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.

Artwork by Brian English.
Artwork by Brian English.

You’re not a Buddhist. How do you feel about studying Buddhism, and what does it mean to you? Studying Buddhism is the core of my life. Though I have never been a strict pacifist (how can one be if one grows up in a nation defending itself from Hitler?), I strongly agree with several aspects of Buddhist ethics, not only nonviolence. When I grew up, I came to hold that the two great problems for human conduct are sex and violence, and the Western puritanical obsession with sex and tolerance of violence, especially in entertainment, is both pernicious and the wrong way round.

I think that the Buddha’s ideas should form part of the education of every child the world over and that this would help to make the world a more civilized place, both gentler and more intelligent. But I do not agree with all of his ideas. The doctrine of karma is founded on the premise that the world is a just place, but I am afraid unjust suffering stares us in the face. The Buddhist answer that such suffering is explained by misdeeds in former lives cannot convince me, as I do not believe in rebirth. I think we should struggle against injustice, but we have to accept that it persists and that we shall never eliminate it.

Because of my reservations, I do not call myself a Buddhist, though if someone so describes me, I rarely if ever object. I am fairly sure that I know more about important parts of Buddhism than do most Buddhists, let alone other people. I would never become a monk, but I do feel the attraction of a life so focused on what is important.

When I retired and founded the Centre for Buddhist Studies at Oxford, the climate was unsympathetic and material circumstances were difficult. I have put a lot of my slender financial resources into it, as well as most of my most important resource, time. I have to admit that I have made a bad bargain, because the practical needs of running the Centre have severely curtailed the activities I had hoped to undertake in my retirement—teaching and doing research.

I have answered this question largely in terms of my history, not just because I am a historian, but because I agree with the Buddha’s analysis that we are a bundle of processes and every moment are remaking ourselves, using the materials inherited from our past.

Given that we can never understand what it was like to be a person in ancient India, and also given that to understand the Buddha’s ideas we must more or less imaginatively put ourselves in his position, how can we hope to know what the Buddha actually thought—and why, for a religious practitioner, is it important to know? [The philosopher] Karl Popper has shown that there is very little that anyone can ever know with absolute certainty. All of our knowledge about the world, about empirical matters, is conjectural, even though for some of it we can claim very high probability. What I am saying is that when we “know” something, we are giving it our best guess.

Both our own lives and the history of the human race are chock-full of things that people have thought that they knew but that turned out to be otherwise. For me, to be constantly aware of this fact is essential. That awareness forms the intellectual and moral foundation of our lives. Our humility may be further boosted when we reflect that what any individual knows is an infinitesimal fraction of what is knowable. Our ignorance is literally infinite.

While I agree that it is more difficult to make good guesses at the thoughts of someone in a very different environment from oneself, I don’t see that in principle time or space is an insuperable barrier. Getting to know anyone is a matter of intelligence and sensitivity, and many kinds of information about them may be relevant.

In the case of the Buddha, we need to know about the society in which he lived, and about the ideas to which he was exposed. Luckily, a good deal of material has survived. The Pali canon is very long and informative, and the body of Brahmanical texts composed before his day is of comparable length.

I am trying to reconstruct and understand the Buddha’s ideas. I do not agree that to understand someone’s ideas it is necessary to “imaginatively put ourselves in his position.” We can understand the ideas that Pythagoras had about mathematics, or Isaac Newton about physics, without having the faintest notion of what each one was like as a person. Understanding what the Buddha was like to live with, or why he was in a bad mood one day, is quite different, and the obstacles to doing so are probably insurmountable, but that is not what I am trying to do.

I don’t think that it is important for a religious practitioner to know what the Buddha thought, unless they have made a commitment to the Buddha by which they intend to guide their lives. There are many people in the world, primarily in Asia, who call themselves Buddhist, who have made this commitment. I am very glad, for example, that my book is being translated into Chinese. Though I think it is extremely valuable to know what people have thought and decided in the past, I believe that in the end I alone am responsible for my own decisions, and the opinions of others can be no more than advisory. That we are responsible for our own intentions and decisions was a fundamental teaching of the Buddha’s—but that is not why I think the same. It is, however, a reason why I find him sympathetic.

Would you explain how Karl Popper’s work has informed your study of the ideas of the Buddha? I accept what the texts say as an initial working hypothesis, and I am as interested as anyone in finding out where the tradition cannot be correct and why. I try to follow Popper in welcoming criticism but also in asking those who do not accept my hypotheses to offer a better one. I must say that I find it rather tedious simply to be told that because the texts that have reached us do not go back to the Buddha himself, one cannot trust what they say. I have written about how I envisage that the texts came into being, and I am not aware of any other clear hypotheses about that. I may be wrong about that, as about anything else, but a critic has to say what is wrong with my argument and preferably offer an improved theory.

One kind of thing that could show me to be wrong about the Buddha would be the discovery of new texts. Another would be conclusive proof that texts on which I rely for an argument are too late to fit that argument. However, the most likely source of disagreement is interpretation of known texts. When I offer a new interpretation, I try to show why the interpretation that I hold to be incorrect arose.

So I have made use of Popper’s ideas in my work. Moreover, I believe there are ways in which the Buddha anticipates aspects of Popper’s thought. Specifically, the way in which the legal system of the Vinaya is built up shows Popper’s method of conjecture and refutation, or “trial and error,” in practice. When the Buddha finds that a rule he has made leads to unintended consequences, another useful Popperian concept, he modifies it. He may even just rescind it. This may be the oldest such legal system in the world. Incidentally, I think it proves that the Buddha did not regard himself as omniscient. As in Popper’s social philosophy, the Buddha’s approach is not to start from grand theories and ideals but to see what is going wrong and try to put it right. This corresponds to what Popper called “piecemeal social engineering.” Popper’s work has made me alive to these important facets of the Buddha’s thought.

We know many different ways in which the later traditions viewed the Buddha. What can we say about how the Buddha saw himself, and what is the relationship between how he saw himself and how his followers established his significance? The central point here is that the Buddha presented himself as a human being who found the solution to the problem of suffering and repeated rebirth, but that it lay within anyone’s capacity to follow him. He was only exceptional in finding it for himself, whereas we have him as a guide. He denied that he was omniscient, saying that what he knew was what really matters. This was the threefold knowledge: knowledge of his former births, the power to see how all beings are reborn according to their karma, and his destruction of the corruptions (asavas). This reads like a denial of omniscience, but the Buddhist traditions do not share this interpretation. In one way or another, most later schools have regarded him as superhuman, though Theravada has moved least far in this direction. Even Theravada does not in practice follow his insistence that people should be guided by his message, the dhamma, and not care about him personally.

You have said that an overly literal tradition has missed the point of the Buddha’s teachings on the four brahma-viharas, the divine abodes or boundless states, comprising kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. How do you explain this? In principle the explanation is very simple, but to follow all the details requires some patience. Much that is original in my work comes from my acquaintance with Brahmanical texts to which the Buddha was responding. Earlier scholars who have written that the Buddha did not know those texts have been definitively proven wrong.

A famous Upanishad spells out how the fate of people at death depends on the degree of gnosis they have attained. Those who have realized that they are essentially a part of brahman, the essence of the universe, go to join brahman when they die. The Buddhist term brahma-vihara means “living with Brahman.” The Buddha is given to taking key brahminical terms and infusing them with a new meaning. I have compared the relevant passage in the Upanishad with the main text in which the Buddha teaches the brahma-viharas; once one follows the comparison it is, I think, impossible to deny that the Buddha is basing his text on the Upanishadic one and playing his trick, as he does elsewhere, of taking Brahmanical ritual and metaphysics and substituting ethics for both as the means to attain liberation from the cycle of rebirth. So he is preaching that to practice kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity is to attain the divine state in this life, namely nirvana. That this interpretation has eluded the Buddhist tradition is easy to explain: Buddhists simply did not learn Brahmanical texts.

Aside from the brahma-viharas, can you give an example of another common assumption about the early tradition that is seriously mistaken? The best example is that I feel sure that when the Buddha preached against the idea of the atman, the soul or self, he was alluding to that concept as it was expounded in the early Upanishads. If a Christian, or indeed anyone growing up in a predominantly Christian culture, reads that the Buddha preached against the existence of a soul (anatta), they will apply the Christian understanding of what a soul is and thus totally miss the point of what the Buddha was saying.

Not for a moment was the Buddha denying that we have a sense of personal identity. After all, the many stories of his own former lives are striking testimony to that. But the Brahmans’ atman was a thing, and an unchanging thing at that. The Buddha could see no empirical evidence for the existence of any such thing, and on the contrary, reasoning showed him that to explain how we and all other living beings functioned one had to posit a bundle of interacting and inherently dynamic processes— processes that were neither random nor predetermined. The process of making ethically good or bad decisions was one of them. These processes also explain how we come to have a sense of ourselves.

The second thing is that the Buddha’s major ideas form a coherent single system. I am not saying that any Buddhist is likely to claim that the Buddha was incoherent, but when one learns about Buddhism, the ideas tend to be presented somewhat piecemeal. For me this explains why some people think you can have Buddhism without karma: They do not understand how the Buddha’s idea of karma and rebirth is integral to his thinking and without them, the system doesn’t entirely hold together.

In particular, people are not sensitive to some of the Buddha’s metaphors that tie the system together. I have pointed out that the five components of a living being, processes that are usually translated by the meaningless term “aggregates,” are presented metaphorically by the Buddha as bundles of burning fuel, and this metaphor links to several others, notably nirvana, the going out of a fire.

A third misconception, very common outside the Theravada countries, is that the Buddha had an idealist ontology—in other words, that he thought that the world existed only in our minds. This was indeed taught by the Yogacara school of Mahayana philosophy, but the Buddha did not have any ontology in the sense of a general theory of existence: he was not interested in whether things exist from an external point of view, only in how they interact with us. In other words, his philosophy was concerned only with experience. It was my student Sue Hamilton who convinced me of this.

This leads on to the misconception that the Buddha was a philosopher, in the sense in which that term has been used in the Western tradition. I am not the only person to have insisted that he makes it quite plain that his interest was purely pragmatic: he intended to help people and only attempted to teach the truth to the extent that it was helpful; further speculation he tended to discourage. At the same time, one must remember that, as [the philosopher] Paul Williams has written, “the teachings of the Buddha are held by the Buddhist tradition to work because they are factually true (not true because they work).”

As a rider to this, I would add that because of this pragmatic intent, the Buddha (unlike most philosophers) aimed not at what we would call mathematical accuracy, but only at engineering accuracy. For example, he taught that the laws of causation in the world show that things do not happen at random, while on the other extreme, determinism is false. Otherwise there could not be the moral choice on which the law of karma depends. Free will, and hence moral responsibility, must lie somewhere between these two extremes, but it was pointless to try to define exactly where. I believe that the Abhidharma, which codified and categorized the teachings while stripping out metaphor, tended to misinterpret the Buddha by attributing mathematical accuracy to his statements, when that was not his intention. One example of this may be that the Abhidharma says that nirvana is always an identical phenomenon. I think this is more specific than the Buddha was.

One of the recurring debates taking place among contemporary Buddhists concerns karma and rebirth, which some say are holdovers from the Buddha’s era or are just not essential to his thought. How do you respond to this claim, and what do you think is at stake in this debate that gives it such persistence and emotion? There were both Brahmanical and Jain doctrines of karma before the Buddha. The Buddha’s greatest contribution was to say that the moral quality of an act lies in the intention behind it. However, all three traditions agree that the doctrine of karma is inextricably linked to the doctrine of rebirth. This is because the doctrine states that good acts produce good results for the actor, bad acts bad results, and yet it is obvious that this does not always happen in one lifetime. A baby may be born with a terrible disease or deformity; a criminal may benefit from his crime and evade all punishment. If there were no rebirth, falsifications of the doctrine would stare us in the face. Whether the teaching of karma is true matters enormously, so it is no surprise if a debate about it arouses emotion. One could say that what is at stake is whether one can consider the universe to be ultimately a just place. There are people who wish to accept the Buddha’s other teachings but cannot swallow rebirth. They are as entitled to their beliefs as anyone else, but they cannot claim that those beliefs are those of the Buddha, or indeed of any Asian Buddhist tradition that I have come across.

What, according to the Pali canon, was the content of the Buddha’s awakening or enlightenment, and how did it inform his teaching? The short answer is that we don’t know. The texts differ. One version is in terms of personal experience: that he attained nirvana, which for him, as for everyone, means eliminating all passion, hatred, and confusion, and knowing that they have been eliminated. The Buddha called these the Three Fires, using as a metaphor the central daily ritual of a Brahman householder’s life. He then extended the metaphor by calling their elimination nirvana, a word meaning “going out” (of a fire). When later Buddhism called them the Three Poisons, the coherence of the metaphor was lost. In terms of more discursive, preachable content, one version is that he realized the chain of dependent origination, another that he realized the content of the First Sermon: the Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The last version sounds plausible, I suppose, but it has been convincingly shown that the text of the First Sermon as we have it cannot really be what it purports to be, since it presupposes prior knowledge of teachings of his to which he merely alludes. My own analysis suggests that as well as all of the above he must have seen the law of karma and rebirth, understood the three hallmarks of conditioned existence (impermanence, suffering, lack of an unchanging essence), and experienced certain advanced meditative states. He must have accumulated all these thoughts and experiences over several years, and we cannot possibly know what came when, but in my view it finally all hangs together.

You point out that even the Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula, so clear in most things, misses the mark when discussing nirvana. How do you explain the persistent confusion or lack of clarity about defining nirvana?This is largely due to the fact that it is an experience that is both beyond words and beyond normal experience. Experiences of any kind, from love to a pain in the gut, tend to be hard to put into words, and to do so we have to rely mainly on the assumption or hope that the recipient of the message has had a similar experience. With nirvana, that will rarely work. Rahula’s account confuses the experience of attaining the state with what I might call a theological description of what it is.

It seems that the Buddha was raised in a region that was outside—or at the very fringe of—Vedic society, making him something of an outsider to Brahmanical culture. Meanwhile, the prevailing Buddhist narrative paints him as the ultimate insider: wealthy, educated, and conversant with the major strands of thought of his day. What is the significance of his outsider status? It is likely that the picture of the Buddha as “the ultimate insider” is at least an exaggeration. I take the story of his early life to be for the most part an allegory, aiming to paint his renunciation in the starkest terms, which indeed it does very well. It does seem to be true that he was of a high caste—in Brahmanical terms, a Kshatriya—as was his Jain contemporary and rival Mahavira. It is clear from his references to early Upanishads that he knew those important texts; they were not yet written down, so he must have heard them orally, and probably he could not have done that unless he had a high social status.

His being an outsider gave him the all-important insight that the Brahmanical structuring of society was something not universal but local. He may well have learned this from traders. In ancient Greece the ability to differentiate nomos, man-made rules, from phusis, nature, was a breakthrough, and the Buddha had the same insight. This enabled him to postulate that all human beings are by nature equal, and to mock the Brahman’s myth that the castes were divinely ordained.

You haven’t mentioned meditation. Why is that? As I observe and understand meditation in the great Buddhist traditions of Asia, I think it is for the most part admirable and beneficial. In societies where formal education was rare, meditation could take its place in developing capacities such as concentration and awareness of others and oneself. I am also sure that, with skill, meditation can be used effectively as psychotherapy. But I have misgivings about the modern cult of meditation in the West, which is also spreading to Asia. I agree with the Buddha’s teaching that sound ethics are a prerequisite for success in meditation; and sound ethics are based on unselfishness.

Meditation in the West today, as I see it, is usually part of an essentially solitary pursuit of happiness. Learning to meditate on an (often misconceived) idea that one has no self is a self-centered activity that I think is likely to be self-defeating. Why not use the time to go and be kind and helpful to someone? I think it is relevant that traditionally meditation was always taught in a monastic setting, mostly to monastics; it was not an interlude in a daily life in the world.

In taking this critical view of meditation, I believe I am merely reformulating the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth, that the origin of suffering is craving or desire, which can also be expressed as self-centeredness. Even if I am quite wrong, this may give an idea what Buddhism means to me.

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