What the Buddha Thought

Author : Gombrich, Richard F

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Book Details

  • Publisher : Equinox
  • Published : 2009
  • Cover : Paperback
  • Pages : 240
  • Size : 232 x 154mm
  • Category :
    Theravada Buddhism: General
  • Catalogue No : 19312
  • ISBN 13 : 9781845536145
  • ISBN 10 : 1845536142

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Synopsis

This new book argues that the Buddha was one of the most brilliant and original thinkers of all time. While the book is intended to serve as an introduction to the Buddha's thought, and hence to Buddhism itself, it also has larger aims: it argues that we can know far more about the Buddha than is fashionable among scholars to admit, and that his thought has a greater coherence than is usually recognized. Interpreters both ancient and modern have taken little account of the historical context of the Buddha's teachings; but relating them to early brahmanical texts, and also to ancient Jainism, gives a much richer picture of his meaning, especially when his sense of irony and satire is appreciated. Incidently, since many of the Buddha's allusions can only be traced in the Pali versions of surviving texts, the book establishes the importance of the Pali Canon as evidence.

The book contains much new material. Gombrich stresses the Buddha's capacity for abstraction: though he made extensive use of metaphor, he did not found his arguments upon it, as earlier thinkers had done. He ethicized and radically reinterpreted older ideas of karma and rebirth. Similarly, building on older texts, he argued for the fundamental importance of love and compassion, and analysed fire as a process which could stand as a model for every component of conscious experience. Morally, the Buddha's theory of karma provided a principle of individuation and asserted each individual's responsibility for his own destiny. To make the book completely accessible to the general reader, the author provides an introductory section of background information for easy reference.

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From the Introduction -

I have been motivated to write this book mainly by two feelings: admiration and exasperation.

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. Ranking people in an order of merit is a pursuit fit only for parlour games, but I maintain that the Buddha belongs in the same class as Plato and Aristotle, the giants who created the tradition of western philosophy. I think that his 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.

This does not mean that I consider that all the Buddha's ideas were correct. Given the distance between the Buddha and me in time and space, it would be extraordinary if I did. I disagree with some of his theories and do not subscribe to all his values. I therefore do not call myself a Buddhist. However, I believe that my understanding of his ideas makes me at least as sincere an admirer of the Buddha as the millions who identify as Buddhists. Moreover, my admiration extends to a great deal of what those born into the Buddhist tradition think and do. And that admirable part of the Buddhist tradition, or traditions if you will, goes back, in my view, to the Buddha himself.

Those Buddhist traditions, which have lasted for over two and a half millennia and extended over a vast geographical area, are so diverse that some scholars scoff at the very notion that one can talk about 'Buddhism', and insist on using the word in scare quotes, if it has to be used at all. I disagree. Granted, Buddhism itself, as a human phenomenon, is subject to the Buddha's dictum that 'All compounded things are impermanent'.' It would be astonishing if over such a long time, as it moved to different regions and cultures, it had not undergone vast changes; the same has happened to every human tradition. But the historian should be able to trace every branch of the tradition back to another branch, until we arrive at the trunk and root, the Buddha himself. To change the metaphor from trees to rivers: on their way, the various streams of the Buddhist tradition have been joined and adulterated by streams from other cultures, whose influence must likewise be analysed. Yet I think that in most traditions - or at least in the scriptural traditions, which have done most to shape human history - it is what owes its origin to ancient Buddhism that preponderates.

Many will remain sceptical. They may grant that the Buddhist Order of monks and nuns, the Sangha, is the oldest institution in the world, and easily recognizable as the same institution from age to age and country to country; but they may protest that Buddhist beliefs today are hopelessly diverse, and ask why. I believe I have an answer. The Buddha was startlingly original. Many of his ideas were formulated to refute other ideas current in his day, but to put them across, he had inevitably to use the language of his opponents, for there was no other. As I shall explain at many points in this book, he infused old terms with new meanings. This inevitably led to misunderstandings, especially among those who knew his teachings only partially or superficially.

Let me give a salient example. Again and again I find propagated in modern Indian university teaching and publications the view that the Buddha taught virtually the same as the Upanishads, texts sacred to the brahmins, and significantly differed from them only in attacking the caste system. This arises from the fact that the Buddha's main ideological opponents were brahmins of Upanishadic views, so he used their own terms to attack them. Moreover, those attacks were conducted mainly by using metaphor and irony, registers imperceptible to the literal-minded. To illustrate this will be one of the main themes of this book.

But more needs to be said. In many cases, the Buddha was not asking the same questions as his opponents, or indeed as the successors of his opponents in India down the centuries. He did not always follow the unspoken rules of what philosophy, or systematic thought, was supposed to be about. Naturally, this led to misunderstandings after his death, even well before Buddhism became implanted in countries beyond India. Another salient example may clarify this. The orthodox tradition, Vedic thought, was much concerned with ontological questions: what exists? The Buddha said that this is a wrong question. But this was too much for his followers. One major school, the abhidharma, gave his teachings a realist interpretation; another, the Vijñãnavãda, an idealist interpretation; it is possible to derive both these interpretations from the early Canon, particularly if one highlights certain texts and ignores others. There are indeed also texts which, if taken in isolation, seem to be ambiguous on this matter.

Before many centuries had elapsed, things went even further than this. When Buddhism reached China, the great difficulties of translating Indian texts into Chinese, difficulties both of a practical character and inherent in the vast difference between the cultures of the two countries, soon led to mysticism: mysticism in the sense that the Buddha's teaching was held to transcend rationality and to be inexpressible in language. Though not the only view, this view has been dominant in Far Eastern Buddhism, particularly in the school known in the West by its Japanese name, Zen. While I shall show in this book that I agree that the Buddha held the goal of the religious life to be an experience which language has no power to express, I strongly disagree with interpretations of his teachings, which are of course expressed in language, as being mystical in the vulgar sense of defying normal logic.

I therefore hold that a successful interpretation of the Buddha will make clear not only the ideas he expressed but also how those ideas lent themselves to the various interpretations which are in fact historically attested. The Buddha will thus stand as the source for a successful history of Buddha ideas - even though to compose such a history, even in outline, may be beyond the powers of any single scholar. Moreover, that must be beyond the scope of this book.


MISUNDERSTANDING AND PSEUDO-PROFUNDITY

The above paragraphs may give the reader a first hint of why one of the motives that drives me to write is exasperation. However, I can put the matter even more plainly from another angle. I find the Buddha's ideas extraordinarily powerful and intelligent, a work of genius. I do not think those powerful ideas, properly understood, are very complex or difficult to grasp. Yet Buddhists and non¬-Buddhists alike persist in regarding the Buddha's thought as immensely 'deep' in the sense of complex and therefore difficult to understand. I do not share this view.

Just as traditional exegesis of the Four Gospels has not taken much account of Jesus' Jewish background, traditional exegesis of the Buddha operated in almost total ignorance of his historical context. After all, if he preached eternal truths, historical context did not appear to have any relevance! That may excuse the bunkered approach of the early commentators, but it will not serve for modern scholars. Statements, obviously, derive their meaning largely from context. Therefore to understand what anyone is saying, particularly if it transcends the banal, one needs to try to reconstruct its historical context.

I have taken first steps in this direction in the early chapters of my book Theravada Buddhism: A Social History, and gone further in my next book, How Buddhism Began. I shall follow the same path in this book; this will lead to my repeating myself a little, but I hope not too much. My method is therefore historical.

Most books written by academics - and I confess that I am one of those - feel that they must begin with a chapter on what they call methodology, i.e., 'How do I set about writing this book?' For historians this usually means how they find what they consider relevant evidence and how they treat it. For me, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I find it boring and unhelpful to read about how something can or could be done in theory, before one has witnessed the practice. For this reason I discuss my method, i.e., my use of evidence, only halfway through the book, once the reader has had a chance to see how my method works.

Why do I think that the Buddha's thought has been so undervalued? I would not go so far as to say that the undervaluation is in proportion to the veneration; but there is something in that nevertheless. While I consider that Buddhism has been by and large a great force for good in human history, a civilizing influence, I think that regarding the Buddha purely as a religious teacher can be unhelpful. It is of course a fact that he founded what we call a religion; in his terms, indeed, he saw himself as teaching a path to salvation. But to stress that can be a hindrance in the educational systems of today. Naturally, I am not disputing that as the founder of a religion the Buddha can be classed with Moses, Jesus or Mohammed. But let us not thereby exclude him from the category of thinkers like Plato, Aristotle and Hume.

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