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.