Uposatha Day 11/21/2012 (a little late)

Shining Through

I have been reading a lot of “Gombrich” lately. Richard Gombrich is a very respected British scholar of Buddhism. Scholars of Buddhism generally fall into two categories, Buddhists and non-Buddhists, and I think which one is at hand makes a significant difference in the nature of the scholarship. Practioners of Buddhism also fall into two categories, scholars and non-scholars, but which one is at hand does not make such a significant difference in the nature of the practice. My experience is that scholar non-Buddhists tend to engage with a sterile view of their subject matter, a bit like disecting a dead frog, while scholar Buddhists tend to engage with an organic view of their subject matter, a bit like playing with a frolicking kitten. Scholars of Buddhism are in either case useful at putting Buddhism in its historical social and conceptual context, in analyzing texts for authenticity and hidden meanings, in discovering influences and in insisting on the relevance of Western philosophy.

Gombrich claims to be a scholar non-Buddhist, but I am not sure I believe it. Many scholars of religion hide their religious affiliations as if a scholar Buddhist would be considered tainted by Buddhism or a scholar Christian would be considered tainted by Christianity. For Gombrich Buddhism is quite alive and this comes across his is great appreciation for the genius of the Buddha. He writes, “My admiration is for the Buddha, whom I consider to be one of the greatest thinkers — and greatest personalities — of whom we have record in human history.” Many scholar non-Buddhists treat Buddhism as a list of unrelated tenets and mark the beginning of Buddist history as the point at which these were first written down. For them everything else is prehistory and we have no direct evidence for when or with whom a particular tenet arose, or even if there was an actual person (the Buddha) who is responsible for many of the tenets. For Gombrich this is absurd because it fails to recognize the singular genius that shines through in what are alleged in the ancient traditions to be the most ancient texts. Scholars are inclined to ignore the cheesecake in the room.

I think this idea of the genius, the systematic thinker behind the ancient teachings, and the internal coherence of these teachings is a part of what makes us Buddhists and allows us to engage, understand and internalize the most subtle and sophisticated teachings, even while the ancient Suttas and the Vinaya are very unreliable texts, having passed through both oral and orthographic transmissions and suffering from faults of memory, embellishment, insertions, deletions and other edits along the way. In fact the combinations of the teachings themselves, the recognition of how the (bulk of the) teachings fit together into a whole and how they are verified in practice are what allow us to triangulate the teachings and recognize what is actually authentic.

Modern techniques of textual analysis are useful in sorting the authentic from the inauthentic but no particular passage can ever be proven to be original. Nonetheless the adept reader of the suttas will at some point recognize a clear system behind the passages. It is as if he is piecing together a jigsaw puzzle in which some pieces are missing and in which other pieces have been mixed in from other jigsaw puzzles, but at some point clearly recognized, “Oh, I get it: This is the Golden Gate Bridge. There is no doubt about it whatever.” This is what it means for a particular interpretation to shine forth. Although it cannot be proven, the convergence of evidence from different sources is overwhelming. And the actual Buddhist practitioner will more readily witness this shining through than the mere scholar because his own experience can provide decisively confirming evidence from direct experience. He is like the jigsaw enthusiast who has actually been on the Golden Gate Bridge, who is already familiar with its features and the contours of the land- and sea-scape around it.

As we read the scriptures we still find passages that seem at least at first sight not to accord, either with what we think shines through or with our own preconceptions. One way to account for them is to dismiss them an inauthentic. Similarly the jigsaw puzzler, once the Golden Gate Bridged has shined through, might throw out all loose pieces that do not look like the Golden Gate Bridge, seeing them as intruders from someone else’s cockamamie jigsaw puzzle. However, the danger of simply attributing perplexing passages to someone else’s jigsaw puzzle is that it may be wrong. One might also be perplexed with pieces that suggest skateboards and lions even as the Golden Gate Bridge is clearly shining through, only to discover that the photographer has captured a kid in a T-shirt in the foreground of the bridge. It is in this way that we continue to work with the scriptures with a mind fearlessly more open-minded than the extend of our current understanding.

6 Responses to “Uposatha Day 11/21/2012 (a little late)”

  1. findouting Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    I will try to find and read gombrich.



  2. Alan Says:


    I just checked out the Wikipedia article on Gombrich. A some interesting information there; among other things, I was fascinated to learn that as an undergrad Gombrich edited one of Karl Popper’s books, and credits him as a major influence on his research methods. IMO, Popper was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th-century. It’s to him that we owe the currently dominant understanding of how science works; i.e., that theories can never be proven, only corroborated or falsified. Whenever you hear someone criticize a hypothesis as “unfalsifiable,” they’re channeling Popper.


  3. bhikkhucintita Says:

    h.t. pham,
    As for the negative reviews to the book (along with many positive ones):
    The reviewers object to Gombrich’s attribution of satire to the Buddha. I somewhat agree, though this is only one of many points Gombrich argues for.
    Gombrich’s main task in this book is to interpret the Buddha’s presentation of the teachings in the light of what we can discover about the religious and social context in which the Buddha lived. We know that the Buddha made masterful use of simile and metaphor; a full understanding of his figurative language must rely on understanding the context of use. For instance, Gobrich shows that the Buddha made extensive metaphoric use of fire and that the full understanding of his metaphors requires an understanding of the role of fire in Vedic thought and ritual. He points out that the compilera of the Theravada commentaries tradition had almost no awareness of the context of these metaphors. This seems to me like a very worthwhile effort.
    Now, Gombrich also claims that much of the Buddha’s words are satirical; they make fun of Brahmin and Jain ideas in particular. One of the reviewers aptly points out that this raises questions of Right Speech. Satire generally has a biting quality; it generally is used to ridicule. This would seem inconsistent with the Buddha’s admonition to use gentle speech. I have not looked at Gombrich’s evidence in detail but I imagine that what we mostly have is carefully crafted irony. It seems that the Buddha spoke directly with brahmins and jains on many occasions. No he clearly disagreed with much of what they had to say, but he also seemed to show respect to them; he hardly ridiculed them. It seems to me his method was quite subtle. He would assume their language and their framework as a starting point, often claiming that he seems it the same way, but then proceed to occupy the details of that framework with his own ways of looking at things. This is a kind of irony, but seems to be to be an admirably gentle way to disagree, one that starts with a position of respect. I don’t think the Buddha’s rhetorical methods are as coarse as Gombrich seems to sometimes make them out to be. But I should study this more closely.


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