The Buddha and the Upanishads

Richard Gombrich richard.gombrich at BALLIOL.OX.AC.UK
Wed Dec 13 11:20:01 UTC 2006

The posting from Prof. Christian Wedemeyer dated 9 Dec raises two  
points of fundamental importance. Since none of the subsequent  
correspondence has mentioned them, I feel constrained to do so.

1. Use of the word "know". Do we know what "the Buddha" "preached"?  
(The scare quotes are Wedemeyer's.) Except in the case of analytic  
truths, "to know" means "to follow the best hypothesis available". An  
analytic truth is just a matter of logic; e.g. "If Gombrich is  
stupider than Wedemeyer, and Wedemeyer is stupider than the Buddha,  
then Gombrich is stupider than the Buddha." Here evidence and its  
interpretation are irrelevant. The truth of empirical statements  
(whether made inside or outside academia) can however never be  
finally established. There is a conference going on in Tehran about  
whether the holocaust occurred. The evidence for it is incomparably  
stronger than that for the existence of Buddhaghosa, let alone the  
Buddha. But evidence does not speak for itself; it requires  
interpretation, and that in turn requires the use of reason and  
judgment, and the willingness to follow where they lead. There's none  
so blind as those who will not see.
	This basic epistemology has implications for pedagogy. We can tell  
our students that we cannot know anything about the Buddha, and that  
is true if one means "know with 100% certainty", but it is also  
banal. Such information as the probable date of the oldest extant  
manuscript is well worth teaching.  But if one leaves it there, isn't  
one selling them short? Why should our subject survive if all we tell  
them about what they really want to know is that it is unknowable?

2. Professional ethics. I retired from Oxford University two years  
ago, and may well be seen as a crotchety old man with outmoded  
notions. But I would like to inform my juniors that in the old days  
it was considered unethical to criticise work you had not read, and  
particularly so in a public forum. If you did something so  
unprofessional, well, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to  
virtue, and at least you did not admit to it. Professor Wedemeyer's  
wording "Presumably..." makes it perfectly clear that he does not  
even pretend to have read the works of mine which he is criticising.  
Are his students encouraged to follow his example?
	 I am, for the time being, Academic Director of the Oxford Centre  
for Buddhist Studies, and the University has just advertised a chair  
in Buddhist Studies; its holder will very likely succeed me in that  
position. If you look at the OCBS website ( you will  
see that we are concerned with the ethos of the profession. Those who  
intend to make public criticism of works they have not read need not  
apply. I hope that others will.

What about the Buddha and the Upanishads? Since I produced easily  
accessible publications on this topic as long ago as 1990 and 1992,  
and have already posted the references in this series, I invite those  
interested to read them (and indeed my other listed works) -- and  
then to criticise them.

Richard Gombrich

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