Can we know what the Buddha taught? by Professor Richard Gombrich

Talk by Richard Gombrich in which he explores the difficult issue of whether we can know what the Buddha taught, using the Pali texts as his basis. 46 minutes.

Professor Richard GombrichRichard Gombrich explores the difficult issue of whether we can know what the Buddha taught, using the Pali texts as his basis.

Professor Gombrich was the Boden Professor of Sanskrit, Oxford.

Can we know what the Buddha taught? by Professor Richard GombrichHe is a leading translator and interpreter of Buddhist Sanskrit and Pali texts.

This talk was given at the 2002 BPG Leicester Buddhist Summer School.

Listen to more Buddhist talks here.

Author: Buddhism Now

Buddhism Now is an online Buddhist magazine based upon the teachings of the Buddha. Buddhist Publishing Group (BPG) was formed in 1983 and published the paper issue of Buddhism Now between 1989-2007.

4 thoughts on “Can we know what the Buddha taught? by Professor Richard Gombrich”

  1. Dr Gombrich’s talk does a wonderful job at illustrating and resolving some of the key issues and problems regarding our understanding of early Buddhist thought. He has gone into some detail in teasing apart aspects of early Buddhism from the Theravada tradition by carefully studying the commentaries and suttas themselves.

    I have come to highly regard and respect Dr. Gombrich work. Without his influence the early Buddhist teachings would not be as accessible in the west. His work has literally made the world a better place through his historical research and his great understanding of Pali. I can only imagine the administrative efforts he has put fourth as Director of the Pali Text Society.

    Below area a set of most of the suttas Dr Gombrich referenced in his talk for our own study and a few notes and criticisms I have kindly made regarding his comments on Dependent Origination. Unfortunately, due to time restraints, his discussion of Conditionality was cut short and left a bit muddled.

    Gombrich suggests that the famous rebuke of Ananda by the Buddha on his lack of full understanding of Dependent Origination is a “failure of the doctrine for teaching the tradition”.

    Gombrich does not address the point that at the time of this discourse, Ananda was not an Arahant. Ananda achieved Arahantship after the Buddha’s parinibbana, just before the first council (SN 9:5). Thus, it would be quite understandable that the Buddha might reprimand Ananda for not fully understanding Dependent Origination. Ananda, had not fully penetrated the Tevijja’s (Three-fold Knowledges) which dependent origination is a part of. (D 13 and also described MN 36).

    Further, The Buddha rebukes Ananda in the exact same way in SN 45.2 regarding spiritual friendship.
    “Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One
    “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

    Blessed One
    “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.”
    -SN 45.2

    SN 16:10-11 accounts Ven Kassapa encouraging (quit sternly) Ananda to attain Arahantship before the First Council.

    Where the Buddha’s words “failure of doctrine” or simply a stock quote for a exposition of doctrine used more than once in the suttas?

    Buddha may have addressed Sariputta or Mahamoggallana in a different way regarding the subject of Dependent Origination since they were Arahants. One of the powers of the Buddha was to be able to penetrate the minds of others and teach the dhamma with respect to ones personal level of attainment. Thus, the Ananda’s failure to fully comprehend Dependent Origination is not a failure in the Buddha’s doctrine itself, as much as it is simply the Buddha teaching to a disciples disposition. Buddha admonishes his followers throughout the MN for failure of fully grasping teachings. Ananda being no exception, as we also see in DN 16 and SN 45.2

    Since Buddha taught the penetration of Dependent Origination requires deep insight from meditation it is of no surprise that scholars and commentators will find aspects of the doctrine puzzling.

    “The dhamma is not expounded to delineate an intellectually satisfying system of ideas, but to make known aspects of hidden actuality, that must be penetrated by wisdom to eradicate ignorance underlying existential suffering.” – Bhikkhu Bodhi on the Nidanvagga (The Book of Causation) of the Samyutta Nikaya (Vagga 12).

    Further, Buddha teaches that his awakening, as well as the awakening of the 6 previous Buddhas, was based on discovering the cessation of Dependent Origination. SN 12:4-10

    The idea the Dependent Origination can be taught to cover 3 life times is NOT Theravada tradition but inherent to the Pali sutta’s themselves SN 12:1-2. Scholars and practitioners alike continue to argue about Conditionality having to occur over three lifetimes. Actually, Dependent Origination underlies almost every aspect of the Buddha’s teachings (SN 12: 1-2). It can occur over three lifetimes or in a fingersnap.

    Gombrich alludes to the many other suttas that teach Dependent Origination from different entry points, causing confusion. This is not a point of confusion as much as it is a genuine series of teachings on the nature of conditionality and the non-linear matrix from which it operates. See the work of Thannisaro on this point. The nature of conditionality is not as linear (as the 3-lifetime series may suggest) but also has nonlinear components & feedback loops. Buddha taught Dependent Origination in several frameworks and on several levels.

    Please refer to the Introduction of the Nidanvagga of the Wisdom Ed of the Samyutta Nikaya for an excellent discussion of some these points. Further, read the SN suttas themselves! The Nidanvagga is one of the largest sections of the SN.


    AN 3.65 Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas
    MN 55 Jivaka Sutta
    DN 9 Potthapada Sutta: About Potthapada
    MN 104 – Samagama Sutta

    Ironizing what the Brahmins said: MN 93 Assalayana Sutta – MN 96 Esukari Sutta (Same as Sn 120; some verses in Dhp 396-423) – MN 98 Vasettha Sutta – MN 99 Subha Sutta

    DN 13 Tevijja Sutta: The Three-fold Knowledge: The Way to Brahma

    Buddha taught The Way to Brahma in a similar way in MN 99 as in DN 13

    DN 15 Mahanidana Sutta: The Great Discourse on Origination

    SEE SN Vagga 12 for Buddha’s extensive teachings on Origination.

    This was such an excellent talk….

    1. Also worth seeing the comments of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu on this point.

      The teachings of many mainstream schools are based on Buddhaghosa’s essay. By treating Buddhaghosa’s misinterpretation of the Buddha Dhamma as standard, they obscured the Truth. Buddhaghosa explained the doctrine of dependent origination based on the idea of three connected lifetimes (past, present, and future). According to his idea, ignorance and action in the past gave birth to the present; the consequences of past actions are thus experienced in the present. The process causes our vexation (due to Craving and Clinging) in the present life, while transmigration [the cyclical process of death and rebirth or samsara] delivers us to births and sufferings in future lives. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu examines such an interpretation and raises these critical questions: If the Buddha taught the absence of an ego (anatta), then what is migrating from one life to the next? If the cause of suffering is instilled in one lifetime and its consequence emerges in another, how do we free ourselves from suffering in our practice in this life?

      Proper understanding of dependent origination is essential. It allows us to know that the concept of an ego is dependent on various causal conditions. It also frees us from the erroneous belief of “an everlasting self.” The self or ego is not present. The idea of an ego is continually perpetrated by Ignorance. The ignorant citta [could mean the heart or mind depending on the context] is deceived by endless manifestations sustaining the illusion of “an everlasting self.” As Buddhadasa Bhikkhu points out, the Buddha taught the doctrine of dependent origination to help us see through the illusions. The idea of a process of dependent arising that encompasses three lifetimes implies that something is going from one life to the next. It is contrary to what the Buddha taught, and it undermines the Buddha’s teachings.
      Buddhadasa Bhikkhu


      1. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s ‘Dependent Origination in Everyday Life: Paticcasamuppada’ was indeed quite an interesting read. Very argumentative. He definitely had a point to make. :) Yet it’s a good book and has been on my shelf for a few years. Not sure how available it is in the west, I received a copy from a monastery in Taipei.
        I’m sure it’s on the net. The biggest problem I have with the book is that he ‘knows’ Buddhaghosa was a Brahmin. We only have this information on mythical accounts. We know little about Buddhaghosa’s life and background. Further he was a translator and we are not reading Buddhaghosa’s own words or ideas in either the commentaries or the Vism. See the intro to the Vism by Ven. Nanamoli for more on this. Thus, whether or not Buddhaghosa was a Brahmin was inconsequential. Besides, many of Buddha’s followers during his lifetime were Brahmins. Theravada and Brahmanism clashed to say the least, so I do not put much weight into the idea that Buddhaghosa “forgot” he was Buddhist and edited the Vism from a Brahmin’s perspective as Buddhadasa claims (See the chapter titled (of all things) Personal Matters with Buddhaghosa.) I do agree with Buddhadasa’s ideal of more closely examining the suttas themselves rather than the commentary. Unfortunately, unless you read Pali well, the commentary can be necessary for understanding some points. It takes a bit of learning and patience to start to tease them apart.

        The idea of three connected lifetimes being the stock formula for dependent origination probably came from Buddha’s rendering of the 12-links in SN 12:1, and probably the DN sutta. Buddha never said dependent origination is a 3 lifetime cycle, however a few of the many Causality suttas fit this pattern. It’s not that much of a problem. It’s a basic Buddhist concept that ignorance perpetuates the round of rebirths of beings in samsara and this is due to craving for becoming. Buddha’s great insight in the 2nd watch of the night was the reappearance and passing away of beings based on their actions (karma) and this lends itself to the teaching of dependent origination. Thus, teaching the 12-links in this way is simply a teaching device for gaining insight into the arising of rebirth, becoming, and the cessation of of the round, unbinding.

        As a pointed out in my first post, not all dependent origination suttas in the book of Causation (Nidanavagga) of the SN fit this 3 life time scheme. However, this scheme, however one labels it, it a good basic entry point to begin learning the 12-links.

        Bhikkhu Bodhi writes in the introduction of the SN that “The distribution into three life times is only a expository device which for the sake of concision, has to resort to abstraction and oversimplification”

        That’s saying a lot for a strict Theravada follower. Note that the Pali suttas is the dhamma or dharma and the Theravada commentaries, and the Abhidhamma followed. Just as all schools have there own vinya and commentary, yet, the dharma is pretty much the same. As the Buddha said in the MN “Change the word and change the meaning”.

        However, some suttas in the Pali Cannon were written probably after the 1st council. Especially the in the DN. This again points to the importance of Prof. Gombrich’s work in separating commentarial doctrine from the suttas themselves. He is not alone in this endeavor and great strides in this area of research have been made. As the Dalai Lama says, an understanding of the Pali teachings is essential (Essence of the Heart Sutra, Wisdom Pub).

        Now, in my experience, this obvious point on Buddha’s most basic rendering of the 12-links of causality has caused way to much hand-waving and nit picking.

        The other suttas in the Nidanavagga are more dynamic and the 12 links are presented in a more intertwined fashion. Many Buddhist disregard, ignore or are not aware these teachings, clinging to the elementary 3-lifetime scheme and then go searching for a higher doctrine. Read the suttas or sutras; not books about them.

        For historical accuracy Buddhaghosa was a translator. We are not reading his ideas when we read the commentaries. Rather than interpret or misinterpret the commentarial material he translated. Buddhaghosa simply translated what the elders of the “Great Monastery” had written many years before him. We owe him a great depth of gratitude for this. He was wise enough (or ordered by the elder monks) to leave out his own opinions. I think in the Vism alone, there are only 2 or 3 interjections he makes.

        If the Buddha taught the absence of an ego (anatta), then what is migrating from one life to the next?

        Now this is a good question and I have a hard time wrapping my head around it sometimes. There is no ego or identity. See MN 43 & 44. Two favorite suttas actually. :) Upon death. the aggregates break up, so they do not transmigrate. They do not ultimately exist. However, Bhava (becoming), the process of existence, part of which is karma-bhava, the karmically active side of existence being the cause rebirth and consisting of wholesome and unwholesome volitional actions is what underlies the causal pattern. This process is defined by dependent origination. :) Perhaps someone can explain it better (I am using my own words) but karma and the clinging & craving for further becoming is what ties a sentient being to the round of rebirths.

        Spk reads: Sense-sphere existence is both kamma-existance (kamma-bhava) and re-birth existence (upapattibhava). Of these kamma-existance is kamma that leads to sense-sphere existence; for kamma, being the cause of rebirth as spoken of as existence in that realm, is spoken of as existence. by assigning a name of the result to the cause. Rebirth-Existence is the set of five kammically acquired aggregates produced by that kamma; for this is called existence in the sense that “it comes to be there”.

        Whew…Spk is the commentary of the SN. I’d much rather read the suttas than the commentary. :) Anyway, the aggregates mentioned above are only in the worldly sense. Ultimately there is no “being” that dies.

        I have heard realized meditaters, who spent years in retreat, from different dharma traditions say basically the same thing: “life & death and the point between is meaningless, to explain it to you would simply cause you more delusion.”

        This is why the Buddha said “To understand Dependent Origination is to Understand the Dhamma, to understand the Dhamma is to understand Dependent Origination”

        If the cause of suffering is instilled in one lifetime and its consequence emerges in another, how do we free ourselves from suffering in our practice in this life?

        This is a much easier question. Follow the Eight Fold Path.

        Seriously, Buddha taught about the freezing or drying of our karma through meditation. This is the path. A wonderful book on this is ‘Paradox of Becoming’ by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Remember that karma is action, not the result of action. Karma is always dependent not only on the past (lives) but on the very present. That’s why meditation is so important. If you can bring your mind and heart to a state of awareness where you see your defilements and asavas then you can let them go. As Buddha said again and again “cut them off like a palm stump”. You find release from attachment to this world and the next. That’s liberation. Otherwise, good, bad, and neutral karma will ripen in due course. Plus there are purification practices for cleaning out the rubbish in our minds which leads to great benefit along the path.

        Further, Buddhadasa’s question is essentially the Jainin doctrine led by Niggantha-Nathaputta. Niggantha-Nathaputta taught that everything was due to past karma. Buddha said again and again that the fault of this doctrine is that it does not account for that happiness and suffering are the result of the present life’s karma or associated with the corresponding action. I wish I could explain this a bit better. All of this is in the MN. You gotta read the suttas.

        It doesn’t matter what lineage of dharma you practice. Being well versed in the Pali suttas can help your practice and it does not make you a Theravada Buddhist if that is a problem.

        Be well and happy my friend! Let me know what you think. I enjoy always meeting in the middle. :)

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