Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies
and his impact on
By Geoffrey Bamford, (Executive Director, OCBS)
Richard Gombrich was born in London. His mother was an accomplished musician, his father, Sir Ernst Gombrich, the pre-eminent art historian of the 20th century.
Ernst Gombrich grew up in Vienna. The psychiatrist Freud, the composer Mahler, and the poet von Hofmannsthal were intimate acquaintances. The philosopher, Sir Karl Popper, became his closest friend.
Richard Gombrich’s education was in the best English tradition of classical learning with an empirical bias. Having mastered Greek and Latin literature, he moved on to Sanskrit and Pali. At 39, he was Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford.
This was the earliest Chair in Sanskrit to be established in the West (in 1831). Now it was, for the first time, occupied by a scholar whose principal interest was in Buddhism.
Gombrich’s first book illustrates his range. It is a work of social anthropology, based on fieldwork in Sri Lanka. It gives a clear, compelling picture of village Buddhism. Then it compares that with the classical (Pali) literature. So it shows how carefully the tradition has been maintained — and also throws light on how lay Buddhist life is likely from the first to have related to doctrinal categories.
His later work has explored further the links between textual and social dimensions of Buddhism. On one hand, he has revitalised the close textual study of ancient materials, revealing new dimensions of early Buddhism (e.g. how it responded to Brahminism). On the other, he has analysed how some modern tendencies diverge from the tradition.
In this way, he has validated the authenticity and antiquity of the Pali material (contested elsewhere in academia) and upheld its enduring relevance. The escape from essentialism that the Buddha offers seems to him both very modern (indeed Popperian) and subtly (indeed uniquely) pragmatic.