Prof. Dr Richard Gombrich: Responding to the Symposium Speeches

Prof. Dr Richard Gombrich

Emeritus Professor & Academic Director

Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, Oxford University, UK

I am going to begin by being completely out of order. Today is the 27th of May 2007. This will be a red-letter day, in the history of Buddhism; not, I am afraid, for what we are saying in this room. This very afternoon, in Bombay, half of a million people are formally being converted to Buddhism. There are hardly any other days in the history of mankind when so many people have joined Buddhism, and I think it would be a pity if we did not take any notice of this interesting fact šC something that is perhaps more interesting than all of the interesting things that we are telling. Why? Of course, the setting up of an International Association of Buddhist Universities would be a very important step šC and I would link the two things.

Just as I think it would be significant that we don¡¯t take any notice of half a million people convert to Buddhism in one day in India šC because Buddhist communication is still very poor. So Buddhist communications are still very poor at the university level. One has to ask: what is going to happen to those half a million people who have embraced Buddhism formally today šC where will they get their information from? Where will they learn about Buddhist books; about what they can learn from Buddhism from the internet, and so on?

Ultimately, these things have to trickle down from universities. These universities are concerned first and foremost with higher education šC but higher education in the end has to set the tone for the whole society. It was Christian universities, which gradually improved the standard of Christians in their own religion. The same has to be true of Buddhist universities. So what happens in the wider world to Buddhism is extremely relevant to today¡¯s topic.

Now the wonderful, venerable, learned speakers, who have addressed us šC have very largely, been telling us things that I think everyone of us would agree with, because we wouldn¡¯t be here if we didn¡¯t. Namely, that the world would be a much better place if more people were Buddhist and more people understood and followed Buddhist principles. But I think my brief is to speak on perhaps a narrower field, and that is what can be expected and hoped from an association of Buddhist universities?

I think it is a wonderful project šC and I think it is very important that from the outset one or two principles should be understood and followed. Firstly, I think that this association should be as inclusive as possible and not exclusive. It should not be difficult for an institution to prove that it deserves to come into this institution. I have in mind, particularly two dimensions of inclusivity. We would like this institution to operate with the consensus of as many Buddhists, and indeed even non-Buddhists in the world as possible. And there is still a danger in certain parts of the Buddhist world where we do not think of the female gender. I think it would be a very good idea, indeed, if we could be conscious, even at the level of enshrining it into the constitution - of the necessity, to include women in the study and propagation of Buddhism. I would go so far as to say, and I would go so far to suggest that it might be a good idea to say that at least one member of the council should be a woman.


Well, I am glad to have some applause šC and no apples thrown!

The second point is that in other contexts of course, people are rather fond of saying: ¡®Well, we don¡¯t associate with such and such, because they are not really good Buddhists.¡¯ This is, of course, the history of religion, the formation of new sects. Who would have thought that when Henry VIII, of England decided to take his country out of the Roman Catholic Church because he wanted to get divorced and the Roman Catholic Church wouldn¡¯t allow it šC that we would end up with the Church of England, which wasn¡¯t just a minor side-show, but actually, nowadays seems to be utterly respectable. So, today¡¯s renegades may be tomorrow¡¯s mainline.

I don¡¯t want to be controversial by naming names, but I think that we can all think of major Buddhist movements in Buddhist countries which are frowned on by the establishment. Some of these major Buddhist movements may in fact do have their own universities. I have no particular interest in forwarding their doctrine or their particular practices šC but I think it would be a great mistake if an attempt were made by Buddhists to cut out other people on the grounds that they are not really very good Buddhists or this is a new kind of Buddhism or a funny kind of Buddhism. So, I am in favor of inclusivism as much as possible. We should take the history of sectarianism as a warning, here.

There is another danger, and that is that Buddhist universities may come to look rather like Christian seminaries. Christian seminaries are taken very seriously by Christians, and of course they are necessary for the continuation of the Church šC but they are not, on the whole, taken very seriously by the rest of the world and by secular authorities.

We heard a lot from our panel about the relationship between what a Buddhist institution does and what a Buddhist university does. I think there is little to worry about, but I would define a university šC of course, a university in the modern world often gives training for jobs. That is a great deal of what it does šC but the essence of the university is about the pursuit of truth. You pursue truth - that is the morality of being at a university šC to dedicate yourself to the truth, and to follow that trail wherever it leads you, however uncomfortable it may be. So, the one discrepancy that I see that might arise is between being Buddhist and being a university is that at a university you must have the courage to doubt everything and not to prohibit any line of inquiry.

What could this association do? It could do many things, but I mentioned about the half of a million people converting to Buddhism today. Another thing that has happened in India over the last days is that in Uttar Pradesh, which has more than three hundred million inhabitants šC the first minister has just signed a decree to set up a Buddhist university. She is a lady who is herself, a Buddhist. That sort of thing is happening with increasing speed, all over the world. You can bet your bottom dollar, or the last scrap at the bottom of your rice-bowl that there is nobody in Uttar Pradesh that has any idea on how to go about this. If there were an association of Buddhist universities, that would be the obvious reference point for a newly created university to come to in the world, to say, how do we do this, how do you advise setting up a curriculum, how do we set up a library, what are the resources for e-texts, what are the resources for books, and so on? And it can serve as the gathering point for information and making it incredibly much easier to start a new institution on decent lines šC and such institutions are going to proliferate.

So, my final brief-point is that, I was the founding member of the International Association of Buddhist Studies; I am the President of the UK Association of Buddhist Studies; I was President of the Pali Text Society, and so on šC I can assure you that none of those institutions comes anywhere near performing the kind of function that this International Association of Buddhist Universities can and will perform. I think that whatever reservations one may have in principle about this or that clause of the constitution, in the end we should sink our differences, because this is so important. It must go forward, and go forward as soon as possible.