to examining the ideas of the Buddha himself. His work has contributed enormously to the study of seeing the Buddha as a man in context, in dialogue with his Brahmanic and Jain contemporaries. Gombrich argues that because we have lost sight of the ideas the Buddha confronted, we have missed the nuances of many of his teachings, sometimes with lasting consequences.

Gombrich’s publications on Buddhism are numerous. Many of the ideas discussed here are explored at greater length in his latest book, What the Buddha Thought (2009). He stepped down from his position as Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford in 2004 and founded the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, which recently launched a publication, The Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 

Tricycle contributing editor Philip Ryan had the following e-mail exchange with Dr. Gombrich in February.

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