The Centre for Buddhist Studies, University of Hyderabad (UoH) organized a distinguished lecture titled “What the Buddha thought” by Prof. Richard Francis Gombrich, well-known Buddhist scholar from Oxford University at the Sir C V Raman Auditorium on 5th December 2013.
In his lecture Prof. Gombrich stated that time and again the Buddha transformed earlier religious ideas and practices by saying that if properly understood, they were about ethics. But he often did this with such subtlety that it is not surprising if his manoeuvres were not always understood by his followers. The most important instance of this is his doctrine of karma, he added.
Elaborating further Gombrich said that Karma is about moral causation. First and foremost it is a teaching of responsibility and so has to be compatible with free will. But even the exercise of free will is by no means a random process. What we sow determines what we reap. It does not do so rigidly, for karma is not the only cause of our pleasure and pain. Our karma determines the general conditions such as where we are born, a framework within which more obvious kinds of cause, such as disease, take effect. When it comes to new karma, we can choose, but only within limits, the most important of which we have ourselves established through our former choices. Those choices are necessary but not sufficient conditions for our subsequent acts of choices, he stated. Gombrich also quoted a proverb cited by Damien Keown which puts it admirably: “Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny”.
Gombrich further said that putting karma at the center of the person, the Buddha replaced a static and amoral hypothetical entity, the self, by a process, much of which we can observe and experience in action. This process is in constant interaction with the environment. Modern psychology holds that every action is an interaction with the world and affects the actor. The Buddha did not go so far when it came to discussing perception and cognition, but he did develop this insight in the context of karma. Moreover, while he identified our world with our experience, his preaching that each person was responsible for his own karma and could only reach nirvana by his own efforts was incompatible with idealism, he said.
Ending his lecture Gombrich stated that in sum, he sees the doctrine of karma as the pivotal point of the Buddha’s teaching, and the one to which almost all his thought relates.
Prof. Richard Francis Gombrich is an internationally renowned Indologist and a scholar of Sanskrit, Pali and Buddhist studies. He was the Boden professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford Centre for Buddhist studies. He is a past president of the Pali Text society (1994-2002) and General Editor Emeritus of the clay Sanskrit library.
Prof. Gombrich has gone on to become one of the leading scholars of Buddhism in the present era. Prof. Gomrich has published extensively. His first major contribution in the field of Buddhist studies was an anthropological study of contemporary Sinhalese Buddhism entitled precept and Practice: Traditional Buddhism in the rural highlands of Ceylon(1971). In recognition of this path breaking work he was awarded the highest honour by the president of Sri Lanka In 1994.some of his other major works are to name a few, How Buddhism Began: the conditional genesis of the early teachings and Buddhism transformed: Religious change in Sri Lanka. He was visiting professor to many leading Universities of Europe and United States of America.
The lecture was presided by Prof. Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, VC, UoH. Prof. Amitabha Das Gupta, Dean, School of Humanities introduced the speaker while Prof. K S Prasad proposed the vote of thanks.