Richard Gombrich

Richard Francis Gombrich (; born 17 July 1937) is an Indologist and scholar of Sanskrit, Pāli, and Buddhist Studies. He was the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford from 1976 to 2004. He is currently Founder-President of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. He is a past president of the Pali Text Society (1994–2002) and general editor emeritus of the Clay Sanskrit Library.

Gombrich is the only child of the classical pianist Ilse Gombrich and the Austrian-British art historian Sir Ernst Gombrich. He studied at St. Paul's School in London from 1950 to 1955 before attending Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1957. He received his B.A. from Oxford in 1961 and his DPhil from the same university in 1970. His doctoral thesis was entitled Contemporary Sinhalese Buddhism in its relation to the Pali canon. He received his M.A. from Harvard University in 1963.

Gombrich's first major contribution in the field of Buddhist Studies was an anthropological study of contemporary Sinhalese Buddhism entitled (1971). This study emphasised the compatibility between the normative Buddhism advocated in canonical texts and the contemporary religious practices of Sinhalese Buddhists. Contemporary Sinhalese religious practices often include such elements as sorcery and the worship of yakshas and Hindu gods; previous scholars of Buddhist Studies had interpreted these practices as contradictory to or corruptions of the orthodox Buddhism of the Pali Canon. Gombrich argues in Precept and Practice that, rather than being the mark of later corruptions of Theravada Buddhism, these practices can be traced to early periods in Buddhist history. Furthermore, since the worship of deities and rituals involving sorcery are never explicitly forbidden to lay people in the Pali Canon, Gombrich argues against viewing such practices as contradictory to orthodox Buddhism. It is also in Precept and Practice that Gombrich lays out his distinction between Buddhism at the cognitive level and Buddhism at the affective level. At the cognitive level, Sinhalese Buddhists will attest to believing in such normative doctrines as anatta, while, at the same time, their actions indicate a supposed affective acceptance of, for example, a transmigrating soul. Gombrich's notion of a cognitive/affective divide in Sinhalese Buddhism has since come under criticism, perhaps most famously by Stanley Tambiah, who considered it simplistic and insupportable.[1]

Precept and Practice: Traditional Buddhism in the Rural Highlands of Ceylon

Gombrich has gone on to become one of the 20th century's important scholars of Theravāda Buddhism. His recent research has focused more on Buddhist origins.

Gombrich stresses the importance of relating Buddhist texts and practices to the rest of Indian religion. Rather than studying Buddhism, Jainism, and Vedism in isolation, Gombrich advocates a comparative method that has shed light on both Buddhist thought and Buddhist early history. He has been an active contributor to an ongoing discussion concerning the date of the Buddha's death, and has argued that data supplied in Pali texts composed in Sri Lanka enable us to date that event to about 404 BCE.

Whilst an undergraduate, Gombrich helped to edit the volume of papers by Karl Popper entitled "Conjectures and Refutations". Since then, he has followed this method in his research, seeking the best hypothesis available and then trying to test it against the evidence. This makes him oppose both facile scepticism and the quest for a method which can in any way substitute for the simple need for critical thought.

He was general editor of the Clay Sanskrit Library from its founding until February 2008.

The term Gombrichian had already been coined in reference to Ernst Gombrich for some decades, and continues to be used in the context of art history with that denotation (e.g., "...a Gombrichian willingness to appeal to experimental evidence"),[2] however, the use of "Gombrichian" in reference to Richard Gombrich has an entirely different denotation. In a review of 2003, Jon S. Walters defended the "Gombrichian" approach to textual tradition against the view attributed to Anne M. Blackburn that "colonial/Orientialist" scholarship is "epitomized here by Richard Gombrich".[3] Whereas the earlier usage of "Gombrichian" seems to indicate a theory specifically set out by Ernst Gombrich in Art as Illusion,[4] the usage of Gombrichian in the context of Buddhist Studies refers more vaguely to an emphasis on working with comparative reference to primary-source Pali texts found throughout Richard Gombrich's career.

Gombrich has taught at Oxford for over 40 years and continues to do some teaching in retirement. He has supervised about 50 doctoral theses, most of them in Buddhist studies, and taught a wide range of Indological subjects. His students include several members of the Sangha.

He was instrumental in Numata Foundation's endowing a chair in Buddhist Studies at Oxford. On taking mandatory retirement in 2004 he founded the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies and, with Geoff Bamford, the Society for the Wider Understanding of the Buddhist Tradition.

He holds strong views on higher education. In 2000, at the invitation of the Graduate Institute for Policy Studies at Tokyo University, he delivered a lecture "British Higher Education Policy in the last Twenty Years: The Murder of a Profession" and in 2008 he participated in the "Rally of the Impossible Professions: Beyond the False Promises of Security" hosted by the London Society of the New Lacanian School.[5]

The Asiatic Society of Calcutta awarded Gombrich the SC Chakraborty medal in 1993. The following year, he received the Sri Lanka Ranajana decoration from the President of Sri Lanka.