“This book argues,” writes Richard Gombrich in the preface to What the Buddha Thought, “that the Buddha was one of the most brilliant and original thinkers of all time.” Gombrich's aim is to place the Buddha in the same canon as Aristotle or Descartes, rather than Jesus or Mohammed — a philosopher and thinker, not simply a religious figurehead.
This is an ambitious undertaking, and I am happy to report that What the Buddha Thought is not a case of hubris or mislaid ambition. It is one of a number of works that I am tempted to call “revisionist-Buddhist,” works that attempt to wipe away the encrustations of time or the dirt of history from Buddhism and make them not only relevant to the current age but allow us to see more of Buddhism than would be possibly by simply reiterating previous work. Brad Warner and Dzogchen Ponlop have both produced work in this vein for lay audiences, and now I am exploring works of a more scholarly nature that attempt to do the same things.
The book asserts several things about Buddhism, and the Buddha, which I have heard propounded before but not quite this comprehensively, and which make tremendous sense and constitute a valuable contribution to our understanding of Buddhism past and present. First, and in some ways most crucially, Gombrich talks about how Buddhism arose in great part as a reaction to and a revision of both Brahmanist and Jainist thought. Those were two of the major strains of ecclesiastical thinking in India at the time, and the Buddha himself had plenty of direct exposure to the former before his awakening. Gombrich shows that without the context of either of these religions, much of what Buddhism teaches — and the exact wording of those teachings — is easy to misinterpret. Without the context of Brahmanism, a great deal of what the Buddha said and why he said it becomes that much more difficult to appreciate.
The second thing is again a matter of context. Because the Buddha was addressing, by and large, people who had the same cultural background he did, he had to speak to them in terms they would understand. That meant using the trappings of Brahmanic belief as delivery mechanisms or comparable metaphors for his insights. In one eye-opening section, Gombrich discusses a colleague’s work in the origins of the Twelvefold Chain of Dependence, which theorized that several elements at the “start” of the chain were in fact borrowed straight from Brahmanic thought, but were stood on their head and attached to the other links in the chain as a way of demonstrating how they did not lead to anything but more bondage. Some of this amounts to the meanings of words and how subtle shades of meanings can change interpretations, but Gombrich does not get too hung up on this: he invokes it where it makes sense, and the rest of the time uses the broader context of history and anthropology to make his points.
The key insight Gombrich returns to is how the Buddha’s work, even when preserved via the Pali Canon — which was only written down centuries after his death after being orally transmitted for generations — stands apart, quite intentionally, from the cultural context that produced it. “It is hard to exaggerate how different the sutras are from most early Indian religious texts,” notes Gombrich, and he lays them out side by side to show how this manifests. What was specifically different was not just the approach — he shows how some of the Buddha’s invocation of common conceits at the time was used for contrast, as per the Chain of Dependence above — but the conclusions and the aim. The metaphorical treatment of death and rebirth is also part of this: when the Buddha talked of being reborn, he was using it as a way to contrast the awakened state from one’s previous, unawakened existence. But it was easy to look at what he was saying divorced of its context and assume he was simply continuing a tradition.
Another thing Gombrich points out is how this employing of tradition to break from tradition — for lack of a better way to put it — helped the Buddha spread his message, and also gave him a rhetorical vocabulary to do it. When people asked him about the afterlife, reincarnation, the existence of gods, or any number of other things that he felt were “off-message”, his reply would be along the lines of: What’s this got to do with the problem of suffering? He disliked such speculation not only because it produced no useful insight — that is, it did nothing to foster one’s liberation — but also because most of the time the questions themselves were misleading or from false pretenses, even if the questioner didn’t realize this at the time. He also refused to answer questions which he could not honestly lay claim to having direct knowledge of; he wasn’t interested in pretending to look wise. One of Brad Warner’s funny anecdotes in this regard involved a former “spiritual teacher” (the quotes are to express disdain that was his) describing how John Lennon had been a tree in his previous life because he’d once answered the door naked. Such footling pseudo-profundity wasn’t the Buddha’s goal, since he did not want his students becoming attached to either him or the precise formulations of his wisdom.
This, I think, is the deeper meaning behind such conceits as “abandoning the raft once you have reached the other shore”. The Buddha was not saying that once you are enlightened, you no longer need to be taught anything (or learn anything); rather, that once you grasp intuitively and from within the meaning of the teaching, the exact way it was passed on to you — the precise wording, the specific examples — become less important. One should not become hopelessly attached to such things, but instead find individuated and creative ways to pass the wisdom along for the audience, times and manners that you are confronted with. Gongs, chants, incense and specific kinds of cushions are not themselves the wisdom, and if they get in the way of appreciating the wisdom they should be discarded and replaced with something that you have a better chance of connecting to. Much of what Gombrich has been unearthing points to that.
I suspect this is a problem in many walks of life and arenas of knowledge as well. We seem to have a tendency to assume that the only way something can be understood is if it is reduced to a formula or a set of steps, and that the only way to reproduce that understanding is to follow that same formula with slavish precision. This is pernicious and misleading, because it removes us from understanding how that formula was derived in the first place and what wisdom it is meant to reflect. I remember not long ago arguing with someone about the idea that there are only x stories in the world, where x was three, nine, thirty-nine, or any other number. I argued that there are an infinite number of stories, because the whole idea of a story is itself an arbitrary construction, and to reduce that to a simple set of bullet points or procedural maps is to ruin your own capacity for real creativity. This is not to say that stories do not have things in common — only that we delude ourselves if we think that storytelling is a matter of producing from those elements a set of properly-constructed arrangements on the order of a logarithm table, or computing the entire move space for a game like chess. (And even if you did compute the move space for chess, that’s not a guarantee you’d be able to use that information to win, either.) In short, storytelling is not a matter of templates and checklists, just as real wisdom and insight cannot be derived from dogmas or formulas.
Digression over. So the real value of Gombrich’s book is how it points the way towards other work yet to be done in this manner. A few other works (e.g., Rebel Buddha) have started to pop up which talk about Buddhist thought as a living thing and not a historical artifact, something that needs to be re-appreciated in its present moment by every culture that tangles with it. When China did this, the result was Zen. The West has imported Buddhism in various forms — Zen especially — but in my opinion has yet to create its own truly Western Buddhism. Works like this are a tentative step towards allowing something like that to manifest all the more completely.