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Richard F. Gombrich


The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
This book is based on the public Jordan Lectures in comparative religion which Gombrich delivered in 1994. Although at the time he was Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, he is disarmingly modest about his scholarship.
The more I study, the more vividly I become aware of my literally infinite ignorance, and indeed the more I dislike appearing in a role in which I am supposed, at least according to some, to impress by my learning.
In spite of this disclaimer, the book contains plenty of detailed discussion of textual questions which will not mean much to readers who know little or nothing about Buddhism. On the other hand, Gombrich's tone is refreshingly colloquial, and non-specialists who are already familiar with the basics will find plenty to interest them.

Among the items of information I gleaned from the book are these.

1. There was no writing in the Buddha's day so the earliest texts we have were written down no earlier than 150 years after his death. The reliance on oral transmission before this date explains the frequently repetitious nature of the texts, with use of synonyms and near-synonyms, which were intended to make them easier to remember.

2. A modern Western reader will have assumptions about the boundary between the real and the imaginary which are probably different from those of the Buddha. This needs to be kept in mind in trying to understand his statements: "his very presuppositions about the relations between what goes on in our heads and what is 'out there' may have been unlike ours. If that is so, it would make such questions as 'Does a Buddha exist after death?' truly unanswerable."

3. There was a debate in early Buddhism about the relative importance of meditation and intellectual understanding for gaining Enlightenment - Nirvana. This question is discussed in Chapter 4 and is quite technical. Gombrich concludes that Enlightenment without meditation was probably never envisaged by the Buddha. But eventually, after at least 65 years, there were monks who left meditation to others without themselves renouncing the quest for Enlightenment.

4. The final chapter discusses the story of Angulimala, a murderous brigand who wore the fingers of his victims round his neck but who was converted and attained Enlightenment when he encountered the Buddha. Gombrich thinks that Angulimala was a devotee of Shiva and Kali, Shiva's consort. This brings up the matter of Tantrism in Buddhism, something I have long found puzzling—the two seem so diametrically opposed to each other.

Tantra is related to the idea, prevalent in South and South-East India, which holds that a worshipper can literally identify with his god, as in possession; such deities may demand blood sacrifices. There is also a belief that one can draw power from impurity—black magic. Tantric practices spread into all types of classical Indian religion in the mediaeval period. For the first thousand years Buddhism was antithetical to Tantra. Buddhist meditation was concerned with increasing self-knowledge, not suppressing it as in spirit possession. And, unlike the Brahmins, the Buddhists were not preoccupied with the notion of impurity, so transgressing the purity rules did not have the same signficance for them.

Later, a Buddhist form of Tantra did develop in the Mahayana, but in a different form, being based on the ethical content of Buddhism. "Figuratively we may say that the Buddha converted not only Angulimala but Angulimala's entire religion."

30 August 2010

%T How Buddhism Began
%S The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings
%A Gombrich, Richard F.
%I The Athlone Press
%C London
%D 1996
%G ISBN 0-485-17417-0
%P x + 180pp
%K religion

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