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What the Buddha Thought
Winner of Choice Outstanding Academic Title award 2010
In What the Buddha Thought, Richard Gombrich argues that the Buddha was one of the most brilliant and original thinkers of all time.
Intended to serve as an introduction to the Buddha’s thought, and hence even to Buddhism itself, the book also has larger aims: it argues that we can know far more about the Buddha than it is fashionable among scholars to admit, and that his thought has a greater coherence than is usually recognised. It contains much new material. Interpreters both ancient and modern have taken little account of the historical context of the Buddha’s teachings; but by relating them to early brahminical texts, and also to ancient Jainism, Gombrich gives a much richer picture of the Buddha’s meaning, especially when his satire and irony are appreciated. Incidentally, since many of the Buddha’s allusions can only be traced in the Pali versions of surviving texts, the book establishes the importance of the Pali Canon as evidence.
The book contains much new material. The author stresses the Buddha’s capacity for abstraction: though he made extensive use of metaphor, he did not found his arguments upon it, as earlier thinkers had done. He ethicized and radically reinterpreted older ideas of karma (human action) and rebirth. Similarly, building on older texts, he argued for the fundamental importance of love and compassion, and analysed fire as a process which could stand as a model for every component of conscious experience. Morally, the Buddha’s theory of karma provided a principle of individuation and asserted each individual’s responsibility for his own destiny. To make the book completely accessible to the general reader, the author provides an introductory section of ‘Background Information,’ for easy reference.
Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: More about karma, and its social context
Chapter 3: The antecedents of the karma doctrine in brahminism
Chapter 4: Jain antecedents
Chapter 5: What did the Buddha mean by “no soul”?
Chapter 6: The Buddha’s positive values: love and compassion
Chapter 7: Assessing the evidence
Chapter 8: Everything is burning: the centrality of fire in the Buddha’s thought
Chapter 9: Causation and non-random process
Chapter 10: Cognition; language; nirvana
Chapter 11: The Buddha’s pragmatism and intellectual style
Chapter 12: The Buddha as satirist; brahmin terms as social metaphors
Chapter 13: Is this book to be believed?
Appendix: The Buddha’s appropriation of four (or five?) brahminical terms
Outstanding Academic Title, Choice 2010
...a great advance on most other studies of early Buddhism, for these generally tend to minimise the originality of the early Buddhist movement... .In What the Buddha Thought, then, we get much more vivid sense of the history of early Buddhism than has previously been achieved. ...This important book provides us with an invaluable starting point from which to pursue such investigations into early Buddhist thought.
Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Vol. 20 (1), July 2010
'Remarkable for its clarity and depth, this volume will be exciting for coursework in philosophy, comparative religion, and Buddhist studies. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above; general readers.'
L. J. Alderink emeritus, Concordia College, Choice
'This is by no means an easy book to read despite the lucidity of Gombrich's prose and exposition. The trouble is, however, worth taking for anybody interested in the ideas of the Buddha and their importance for humankind.'
Rudrangshu Mukerjee, The Telegraph, Calcutta, 8 January 2010
'If you are fascinated by the Buddha but put off by the scholarly tomes that seek to explain his life and words, then you have reason to feel excited. Richard Gombrich, renowned scholar of Buddhism and Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford between 1976 and 2004, has just written a book, What the Buddha Thought, that aims to do precisely what its title says: tell ordinary but inquisitive readers about the ideas that the Buddha preached and how they came about. It requires a special kind of imagination to bring a genius like the Buddha to life, and Gombrich precisely has that spark of eccentricity. Although the book deals with some very complex ideas, Gombrich adheres to a lucid style.'
Somak Ghoshal, The Telegraph, Calcutta, 25 October 2009
...Gombrich has provided a masterly study of how much of the Buddha's teaching may be understood by reference to the accepted wisdom of his day. ...this is a stimulating book and presents an excellent, closely-reasoned argument. It is a valuable addition to the canon of Buddhist studies, not only for the information it contains and the challenges it poses, but also as an example of how to study the historical material of the field.
BASR Bulletin, May 2012