The Buddha and the Upanishads

Christian K. Wedemeyer wedemeyer at UCHICAGO.EDU
Wed Dec 13 21:28:20 UTC 2006

Dear Friends (including, I hope, Prof. Gombrich),

Once again, I seem to have been misconstrued as arguing a much stronger position than I meant 
to. My general penchant for enthusiastically arguing unpopular hypotheses may be partially to 
blame; or perhaps it is my unfortunate tendency to intemperence of expression. However it may 
be, this exchange has certainly shaken my naive, youthful sense that--as "Nagasena" put it (in the 
translation of "Henry Clarke Warren")--"when the wise converse, whether they become entangled 
by their opponents' arguments or whether they extricate themselves, whether they or their 
opponents convicted of error, whether their own superiority or that of their opponents is 
established, nothing in all this can make them angry." Apparently, the wise can become angry and 
to the extent that I am responsible for that, I am sorry.

It was not at all my intention to argue that Richard Gombrich is a "crotchety old man with 
outmoded notions." Indeed, for the record, I am a great fan of "Richard Gombrich" (even, one 
might say, of Richard Gombrich himself!), I have indeed read many (though unfortunately not all) 
of his published writings (some even that I have gone to great lengths to track down in obscure 
Festschriften), and I do assign them in my classes, where I and my students read them to great 

That said, a few comments are in order on Prof. Gombrich's concerns:

>1.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.

That the invocation of the example of "Holocaust deniers" in this context is inflammatory should 
go without saying. That is a straw man: no one is claiming the Holocaust didn't happen and no 
one has claimed that we can only make assertions of things of which we have absolute certainty. I 
would very much concur with Gombrich that the evidence for the Holocaust is stronger than that 
for either Buddhaghosa or Buddha. However (and I'm quite surprised to discover that we may 
differ somewhat here), I personally think that this has important consequences for how we speak, 
write, and reason about those topics. We should be more or less circumspect, depending on how 
solid our evidence is. By the time we get back to centuries before the putative time of Christ, I feel, 
that, given the thin evidentiary record, our circumspection should be profound indeed. Note that 
"circumspection" is not in fact tantamount to "not seeing." It is, as one would expect, "looking 

>	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?

With all due respect, if what my students really want to know about is the Buddha (rather than, 
say, "the Buddha") they are barking up the wrong tree and should study something else or 
somewhere else (Oxford, perhaps?!).  "Our subject" (sorry, can't resist the scare quotes) is perfectly 
entitled to survive, regardless of what misguided students may or may not want to know. Buddhist 
Studies is not Buddhist Theology that seeks to know about "the Buddha" and what he did or didn't 
teach. From an historical and cultural perspective, the Buddha has no priority--his priority is only 
relevant from within a normative, theological (or crypto-theological) perspective. We don't assume 
his divinity (or sarvajñatva), and what he did or didn't teach is rather irrelevant to the historical 
and critical study of Buddhism. He is vastly outnumbered by the millions, if not billions, of people 
who have also spoken about and acted in accord with their own understandings of buddhadharma, 
whether that dharma be sad- or mRSaa-, or something else altogether. While it may be mildly 
interesting in a descriptive/analytic context to determine (to the extent one could) what Gotama 
did or didn't teach or know; its interest pales dramatically in comparison to the long and much 
better documented history of what others thought (or claimed they thought) Gotama taught or 

Now, the more regrettable angle:

>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. 

Please see above about "crotchety old men" and let's please do think twice before jumping to 
conclusions about rash, arrogant, and unprofessional young men. I freely admit to being, not only 
Prof. Gombrich's junior, but much his inferior in learning and accomplishment (though not, it may 
seem, in civility). Still, I would expect we might be able to have a calm and reasoned conversation 
in an online forum. And that is, we might recall (pace the equivocation about "public fora"), what 
this is: this is not a refereed journal, but an electronic conversation. Thus, my sense is that 
criticism might be aired in this context based on what is specifically expressed in that forum, 
which was my intent.

For, in fact, I was not criticizing the articles to which Gombrich referred (though that might be a 
worthy project for another occasion).  I was just taking issue with how Gombrich expressed 
himself in his posting. My acknowledgement that I thought Gombrich was well aware of concerns 
such as mine was meant to imply that I thought I might have been misconstruing his thinking on 
the matter (in fact, I still wonder about this!) and was meant as an invitation to generate 
discussion of the issue--which it did, to some extent--not as a condemnation of Gombrich tout 

Gombrich specifically wrote (to which I was responding): "unless we subscribe to the view that the 
Buddha was omniscient and could therefore respond to texts which would be composed in the 
future, I do not understand how his references to important passages in the BAU etc. can fail to be 
interpreted as showing that they already existed when he preached." In my posting, I merely tried 
(though I apparently did not express myself well) to indicate that there was a perfectly 
reasonable--indeed, more historically responsible--way of understanding how "his" references 
can fail to be interpreted in the way Gombrich suggests is indubitable. That is, one might entertain 
the possibility that they were not "his" at all, that Gotama may not have preached these particular 
passages--a possibility to which I had previously assumed (based upon his published works) that 
Prof. Gombrich would readily accede. That position, it should be further noted, is the beginning of 
a line of inquiry, not the end. But I find it very strange to suggest that that hypothesis itself is 
unentertainable (as Gombrich appeared to in saying he did "not understand how. . .[it] can fail. . .). 
That, I hope it is clear, is what I was responding to--not the articles cited.  

Hence, I hope I may be acquitted of being unprofessional and hypocritical (at least for the reasons 
adduced by Prof. Gombrich).

Most graciously, Prof. Gombrich concludes by observing that:

>Oxford. . .has just advertised a chair
>in Buddhist Studies; Those who
>intend to make public criticism of works they have not read need not
>apply. I hope that others will.

Since I hope in the foregoing to have cleared myself of the charge of criticizing works I have not 
read, I should probably then thank Prof. Gombrich for the kind invitation to apply for the 
advertised chair of Buddhist Studies at Oxford. I am grateful for the courtesy. However, I am really 
quite happy in my current post; and, what's more, since I understand from my extensive reading 
of the oeuvre of a certain Oxford don-emeritus that "British higher education policy over the last 
twenty years has been an unmitigated catastrophe" and that "management studies is the only field 
at Oxford which is not short of funds," I hope that he may not take it so to heart if I don't take him 
up on his gracious offer.

Zubham astu yuSmaakam,

Christian Wedemeyer

Christian K. Wedemeyer
Assistant Professor of the History of Religions
The University of Chicago Divinity School
1025 East 58th Street
Chicago, Illinois  60637  USA

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