Approaching the Dhamma
“Obsession with Origins”: Attitudes to Buddhist Studies in the Old World and the New by Richard Gombrich
Initially when I decided to read Approaching the Dhamma - I wanted to read it only. However, as I read the introduction it became clear that simply reading the essays one-by-one wouldn’t be beneficial. Instead, I hope to do an individual “review” of each one. I have review in quotes because I don’t know how to write a review for non-fiction. It’s going to be my version of a review. Here goes:
Gombrich believes that knowing where Buddhism comes from is crucial to understanding it. I agree with this - how else will we advance if we don’t know where we came from? According to Gombrich, Americans in particular, don’t care about the origins of Buddhism. They want to know how it benefits them in the now.
Personally, I cannot weigh in on this point. I haven’t met another Buddhist since starting my journey - not face-to-face anyway. For myself, I found it important to read about the Buddha himself. It fascinated me to realise that this religion is based on one man’s teachings and that he actually lived. As there are so many different branches of Buddhism, I have found it easier to try and trace it back to its origins rather than assuming one branch is correct.
There’s an argument presented that suggests the Buddha’s teachings can’t be trusted as the Buddha’s words. There is a truth in that: the text itself cannot be guaranteed as being the Buddha’s exact words however the ideas within the text can be.
In Ireland the myths and legends were passed down orally for generations upon generations until the monks started writing them down - they did change details: women suddenly had much weaker roles, but that’s a discussion for another day. The point is even though the stories changed hands multiple times - verbally and then written - the core idea never did.
For me, it is easy to surmise that the texts I’m reading aren’t the Buddha’s exact words but are his ideas. Followers are encouraged to discuss and try to get to the root of the idea with a monk or nun or another follower - I find this is liberating. I grew up in Roman Catholic Ireland where everything is given as facts and not allowed to be questioned. When I was eleven or twelve, my teacher taught us about Adam and Eve and the Garden. She said that they are the first man and woman. I asked, “but sure, that means we’re all related, and we learnt that having a relationship with a relative is wrong. So, which is it?” She hushed me and then the bell rang for the break. I’m still waiting for an answer to that one.
When I was learning about Buddhism - and deciding whether it is the path for me - the fact that I am encouraged to ask questions blew my mind. Coming back to this essay - it is worthwhile to find out where things come from, maybe not getting obsessive about it - but being curious is important. I enjoyed reading this essay as it challenged my mind, taught me some new words and made me believe that I could read a book of essays and learn something valuable from it. Instead of being lost and confused!
I know a review of an essay is supposed to be much more in-depth to what I’ve written here. I don’t want to rewrite the essay - even in my own words - which is all I keep ending up doing. The main idea or question is whether it’s good to find out the origins of Buddhism. I agree with Gombrich that it is important and that we shouldn’t get lost analysing each word of the text but take the gist and idea behind the text.