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Home Newsletters OCBS News - December 2013 - Pordenone, Saturday 21 September 2013

OCBS News - December 2013 - Pordenone, Saturday 21 September 2013

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OCBS News - December 2013
New article by Richard Gombrich
The OCBS Student Grant
Journal of the OCBS - Volume Five
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Pordenone Saturday 21st September 2013
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by Richard Gombrich

The publisher Adelphi last year published a translation of my What the Buddha Thought.  A year ago they arranged for me to give a talk about it at the annual literary festival in Turin.  This year, at the same time, they put me on the programme of the annual literary festival at Pordenone, a small but ancient town an hour’s drive north of Venice.  On both occasions I spoke in Italian, unscripted, and am sure this improved my communication with the audience.  Though Pordenone had many speakers far more eminent than I, the organisers told me that I had by far the largest audience. 

I spoke in a convent now abandoned by nuns but so solidly built in the 13th century that the buildings are still useful.  My audience filled the main aula and the overflow filled the large central courtyard; even so, I was asked to delay my beginning while latecomers were somehow accommodated.  I had been assigned an hour, and promised to leave time for questions – which I announced, to applause, in my opening remarks.  Thus instead of 60 minutes I had only 40; I was therefore thankful that I did not have to make frantic efforts to shorten a prepared script.  Of course, I had to leave out things I had intended to say, but I consoled myself by knowing that no one but I is aware of what went missing. 

I began by saying that as a Buddhologist who had written a book on the Buddha’s thought I found myself in a strange position.  On the one hand millions of Buddhists in Asia, who were heirs to various forms of this religious tradition, rarely even paused to think what might be interesting or even extraordinary about the Buddha’s thought; it was enough for them that the Buddha had shown a way to a better life (or rather series of lives), ideally culminating in salvation.  On the other hand my colleagues in academia, especially in North America, held that even if there once existed a person who was known as the Buddha, our sources were so late and so unreliable that it was stupid and irresponsible to believe that we could know anything about his thought or about the beliefs and practices of his early followers.  Some of these academics were so extreme in their views that they tried even to censor those who disagreed with them – as I knew from personal experience.  In their dogmatism, they rarely studied either the texts or the context of the Buddha’s preaching. 

A severe problem in explaining the Buddha’s teaching was that attempts to translate it word by word often produced statements that were misleading or even unintelligible.  I gave the “five aggregates” as an example.  Many people believe that if we could just find the right word in our language to translate a key term in Pali or Sanskrit, all would be well; but that is naïve.  Meaning resides not in single words but in whole sentences, or in an even wider context, and what we must do is to find the clearest and most straightforward way of expressing the Buddha’s thoughts in our own language.  A crucially important part of the wider context is the other religious teachings current in the Buddha’s environment, and of these the most relevant are the teachings of the Upanishads.  Though everyone who knows anything of Buddhism is aware that the Buddha denied the existence of a “self”, almost the entire history of Buddhism, even in ancient India, let alone in the modern West, has shown that what he meant by this has generally been misunderstood.  However, it becomes clear as soon as one realises what the sacred brahmin texts were teaching about the self.  The two chief concepts were the “self” (ātman in Sanskrit, atta in Pali) and “action” (karman in Sanskrit, kamma in Pali), and it is essential to understand how the two relate to each other, what the terms meant to the brahmins, and how the Buddha gave them new meanings.  So far from denying that the individual really exists, the Buddha created a new, coherent concept of the individual, whose essential feature is a moral responsibility which lasts through a series of lives until that individual escapes from the cycle of rebirths by attaining nirvana.

I had reason to be glad that I had left time for questions, because those I received were intelligent and pertinent, and also gave me a chance to slip in a few points I felt guilty about having omitted. 


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