BAGAN, MYANMAR - DEC 6: Unidentified young Buddhism novices at Shwezigon temple on Dec 6, 2014 in Bagan. Buddhism is predominantly of the Theravada tradition, practised by 89% of the population.
BAGAN, MYANMAR - DEC 6: Unidentified young Buddhism novices at Shwezigon temple on Dec 6, 2014 in Bagan. Buddhism is predominantly of the Theravada tradition, practised by 89% of the population.
Image credit: Shutterstock

Professor Richard Gombrich

Nirvana is the abolition of passion (which means wanting something very much), the opposite - hatred and confusion. And, if you can completely get rid of those, you no longer want anything so you become - not ‘happy’ as we would call it today, but something closer to attaining complete ‘peace of mind’ - it’s calmness, tranquillity, imperturbability if you like. And nothing will upset you any more. 

What messages does Buddhism give about how we can be content or ‘happy’?
The Buddha said again and again, ‘All I am trying to teach you is how to attain enlightenment.’ And nothing else. He’s also supposed to have said, while holding a handful of leaves, ‘What I’ve told you is like this handful of leaves. What I know is like the leaves in the forest. But you don’t need it.’ There are certain topics, like ‘How did the world begin?’, where he says ‘Don’t bother, you’ll never find the answer and it wouldn’t help you if you did.’ That makes Buddhism very unlike other religion: explicitly anti-dogmatic. He said ‘as long as you can find the way to attain enlightenment, follow it. Don’t bother with anything else. Don’t take anything on trust. Try it out.’

There’s a story that some villagers from Kalama come to the Buddha and say: ‘We’re very puzzled, because all sorts of teachers come to us and one says this and the other says that and we don’t know who to believe.’ The Buddha says ‘Try out what they say and if it works – that’s the one you believe.’

Now what is the purpose of the Buddhist religion? It is, in the end, escape from rebirth. Everybody in India believed – and more or less still believes – in rebirth. And of course a basic premise of that is that, if you weigh it up in all, life is pretty rotten. There’s more suffering than pleasure in life. And the Buddha says that the kernel of his doctrine is the Four Noble Truths:

  1. ‘there is suffering’
  2. ‘there is an origin to suffering’
  3. ‘removal’
  4. ‘the path’

Suffering is then expanded a little bit in the first sermon when he asks ‘What is suffering, mainly?’ and the answer is ‘death’. Every relationship ends in death (you have to remember that in those days life expectancy would have been much lower). You lose your parents, you may lose your children, your wife or husband. Like all religions, in a way it ends up saying, ‘What are we going to do about death? Can we escape the tragedy of death?’ And the Buddha’s response to this is, ‘What is the origin of suffering? The origin of suffering is wanting, craving things.’ The solution is called ‘Nirvana’ (there are other names for it too). Nirvana is the abolition of passion (which means wanting something very much), and the opposite – hatred – and confusion. And, if you can completely get rid of those, you no longer want anything, so you become – not ‘happy’ as we would call it today, but something closer to attaining complete ‘peace of mind’ – it’s calmness, tranquillity, imperturbability if you like. And nothing will upset you any more. In particular you will not be at all upset by the prospect of your imminent physical death.

That doesn’t mean to say that you don’t notice or feel things: if somebody’s ill, you’re sorry. If they die, you’re more sorry, but not in a way that really gets to your core. You can control your feelings. It’s rather like (and the Buddha is often compared to) a doctor or psychiatrist, who understands the patient's sufferings and tries to remedy them. They can sympathise with them but are still able at the end of the day to go home and have dinner with their spouse and forget about all that, or at least not let it upset them or affect their attention towards other patients the next day. That’s the model.


Do you think there are problems with modern expectations of happiness?
From my own personal point of view? Of course.

The fundamental thing I learnt from how I was brought up was that money doesn't bring happiness. Now of course that doesn’t sit very well with capitalism! We’re so unbelievably bound up in it today. Capitalism, advertising, tells us we want things – the direct opposite of the Buddha’s teaching that wanting is the origin of suffering.


Do you have any practical tips for readers on how to be happy?
Real happiness is from peace of mind.

Form positive, good relationships with your family; your children. That’s tremendously important.

You don’t need objects.

The Christmas to New Year period is a good time to meditate on this: it’s a time when families get together. I think the family being together at times like this is essential: talking together, playing together, singing together. (I love Christmas carols – although I don't believe a word of them!) It shouldn’t be about buying and selling, what you’ve been bought and so on.


How many different ancient languages can you read?
I originally trained as a classicist but today I work on Sanskrit and Pali – Pali is a derivative of Sanskrit, just as Italian is of Latin. Like Italian, which is a member of the Romance languages, it’s part of a group of languages – so if you hand me something that is not in Pali but is in a closely related language (as Spanish is to Italian), I can probably manage it.

I did learn Sinhala, which is in the same family of language but fairly different in many ways as it’s been very influenced by the Dravidian languages that it’s geographically next to: Tamil, Telugu and so on. And it’s curious, in that although a great part of it is obviously Indo-European, the syntax, the construction of sentences, is Dravidian.

 ’Prakrit’ languages are those directly derived from Sanskrit, and we can trace the Prakrit which develops into Sinhala back to about 100BC – very short inscriptions in caves, that sort of thing. So we have a continuous history of the Sinhala language from 100BC and it changes a great deal overtime. And this development of Dravidian style syntax sets it apart from the other Indo-European languages.


How did you get to where you are now?
It has had various vagaries, but in recent years I’ve been more consistent!

I read Classics at school, I came up after doing my military service – compulsory military service (I’m still from that generation) – in ‘57. Anything would have been bliss after that!

I had a very good friend, Michael Coulson, whom I’d sat next to at school – he'd come ahead of me to Oxford as he hadn't had to do military service, for the wonderful reason that he was gay – and they wouldn't take gay people… so he had a great advantage there! He studied Sanskrit and he thought it was fantastic, he wrote the book Teach Yourself Sanskrit, the 20 somethingth edition of which is still in use! He influenced me quite a lot. I admired him very much, he was very, very clever – much cleverer than I am. I knew that I’d had enough of Latin and Greek after all those years and my parents were sympathetic to that point of view and said ‘Why don’t you try something else?’ I did think of Chinese, but in those days there was no future in doing Chinese because you couldn't go to China; it was absolutely impossible for a foreign student to visit China – you wouldn’t get a visa. So I thought I’d better look at something else and decided, under the influence of my friend, on Sanskrit.

Pali, the Buddhist scriptural language, in which I’ve now become a world specialist, can be studied at Oxford for the BA as a subsidiary language to Sanskrit. The course is 75% Sanskrit and you also do a subsidiary language.


What was it about the Buddhist texts that first grabbed you and made you dedicate so much time to it?
Even before I studied Sanskrit I was interested in Buddhism. When I was at school studying Classics you were given one double period a week to do something else: an hour and 20 mins. The first use I made of that time was a book by a clergyman, A C Bouquet, on Hinduism. I was rather fascinated. I’m not a religious person, at least not in the conventional sense, but I’m fascinated by the things that other people do believe in. Once I’d finished the Hinduism volume there was a companion volume on Buddhism and I thought it was even more interesting. My father had a couple of books on Buddhism in his library. They were in German, so I didn’t immediately read them, but he'd read them, so he knew a little bit about Buddhism. He too was not interested in religion, but he said ‘It’s an important part of human culture – you should find out a bit about it.’ When I went on my National Service, my father was a very famous art historian, and he was a friend of the Director of the Hanover Museum and Art Gallery. And as it happened I was posted to Hanover and tended to spend my weekends at the museum director’s family house. His wife had converted to Buddhism in the war – which was a very unusual thing to do. Very, very few Buddhists were living in northern Germany at the time. When they met, they only half filled her very small living room. She was very keen that I should attend, which I did, and I found it interesting.

So I was already interested in Buddhism when I arrived in Oxford, and my coming up coincided with the founding of the Oxford University Buddhist Society, which still exists. And since there was very little competition I in due course became President of the society. So when I took up Sanskrit as part of the Oxford course I decided I wanted to learn Pali, in which the early Buddhist scriptures are written. They weren't of course originally written, but preserved from an oral tradition.


What are the original Buddhist texts and how did they come to be preserved?
The Buddha lived in the 5th century BC. He died some time around 404BC at the age of 80. There’s a huge body of text called the Pali canon which consists mainly of his sermons, though it doesn’t read much like a Christian book of sermons – because it’s a cross between that and dialogues.

An oral tradition had been going on for at least half a millennium when the Buddha came along. He created an institution called the Sangha (the ‘order’ of monks and nuns). The main thing that monks and nuns had to do in their first years (as is often the case with monks and nuns) was to memorise texts, and they would recite them communally.

I’ve worked on this most of my life and I’ve written books about it, and I’m convinced that most of what the tradition says is more or less true. There was a well-established oral tradition in India at the time. The fact that we don’t have written texts from that period doesn’t mean that we don’t know what was preached. When the Western scholars in the 19th century started getting interested in this, they would get somebody in the extreme north of India and somebody in the east and the south and they discovered that there were practically no differences between the versions of the texts. They tabulated all the differences, but there were very few, and what is even more important is that the differences were trivial: there were some phonetic differences but the content is really the same everywhere.

The first sermon the Buddha preached was to five people, the precise relation between what he said and the texts we have now is unknowable, but I think it makes sense to say that of course the texts we have are reconstructions, they went away and tried to remember what he said and they formulated a text and that was it. But I think they did this very soon, and remembered what he had talked about.


What gives you most job satisfaction?
I’ve always loved teaching.

Since I retired I’ve started teaching a course: Intensive Introduction to Pali. In 12 days I give my students the same number of hours Pali tuition as if they’d been doing it for two years as an undergraduate here. This I have been giving every August in Oxford. And it’s a fantastic success: after the 12 days they can read what the Buddha said. I have recently started giving the course live online, spread over three and a half weeks. I teach for 6 and a half hours on a Saturday and Sunday and 3 and a quarter hours Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (62 hours in total). And by the end they don’t know Pali, but they know enough to be able to take a text and dictionary and get the essence of it. That’s immensely satisfying.

I founded the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (through which the course is run) – but there’s never enough funding. It’s comparatively very hard to get funding for Buddhist studies (probably because most rich businessmen don’t subscribe to lots of the Buddhist teachings!) Rich Indian businessmen will be happy to put their money towards a temple but they’re not interested in an intellectual engagement with Buddhism.


If you could only keep 3 books from your collection, what would they be?
The Pali canon, the Pali dictionary…. and maybe The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire.