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  • The Centrality of Karma in Early Buddhism
  • William Walters
What the Buddha Thought. By Richard Gombrich. London and Oakville, CT: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2009. Pp xv + 239.

The appearance of a new book by Richard Gombrich, emeritus professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, is a welcome event. As in a previous instance,1 this book originated as a set of lectures—the set of ten Numata Lectures given in 2006 at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Gombrich has reworked and reorganized his texts somewhat and provided copious chapter subheadings that keep the reader moving forward. A must-read for specialists, it is intended for a wider audience (“anyone remotely interested in Buddhism” [p. vii]). Although not appropriate as a first book on the Buddha or Buddhism, many with just a little background and an open mind will find much of interest in it. The title is apt: the book focuses on the thought of the Buddha, whom Gombrich regards as a “brilliant and original thinker” (p. vii). He is also someone, Gombrich emphasizes, whose ideas developed in the context of—and quite often in opposition to—the intellectual environment of his day. While agreeing that the Buddha’s primary concern in speaking with others “was pragmatic, to guide his audience’s actions” (p. 164), his “main ideas are powerful and coherent” (p. 194), so much so that he may rightfully be classed with “Plato and Aristotle, the giants who created the tradition of western philosophy” (p. 3).

As with any coherent system of ideas, an expositor faces the question of where to begin and what to focus on. Karma is Gombrich’s “favorite point of entry to the Buddha’s worldview” (p. 11). And he uses it to introduce other major ideas. I propose to survey Gombrich’s discussion of a half dozen such topics. We may conveniently schematize these with the figure of a wheel of karma connections (figure 1), in which the idea of karma sits at the hub and other ideas are arranged at the end of spokes emanating out from the center to the rim of the wheel.

However, before proceeding with this overview, a few words would be useful on how Gombrich understands his enterprise. He regards himself as investigating the thought of a particular historical figure. He has no truck with the type of skepticism that treats talk of the Buddha as a mere literary conceit, which is the view of those who, as he puts it, are “reluctant to consider anything in a Buddhist text to be older than the text itself” (p. 17). Epistemologically, Gombrich is an avowed follower of Karl Popper, for whom understanding advances through a process of conjecture and refutation. In this approach, all knowledge is provisional but none the worse for it [End Page 114] (pp. 94–95). Fully aware of the difficulties of a historically based understanding, it is nonetheless the Buddha’s thought with which Gombrich seeks to come to terms.

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Figure 1.

Karma Connections

He respects the Pali canon as the starting point of inquiry. On the other hand, it belongs to Gombrich’s assessment that even early texts of the canon can sometimes display “massive” misunderstandings. But where in particular instances he revises or rejects some aspect of the tradition, he seeks to provide both evidence for his view and (to the extent that he can) an explanation of how it is that the tradition went wrong.

In this latter regard, Gombrich repeatedly and variously points up how misunder-standings of the tradition have arisen out of a failure to recall or to appreciate the cultural context in which the Buddha was operating, particularly that of brahminism. He emphasizes, with the tradition, that the Buddha was skilled in being able to “speak the language” of others, and to use it to introduce his own ideas. But he is more attuned than the tradition has been (in his estimation) to the Buddha’s use of context-dependent, non-literal language. He emphasizes, in particular, being able to spot occasions in which the Buddha is taking language (often brahminical terminology) and twisting it about, in the...