What the Buddha Thought

What the Buddha Thought

Richard Gombrich was born in London in 1937.

A book by Richard's father

His father, Ernst Gombrich, moved to England from Vienna in late 1935. He was a historian whose book, The Story of Art,  has been translated into more than 30 languages and made the family fortune. He died in 2001 as Sir Ernst Gombrich, OM, CH, after having lived for over 50 years in the same modest house in Hampstead. Richard’s mother was a pianist born in Prague. The Gombrich family contained distinguished musicians, and the dominant passion of Richard’s parents was classical music.

His father once said that he felt that a day on which he had not listened to music was wasted.

Richard was sent to St. Paul’s School, London, which his parents chose because it had been founded by Dean Colet in 1509 “for children of all nations to be taught indifferently.”

Richard was brought up to care about ethics and what is now called “high culture”. His father admired Goethe and Voltaire, and had no religion.

After two years of compulsory military service, spent mostly in Germany, Richard progressed from St. Paul’s to Magdalen College, Oxford. Half way through his four-year course he changed from Classics (Latin and Greek) to Oriental Languages – Sanskrit and Pali. Graduating in 1961, he had a Harkness Fellowship for 2 years at Harvard, where he took an AM in Sanskrit literature under Professor Daniel Ingalls*.

A book by Richard Gombrich

However, his interest in Buddhism was even greater than that in Sanskrit, and he wrote his Oxford doctoral thesis on the practice of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. For this he studied some anthropology and did a year’s fieldwork in a Sinhalese village. When he returned to Oxford, now as a Lecturer, in 1965, he was befriended by a sociologist of religion, Bryan Wilson, and has since remained interested in this subject.

His earlier training, on the other hand, has given him an interest also in philology, and above all an awareness of its demands for painstaking accuracy and a respect for sources.

At Oxford, Richard worked as a University Lecturer until 1976, and then was chosen as the Boden Professor of Sanskrit. With this went a Fellowship in Balliol College.

Richard held office in the Pali Text Society for about 15 years, ending as its President. He is also President of the UK Association of Buddhist Studies, and an honorary life member of the International Association of Buddhist Studies.

He also founded the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies and is the editor of its Journal.

Richard’s publications include:

Precept and Practice: Traditional Buddhism in the rural highlands of Ceylon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971

Cone, Margaret, and Richard Gombrich. The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977

Bechert, Heinz and Richard Gombrich eds. The world of Buddhism: Buddhist monks and nuns in society and culture. London: Thames & Hudson, 1984. Paperback ed. 1991.

Theravāda Buddhism: A social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988.

Buddhism transformed: Religious change in Sri Lanka (authored with Gananath Obeyesekere), Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988. Paperback ed. 1990.

Buddhist Precept and Practice. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1991.

How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings, London: The Athlone Press, 1996.

What the Buddha Thought: London & Oakville: Equinox, 2009. (pictured at left)

Professor Richard Gombrich, Oxford University

Editor’s Note

*Like Richard Gombrich, The Editor of Mezimbite Magazine also studied Sanskrit literature under Prof. Daniel Ingalls at Harvard University.

Editor’s interview questions below are in orange and Prof. Gombrich’s responses are in black.

The Mezimbite Forest Centre is a sustainable forest community and a model for African development.

Forests are a frequent backdrop for the factual and mythological history of Sanskrit and its literature.

Do forests play a part in Buddhism?

In India from the earliest times the village and the forest were embedded in people’s minds as a pair of complementary, contrasting concepts. The village stood for civilization, for the works of man, for structure, for norms. The forest was nature untrammeled, the mysterious and unpredictable wilderness, both attractive and frightening, where anything goes. Perhaps as far back as records go, there were individuals who left the life of society by literally walking out of the village and living as wanderers or hermits.

One of them was the man who became known by his achievement, the Buddha: the Enlightened One, or more literally the Awakened One, who had woken from the murky lack of self-awareness in which ordinary people live. According to the legend, which has at least an allegorical truth, the Buddha was brought up in a village (even if his father was called a “king”) to inherit wealth and power; but on confronting the realities of ageing, disease and death he fled into the forest and spent six years there, almost starving to death, looking for the truth.

What he found he called the Middle Way. It was a Way because it led to salvation. It was the Middle Way because it led between the life of the householder, bound to the senses, and its extreme opposite, the life of the solitary ascetic who mortified the flesh.

This discovery led the Buddha to create what I think one can claim to be the world’s longest lasting institution, the Sangha (the “Community”) of monks and nuns who are to dedicate themselves to treading the middle path.

The Sangha gave them an environment in which they could individually find salvation, and also pass that opportunity on to later generations by preserving the Buddha’s message. Periods of individual meditation in the forest were permitted, even encouraged, but the Sangha were never to lose all contact either with the laity (on whom they depended for food) or with each other, on whom they depended for advice and moral support. So the Buddhist Sangha represents a life style and world view which perfectly combine village and forest.

There is another important way in which the Sangha instantiates a middle way which is not a timid compromise but a bold creative advance.

The Buddha lived in the fifth century BC. At that time several civilizations had already created codes of law by which to live, but so far as I know all of them were ascribed to authors who were either divine or great sages of the past. Their laws were therefore considered beyond criticism and unchangeable. When the Buddha created his community he soon saw the need to lay down rules both for individuals and for regulating community life, and these were recorded in a long book which traditionally stands at the beginning of the Buddhist canon.

This record cannot be taken literally as historically accurate throughout, and later generations must have made changes, both intentionally and inadvertently. But we can clearly see that the Buddha proceeded by case law. When he encountered a new situation, he sometimes changed one of his previous rules, or even rescinded it, advancing by trial and error.

The very fact that this record exists at the heart of the Buddhist canon shows that the Buddha did not regard himself as omniscient and did not require his followers to do so either.

I gather that you have been studying the mind of the Buddha for much of the past 40 years, and have presented in your book a kind of summary of your conclusions. You emphasise that this was a pragmatic thinker. Moreover, when looking at some of your research, I feel like I could just as well be reading about Leonardo da Vinci, or Thomas Alva Edison or… dare I say it… Marcus Tullius Cicero, in terms of the breath and scope of his intellect.

Well, the Buddha’s range of interest was rather narrower than that of da Vinci or Edison; but by that I do not intend to belittle him. He himself emphasised that his purpose in teaching was simply pragmatic: to help others achieve what he had achieved, to find the tranquil and lucid happiness which meant that this would be his last life, because he had escaped forever from the cycle of rebirth. Pure theory he regarded as a waste of time.

Even so, he was surely an intellectual giant.

How so?

Greek philosopher Heraclitus, a contemporary of The Buddha

Earlier Indian thought had often been evocative and insightful, but it operated mainly through myth and metaphor, and never clearly differentiated the literal from the figurative. While the Buddha too made much use of metaphor, he was the first thinker to use abstraction as we do.

I think that the most important use he made of this discovery was to analyse what we normally think of as objects, as things, and declare them to be processes. He did not even have a proper word for “process”, but just as Heraclitus in Greece, who was probably his senior contemporary, saw fire as the basic constituent of the world, the Buddha too saw the phenomenal universe as dynamic through and through.

Nowadays people usually see this discovery of the Buddha’s as just like modern physics, which has dissolved the world perceptible to our senses into processes. That is a fair analogy. Yet I think we must beware of claiming that the Buddha anticipated modern physics, because he was not interested in physics at all: he was interested in our experience.

The most important use that the Buddha made of his discovery was to apply it to us, living and sentient beings. Buddhism became famous for its denial of the soul. But throughout history this denial has very often been misunderstood. The Buddha denied that there was such a thing as the soul, whether or not you choose to regard it as material. This meant there was nothing unchanging at the centre of each individual being. Sometimes “no soul” is translated as “no self”; the Buddha denied that we have a self which does not change over time. Like everyone around him, he believed in rebirth, and indeed told stories about himself in former lives.

What crucially links me to myself in a former life, or to myself in a future life, is the same as what links me to the person I was yesterday or will be tomorrow. The link is summarised in the term karma, which refers to moral character. If I do good, I not only benefit the outside world, but also become a better person; and of course the other way if I do wrong. Karma is the best illustration of the Buddha’s idea of process, because it is neither random nor wholly determined, but in constant change, under the influence of causal factors which are probably too many and too complex to be perceived.

Personally I do not believe in karma, and this is why – as I often have to explain – I do not call myself a Buddhist. It is a corollary of the Buddha’s karma doctrine that the world is a just place, in which good deeds always ultimately meet their reward and bad deeds their punishment, however long it may take. I would love this to be true, but unfortunately my observations do not allow me to believe it.

However, this does not diminish the magnificence of the Buddha’s moral achievement. For both his capacity for abstraction, which enables generalization, and his view that living beings are essentially constituted by their moral character, which they can always modify, led him to conclude that all living beings are on an equal footing, for each of them is morally responsible for his or her own actions. At this point it is more useful to talk about all mankind rather than “all living beings”.

For the Buddha, all human beings are morally on a par and ultimately capable of reaching salvation, nirvana.

This is the most important characteristic that they have, and it is shared alike by men and women, young and old, brahmins and outcastes. Moreover, since what essentially differentiates good action from bad is the intention behind it, ritual of itself has no moral value and most social convention is nothing more than that. Thus the Buddha was both a great egalitarian and a great moral teacher, who required everyone to face the fact that they alone were responsible for their destiny.

He, if anyone, deserves to be credited with founding a civilization.

You depict the Buddha as an activist. However, the stereotype of the Buddha, the PR campaign if you will, seems to promote the idea that if you simply sit in lotus position and wait around for a bit, enlightenment might come and knock on your mental door. Variations of this theory can be found in countless popular magazines and books and CDs and podcasts and videos. I see none of that in your research. What I see is a person who – rather like Henry David Thoreau – practices and cultivates self-reliance and individuality.

Passivity, sitting in lotus position without an active and energetic intent to take charge of one’s own destiny is not a Buddhist concept, but may well be a concept in popular psychology or popular culture. It is true, however, that I have not yet said anything about the role of meditation in Buddhism, and meditation may not appear to outsiders as a particularly strenuous activity! My discussion of the Buddha’s thought in this book has almost nothing new to say about meditation as such.

I am however very concerned to point out that the Buddha regarded morality as a prerequisite for meditation. I am doubtful whether he would have approved of the modern trend to try to fit an hour of meditation, or even less, into the daily schedule of a lay life. In traditional Buddhist societies too, the laity are exhorted to practice their Buddhism mainly by venerating the Buddha as an example and following his teachings on ethics; meditation tends to be considered a prerogative of the Sangha, and perhaps also practiced by retired people who have the leisure for it.

Nowadays in the West – and also in Buddhist countries under Western influence – meditation has become popular as a form of psychotherapy. I am sure that it often works, and I have no objection to good psychotherapy, but this is not really what the Buddha envisaged.

You have strong views on higher education.

Yes, several. I run an annual summer school at Oxford, an intensive introduction to Pali.

There are no prerequisites except willingness to work hard for 12 days. Students attend from all parts of the world. It is booked months in advance, but unfortunately my personal method of teaching means that I have to limit the attendance to 14 students. I start out on the first day by telling the students that this is about cooperation, not competition. We are 15 individuals whose aim is to learn Pali and hope to learn it also by teaching each other.

If it is not too bold to say so, I hope we can emulate the Buddha’s concept of the Sangha as a community who wish to progress by helping each other.

If you happen to grasp a concept more swiftly than your neighbour, it is your duty to share that understanding. The gratifying thing is that this does actually seem to work. At the end of the course we take a lunch together and I really enjoy the atmosphere, because everyone says that they have managed to make a good start in Pali, but it is also evident that they have become friends. Many go on to keep in touch, and even to work on Pali together.

You don’t like exams do you?

I dislike exams intensely! I regard them as the enemy of education. To a small extent tests are of course necessary: you have to find out whether someone graduating in civil engineering knows how to build a bridge that will not fall down. But my father said a wise thing to me: If results are what matter, then why can exams at university be taken only once?

If for example, you are taking a driving test in this country, you can take it any number of times until you pass; then you can drive a vehicle, because you now have the requisite knowledge and skill. If the result is what matters, then why can you not take a university exam many times as well?

Well, my father would have likely responded to your father with the notion that this life we live is rather like a school, whereby the end result is a richer sense of inner knowledge and understanding than we had at the start of our journey. If that is the desired result, then he too would concur with your father that exams seem superfluous.

Essentially, there is no correlation whatsoever between the milestones of enlightened thought and the milestone of sitting for an exam. So, for the Humanities at least, it seems you would rather not have your students suffer through exams if you had a choice?

The only justification for studying the Humanities is curiosity.

While I was still in post, I used to say so to my students. I said that I would not teach them for the exams; but on the other hand, if they studied with real interest, they would probably be at no disadvantage in the exams. The exam situation is getting ever worse. Now in Britain an examiner is required to justify every mark they give.

If they give 66% to an essay on the Buddha, they must explain why they think it is not good enough to get 67% but deserves more than 65%. This is not merely ludicrous. Since there can be no rational reason to determine the mark of 66%, the poor examiner is actually forced to be dishonest, to lie. What a betrayal of educational values!

Quantification has become a pernicious fetish. If the Humanities can teach us anything, surely it must be that human qualities cannot be expressed by a percentage.

The most basic requirement of a university education should be to teach intellectual honesty. That is brother to the personal responsibility the Buddha taught.

  1. Jacqueline Kramer05-19-2012

    Thank you for this nuanced article on Buddhism. I am grateful to the author and others who translated and generously distributed the Buddhist texts through Pali Text Society.

    There are a couple of questions I was left with from the article.

    One is about kamma. I’m not sure what the details of the author’s experience of kamma are but I imagine it may have something to do with how unfair life appears. I don’t see kamma as a quid pro quo dynamic but a mysterious, energetic web we are all subject to. I would like to hear more about the author’s disenchantment with this principle.

    When I began my Buddhist journey it was as a Theravadin and I was told that the Buddha was the first to embrace the availability of awakening for all, regardless of age, sex or caste.

    As my studies developed, and as I travelled to Buddhist countries, I was to learn that in Theravadin countries people are taught that enlightenment, full parinibanna, can only occur in a male body. I would be interested in the authors response to this teaching.

    Last, regarding meditation, I see how it is often used in a pop culture sort of palliative sort way. Although this does have its value, as the author pointed out, that’s not how it’s used by bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. However, there are laity who, through meditation and inquiry, attain experience of annata, annica, dukka. It is my experience that meditation can lead to prajna when practiced with inquiry.

    Editor’s Note

    The trilogy of existence is trilakṣaṇa (in Sanskrit) or tilakkhaṇa (in Pali), namely anattā (the non-self), anicca (impermanence) and dukka (unsatisfactory existence).

    Prajñā (Sanskrit: प्रज्ञा) or paññā (Pāli) is wisdom, understanding or acute discernment.

    Jacqueline Kramer is the author of Buddha Mom: The Path to Mindful Mothering

    Jacqueline writes a regular newsletter at the Hearth Foundation.

    • Richard Gombrich05-20-2012

      To Jacqueline:

      We have to be clear about the distinction between what the Buddha thought and taught, for which the source that I use is the Pali Canon, and what we – you, I and the rest of us – may consider to be true, desirable, etc.

      The texts make it absolutely clear that the Buddha (and many others in India in those days, Buddhists and others) did “see kamma as a quid pro quo dynamic”.

      I may personally prefer your view, but it would be wrong of me to accept that – so far as the evidence goes – it was the Buddha’s view. He stresses that each of us is “the owner and the heir of their own kamma”.

      This is crucial for him because of the issue of responsibility.

      Your original view, that awakening is available to all, is correct.

      That it is only for males is utter rubbish. Who on earth told you that? One of the books in the Pali Canon, the Therī-gāthā, consists of poems by nuns who have attained enlightenment.

      The Buddhist tradition on the whole considers that it is indeed possible for laity to make spiritual progress, but it is much easier for monks and nuns to do so, simply for practical reasons. Let me just mention one of these.

      A key component of spiritual progress is the elimination of desire. Of course, once can go far towards this even when married.

      But ultimately it must mean celibacy.

      • Jacqueline Kramer05-20-2012

        Response to Richard

        Are we to eliminate desire or attachment to desire, craving?

        To me this is more than just semantics but a subtle and important consideration on the path of practice where the rubber meets the road. I’m not convinced that celibacy is necessary to awakening.

        I am aware of the Therigatha and know that women can attain nibanna. Still, in Thailand, and other Buddhist countries, women, to this day, pray to be reborn as a man so that they may attain enlightenment.

        There are also the 8 “special” precepts taken by nuns that put women in a lower position. There are questions by scholars whether these rules were set down by the Buddha or by monks at a later date, but in Theravadin Buddhism they still stand and create inequality between monks and nuns and have adversely affected women in Buddhist countries.

        • Richard Gombrich05-22-2012

          Response to Jacqueline Kramer’s response

          You raise several issues. You and I like and dislike much the same things, it seems, but that is not the point here.

          In sutta 22 of the Middle Length Sayings, the Alagaddūpama Sutta, a monk maintains that celibacy is not necessary, and the Buddha gives him an extremely severe reprimand. Sorry.

          This reminds me of the Jewish joke about Moses coming down from Mount Sinai. “What did he say?” they all ask. “There’s good news and bad news,” says Moses. “The good news is that I got it down to ten. The bad news is that adultery is still in.”

          Don’t judge too much from Thailand.

          A Thai monk is not allowed to take anything from the hands of a woman or even to touch a baby girl. The Buddhists of Sri Lanka and Burma view this with amazed incomprehension. The Thai Saṅgha seems to make up its own rules. Obviously I cannot know the substance of the prayers of every Sinhalese woman, but I have never heard there of a woman praying to be reborn as a man. If they did so, it would not be for religious reasons.

          On Theravada disrespect for women, see my keynote address “Comfort or Challenge?” at the International Conference on the Dissemination of Theravada Buddhism in the 21st Century, Bangkok, October 2010.

          Professor Ute Hüsken, University of Oslo, the Dept. of Cultural Studies and Oriental Languages

          Dr Ute Hüsken has proved, in my own view, that the rules subordinating nuns in the Sangha must be a later addition; see her article in the Journal of Pali Text Society, 2000. But it would be unreasonable to expect identical treatment for women and men in that society. For a start, there was nothing like a police force. A woman alone in a lonely place would run a risk of being accosted.

          • Jacqueline Kramer05-22-2012

            As I understand the Buddha’s stance, he claims to be a man, not a god. Men, no matter how brilliant, are subject to mistakes and sometimes make relative statements, statements based on cultural conditions rather than absolute statements. I agree that many of the special rules were made for the protection of women, and appreciate that.

            Also, he was starting a community at a time and place where he could only push the cultural limits so far. I think that if he lived today much of the vinaya would be different.

            Are we to follow the word or the spirit of the Buddha?

            Novice Monastic Buddhist Nuns

            I’m all for the spirit of pushing cultural limits and creating rules based on kindness and what really works rather than on precedence. Celibacy has created more harm than good to society – especially to women. I think celibacy occurs naturally as awakening develops. To impose it on teenage boys is psychologically dangerous.

            Regarding Thailand’s special relationship to women in Buddhism – yes, there are many accounts of women praying to be reborn as a man so that they may achieve parinibanna, and not just in Thailand. Also, in Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka the governments do not recognize bhikkhunis so women monks do not receive the same economic support as male monks.

            Buddhist Nuns in Mindfulness Meditation

            As a past Vice President of Alliance for Bhikkhunis I’ve been right in the middle of this.

            Although Theravadin Buddhism has not been the only form of Buddhism that has female unfriendly practices (in China the names of enlightened women were stuck from the records) it has been the most overtly female unfriendly.

            That said, I don’t think this is the work of the Buddha.

            I take refuge in the Buddha, in awakening, for all beings – not just monks, not just monks and nuns, but all beings. In the Buddha’s day non-celibate laity were also becoming enlightened. The Buddha was the ultimate teacher, the ultimate artist. It’s too bad that when he died less brilliant and creative minds got ahold of his vision.

            This seems to be the bane of all great visionaries.

  2. Jai Flicker05-19-2012

    Dear Richard,

    Thank you for sharing such penetrating insights into the life and mind of the Buddha. In my studies of Buddhist thought, I have never come across such a clear articulation of the often sited concept of No Self.

    Many Buddhist teachers explain that the Self is not a thing, that it has no substantiality. However, this only left me with a negative definition of the Self, one which I tried to accept but did not find wholly satisfying.

    Your explanation of the Self as process, as the playing out of karmic cause and effect, helped me to finally realize this central teaching of the Buddha in a positive manner. It is not that the Self does not exist, it is that it does not exist as an unchanging Soul!

    There is no ghost in the machine. There are only causes and effects that play out across time and space. Very, very helpful.

    With Gratitude,
    Jai Flicker

    • Mike from Portland05-20-2012

      I think the main reason why schools use exams is because of the supply and demand for education in our system.

      For example, UK/EU schools are very strict as you know because the government can only afford to educate a select number of people. The USA has so many higher-ed tracks including community college.

  3. Jai Flicker05-19-2012


    One more thing.

    Another passage from your piece that moved me deeply is your description of Sangha.

    I was first exposed to this term while studying philisophy in India at the age of 19.

    At one point, I attended a Satsang, which I later learned derives from Sat (truth) and Sangha (community). Then, while preparing for my first week-long silent Vipassana retreat in Bodhgaya, I learned of the Three Jewels of the Buddha, the Buddha, the Dharma, and, of course, the Sangha.

    My initial understanding of Sangha was rather narrow, thinking of it as the group of monks that followed the Buddha. At I meditated upon it further, it expanded to include anyone member of one’s spiritual community.

    I love how in your piece you expand this beautiful notion even further, grounding it in the educational. As an educator myself, the description of how you conduct your Pali classes truly inspired me.

    I love the notion of holding a class as an opportunity for Sangha, for community, in which everyone takes responsibility for helping everyone learn.

    Again, thank you for an inspiring example!


    • Mike from Portland05-20-2012

      There are 5 ways karma can manifest. Assume 20% weight to each of the 5.

      Karma can take the form of our own actions (we can improve here).

      Karma can be biological (DNA) (we cannot change much). Karma can be the planetary conditions at the time of our birth (we cannot change). Karma can be the environmental conditions of the present moment (we can learn how to interpret this). Karma can be the “help” we get through the wisdom accessible through the practice of meditation/mindfulness (we can develop).

      • Richard Gombrich05-22-2012

        To Mike from Portland

        Everyone is welcome to their own theories; but according to the Buddha, something you cannot change does not count as karma.

  4. Nigel C-T05-19-2012

    Professor Gomrich, thank you. Your interview answers are frank and fresh.

    One of the most joyous travels of my life, was my visit to the deer park in सारनाथ or Sārnātha, India where Guatama Buddha first taught Dharma, and where Sangha blossomed. Here are some monks from Sārnātha…

    Professor you say:

    “Nowadays people usually see this discovery of the Buddha’s as just like modern physics, which has dissolved the world perceptible to our senses into processes. That is a fair analogy. Yet I think we must beware of claiming that the Buddha anticipated modern physics, because he was not interested in physics at all: he was interested in our experience.”

    I am trained as a quantum physicist.

    And I have been following with great interest the numerous discoveries and substantial research that correlates early Buddists with the knowledge and understanding of elements of quantum mechanics which, as you say, is largely to do with “process”.

    Especially, Anton Zeilinger’s dialogues on quantum mechanics with His Holiness.

    Quantum Atom Theory depicted diagrammatically below, is a “process” very close to Buddhist process perspective. Serious scientists concur with Buddhist perceptions.

  5. Karim05-20-2012

    NIgel –

    I have been following Anton Zeilinger’s work ever since I took his quantum mechanics class at MIT years ago. His protege Markus Aspelmeyer is now carrying on Anton’s pioneering research in quantum optomechanical cantilevers and Markus heads up the very first chair in Quantum Information on the Nanoscale at the University of Vienna.

    Markus, Anton, several other quantum physicists and Buddhist philosophers as well as His Holiness the Dalai Lama are holding a symposium in less than a week in Vienna:

    Mind & Matter — New Models of Reality

    Symposium on Buddhism and ScienceChaired by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, University of Vienna, May 26, 2012

    Nigel, have you read Dance of the Photons?..

  6. Nigel C-T05-20-2012

    Editor, I have indeed read Dance of the Photons – several times, and it is to me the most user-friendly and accessible book on the subject of quantum physics – it really requires no background in the subject. My young kids gleefully read parts of it too!

    It is far more accessible for kids and non-physicists than Lisa Randall’s excellent Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions.

    Alice and Bob” exploring quantum physics conjure up Sir Partha’s characters “Becky and Desta” depicting development issues in Economics: A very short introduction.

    The part where Alice and Bob are traipsing through a Bell Inequality experiment, learning about detector efficiencies and random data is an absolute gem for kids!

    • Richard Gombrich05-20-2012

      To Karim and Nigel:

      I am aware that finding parallels, or even closer resemblances, between the Buddha’s teachings and modern physics is extremely fashionable.

      I would just utter a word of warning. Not only did the Buddha make clear that he was not interested in the physical world as such: I am skeptical about whether finding (or alleging) these resemblances helps our understanding of either Buddhism or physics.

      I persuaded a very bright young cosmologist at Oxford who is also a Buddhist to lecture about the subject, and he thought that the similarities were superficial and not helpful. One should be careful not to admire and profit from great thinkers simply because one thinks they anticipate what science has now revealed.

      Let us not patronize the past.

  7. Karim05-20-2012

    Richard, thank you for taking the time to respond to the comments and enliven the discussion. I cannot speak for Nigel, but speaking for myself – with regard to your concern about contriving parallels between “Buddha’s teachings and modern physics” or, about the tendency to “patronize the past”, I respectfully disagree on both counts:

    Patronizing the Past

    No, that is not the case here. It happens in many cases I agree, but it is not the case here, in this particular discussion in Mez Mag. Richard, I would contend that your viewpoint here is a touch rigid and unaccommodating of nuanced thinking. This exchange is not “patronizing the past” but rather, having the past “inform” the future.

    Here is an analogy that may clarify my point:

    I recently interviewed to two Classics scholars on the Roman political figures Cicero and Tacitus: Dr. Henriette van der Blom teaches down the road from you at St. Johns’ College, Oxford. She has written a book entitled “Cicero’s Role Models“. Dr. Christopher Krebs teaches Classics at Harvard; he wrote me an article based upon his book “A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich“.

    In both cases, the insights into the minds and progressive ideas of Marcus Tillius Cicero and Cornelius Tacitus help “inform” and sometimes “frame” later events in history. For example, Cicero, being an outsider and progressive thinker, helps us better understand a politician like prime minister Benjamin Disraeli – also an outsider. That is not patronizing the past but utilizing the past to inform and better understand the nearer present. Moreover, the correlations between Tacitus’ Germania and the Third Reich are clearly worth exploring – which is what makes Kreb’s research compelling reading.

    On one level, Gautam Buddha is an historical figure and is therefore subject to scrutiny and diverse speculations. That is inevitable whether it is Buddha or Cicero or Tacitus.

    The Buddha and Modern Physics

    Richard, with regard to your other concern – the conflation resulting in the fact that “Buddha’s teachings and modern physics is extremely fashionable”…Frankly, I am not the person – and nor is Nigel – that you should direct this concern to:

    The person who should really respond to this concern is His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

    H.H. is chairing a symposium on May 26, 2012 (in 6 days) in Vienna with, perhaps the most “fashionable” quantum physicist of our modern age – Anton Zeilinger. Moreover, H.H. is traveling to the laboratory and platform whereby Professor Zeilinger conducts his research and disseminates his fairly radical views on the quite fashionable – and controversial – fields of Quantum Optics, Quantum Nanophysics, Quantum Information and Teleportation. Traditional physicists think Zeilinger’s views are a bit “out there..”.

    Nevertheless, His Holiness is chairing a symposium on Zeilinger’s home turf in Vienna.


    If this conflation between “Buddha’s teachings and modern physics is extremely fashionable” – and presumably unfounded and has no sound basis in reality… then why is His Holiness the Dalai Lama bothering to chair this symposium? That is the question.

    • Richard Gombrich05-22-2012

      To The Editor of Mezimbite Magazine

      I’m all for intellectual history; it is what I do myself.

      What you write about Cicero and Tacitus is very interesting and fine. I am happy to believe that they may help us to understand Disraeli, etc, and I see nothing patronising there. But I think that if they could read the books you cite they might well approve this use of their ideas. I do NOT think this of the Buddha’s reaction if he were to read modern physics – though psychology might be another story.

      The Buddha said: “The world is in this fathom-length body,” meaning that what he thought really mattered was to understand human experience – not cosmology.

      I am well aware that HH the Dalai Lama has been running a series of symposia and conferences on Buddhism and Science, and another starts this week. That’s why I called the topic “extremely fashionable”.

      But what does it prove?

      Imagine that we were discussing whether Jesus had anticipated some major feature of modern science, and the Pope organised a symposium about it. Would it be a relevant argument that the Pope was taking such an interest? Or would that be simply an appeal to authority, something the Buddha discouraged?

      Wouldn’t a sceptic (like me) say, “Never mind who thinks this might be so: I’d prefer you to give me some evidence that it is so.”

      The best form of such evidence would be things that Jesus (probably) said.

      So why is it different with the Buddha?

      • Editor05-22-2012

        Dear Richard,

        Now that you clarify the distinction above, I perceive it.

        Thanks for your lucid explanation. My general point was that Cicero, or Tacitus, or the Buddha are historical figures on one level and thus open to speculative theory. It comes with the territory. Your point focuses upon non-speculative fact-checking through rigorous research and scrutiny.

        We are both correct within our own particular context.

        However, I am the better for your thoughtful clarification. Thank you.


  8. Nigel C-T05-20-2012

    Two Questions for Professor Richard Gombrich from Nigel and the Editor

    Richard –

    I concur with the question our Editor raises (above). In addition, I have my own.

    So, two questions for you, Richard:

    1. “If this conflation between ‘Buddha’s teachings and modern physics is extremely fashionable’ – and presumably unfounded and has no sound basis in reality then why is His Holiness the Dalai Lama bothering to chair this symposium? That is the question.” (The Editor of Mez Mag)

    That is the one question (above) – from the Editor. Now (below) here is my question:

    2. Who is the designated driver as such – the accepted gate-keeper and disseminator of The Buddha’s legacy and character – is it the learned scholar (such as Professor Gombrich) or the reincarnated Buddha (H.H. The Dalai Lama) or either one, or both ? (My/Nigel’s question)

    Richard, are you familiar with the deductive reasoning that Aristotle’s Perihermaneias proposed and that was discussed by Apuleius in the 9th Century in this manuscript:

    Here is a modern version of Aristotle’s Perihermaneias :

    Richard, this is Aristotelean deductive reasoning on the Theory of Contradictories:

    Professor Gombrich warns against the following (see his comments above):

    I would just utter a word of warning. Not only did the Buddha make clear that he was not interested in the physical world as such: I am skeptical about whether finding (or alleging) these resemblances helps our understanding of either Buddhism or physics. – Prof. Richard Gombrich

    The Dalai Lama will – in 6 days – be part of a symposium that advertises as follows:

    Since his childhood H.H. the Dalai Lama has had great interest in science and scientific research, and it is his conviction that human belief should be based on a correct assessment of reality, and not on assumptions.

    Chaired by H.H. the Dalai Lama, the symposium “Mind & Matter – New Models of Reality” brings together leading scholars from physics, neuroscience and Buddhist philosophy, to present and discuss new ground-breaking and experimental observations in quantum optics and neuroplasticity against the backdrop of the Buddhist philosophy.

    So then, it follows – deductively – that Professor Gombrich’s and The Dalai Lama’s views are in direct opposition given the Aristotelean “contradictories” thus far cited.

    It further follows that either one, or the other, or both (H.H. and Gombrich), is the acceptable answer and legitimate gatekeeper + disseminator of Buddha’s legacy.

    Which one is it – or is it both – dual options – or, must the reader make the selection?

    • Richard Gombrich05-22-2012

      Response To Nigel

      I just love your idea of nominating a “designated driver” and “accepted gatekeeper”: it distils the pure spirit of western monotheism.

      I have had the great pleasure and privilege of talking to His Holiness the Dalai Lama; I even had the rare honour of being his host when he visited Oxford University in 2008. I find him one of the most admirable people that I have come across.

      I could not have a better illustration of what the Buddha seems to me to be opposing when he says: look at the evidence and make up your own mind! No one, I hope, designates me or accepts me as an authority figure.

      In my book I offer evidence for the way I understand the Buddha’s thought, based on many years of studying it. I may be quite wrong; but it is a bit silly not to consider that evidence if I am much more familiar with the subject matter than you are, just because I am not a “reincarnated Buddha”.

      I have had the great pleasure and privilege of talking to His Holiness the Dalai Lama; I even had the rare honour of being his host when he visited Oxford in 2008. I find him one of the most admirable people that I have come across.

      He is exceptionally intelligent, and also exceptionally humble – and his humility is based on his intelligence. The delicious irony is that one cannot imagine him making the claims that you are making on his behalf.

      HH the Dalai Lama seated next to Richard at Oxford in 2008

      It is you who are so sure that he is a reincarnated Buddha; I have heard him say – and I believe this typical of his character – that he is not sure. I feel confident that to base an argument from authority on the Dalai Lama does him no more justice than does the incessant Chinese cry that he is a “warmonger”. Despite Aristotle and your diagrams, I do not know of any proposition on which his Holiness and I definitely disagree – but in any case, that is not what is relevant.

  9. Allan05-22-2012

    If the Editor will let me change the subject a little…

    There is a respect for all life that we learn from Buddhism. It is with great sadness that I witness the loss of forest at the hand of the colonial invaders of the Dali Lama’s Buddhist homeland and now the same neocolonial invaders on my continent and in my chosen home country consuming as much life from my forests as they can carry away.

    My question to the learned author is how do we as life loving people, respectful but diverse liberal thinkers defend our forests our earth in the face of neocolonial violence and greed without compromising our ethical values?

  10. Karim05-22-2012

    As you know Allan, I used to work for conservationist Richard Leakey in Kenya.

    Our work with the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya, was to raise awareness amongst rural East African school children about the need to conserve the wildlife; how the elephant and rhino populations were endangered due to poaching of elephant tusk and rhino horn.

    Much, much progress was made through these and similar programs in Kenya. Now, in the present day, we have sadly witnessed a tremendous surge in the trading of elephant tusk and rhino horn. The reason is precisely the very same that you’ve cited above:

    “..the same neocolonial invaders on [our] continent.”

    The ancient Buddhist parable of The Blind Men and The Elephant

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