Retired Oxford Professor Richard Gombrich is an indologist and, scholar of Pali, Sanskrit and Buddhist Studies. He also founded the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.

He wrote in this biography:

I begin with a brief historical account of my early life, because I agree with the Buddha’s analysis that we are a bundle of processes, and every moment are remaking ourselves, using the materials inherited from our past.

If we should summarize the Buddha's teaching with respect to the nature of our reality as beings, would this make an accurate summary?

If not, what would be a more accurate summary?


We are a bundle of processes, and every moment are remaking ourselves, using the materials inherited from our past.

According to Mahayana this is more or less right, but only as a simplification. If you dig in-depth, you eventually reach the limits of description and hit Emptiness, as Nagarjuna loved to point out.

Buddha said that almost all dharmas (things, phenomena) are saṅkhāras (bundles, assemblies). Dharmas that are not sankharas include Nibbana, and, according to some schools, but not all, Akasa (sky or space) and stuff like that (e.g. Time). Buddha explained that saṅkhāra-dharmas emerge when causes and conditions "come together" (samudaya) in a certain configuration and disappear when one or more of the necessary causes or conditions goes out. This is the fundamental principle behind the key teachings like Anicca (impermanence), Anatta (as explained through inability to control anything), and therefore Dukkha (esp. because of unreliability). It is also the fundamental principle behind Second and Third Noble Truths, explaining that Dukkha is also a sankhara, emerging when certain causes come together, and therefore can be stopped and prevented (nirodha) by removing one of the necessary causes, namely Craving (tanha) for things to be different than they are. It is also the fundamental principle behind Buddha's liberation from death, which, too, considered a sankhara and is traced back to its causes, among which Buddha identifies birth as the key element we can use to stop/prevent death, and then on the next cycle, taking birth as sankhara and looking for its causes, Buddha finds identification and appropriation (bhava and upadana). Note that Buddha never said death has no other causes other than birth, it obviously does (such as a strike of knife) - but birth is the key element we can work with - and so on all the way to Ignorance. So as you can see, the bundle theory is at the very center of Buddha's teaching on Three Marks of Existence, Four Noble Truths, and Twelve Chain of D.O. - the core of the core of Dharma.

Now, if we expand this analysis to include Mahayana perspective, we could note the following:

When we say "We are the bundle of processes", what exactly does that mean? First of all, what is a "process"? My teacher explained that processes can be seen like chains of events, like a sequence of billiard balls pushing each other. This can be understood. The billiard balls keep pushing other balls until they all get in a certain configuration temporarily and this configuration is a person (or other dharma). However, are we saying that each dharma (e.g. a person) is literally a bundle (sankhara) of a specific number of precisely identifiable processes? How many processes are there then? Where are the boundaries of each process? Is it the same number of processes over one's lifetime or does it vary with time? As soon as we start asking these questions we must necessarily realize that these "processes" we are talking about, are themselves not concrete. They are just a manner of speech. The processes are approximate abstractions, conceptual simplifications for describing the infinitely forking and joining network of causes and conditions leading to emergence of phenomena.

In Mahayana, we say that all Dharmas are empty. We also say that so called "Hinayana" (which is not necessarily a name for Theravada, just a name for simplistic/superficial understanding of Buddha-Dharma, because indeed there are Theravada practitioners who clearly understand this stuff), we also say that so called "Hinayana"-level of understanding naively assumes that dharmas that e.g. people are made from are themselves concrete and real, that they exist in the ultimate sense. No, according to Mahayana, they are not. According to Mahayana all this talk about processes and dharmas is a useful simplification. Everything is a simplification. Once we go all the way, we reach the limits of description and see that final reality is unspeakable. We call this Emptiness.

So, to say "we are a bundle of processes" is more or less right as long as we understand the limits of the semantic context within which we are making this statement.


...and every moment are remaking ourselves, using the materials inherited from our past.

What is "every moment"? Is there such thing as a single moment? From the above it should be clear that the answer is No. The dimension of time is infinitely slicable into infinitely smaller pieces. There is nothing like single moment, because the duration of moment depends on the scale of observation, which depends on perspective.

Are we really remaking ourselves? Or are we maybe "being remade"? Who is the driving force here and are we really in control? According to Buddha, it is a combination of the forces of inertia (latent results of past action or karma) plus the force of choice and determination being made in the now. So we can't say that each of us literally remakes oneself in isolation from everything else. We are being made by our past and we make ourselves and each other with our choices.

Using the materials inherited from our past.

This sounds like "material" is something real and tangible that actually stays around, with things being made from combination of materials. This is not a Buddhist position, this is simple materialism. In Buddhist understanding, once you look close enough you see that so-called "material" is actually made of sankharas each of which is a just a focal point of interaction of other sankharas and so on. There is nothing tangible here, just interactions upon interactions. These interactions do not actually stay in the same place, they keep interacting, which is why things morph all the time, things get old, drift apart, and new things grow from them.

In Zen tradition this is well-explained by Dogen in his very important work "Time-Being".

So it's not like something tangible actually gets "inherited from the past". It's more like spreading and intersection of multiple waves - each next moment is a development - or unfolding - of the previous moment according to the rules of interaction. What's inherited from the past is form as well as force, the form of force, combination of energy and information.

Finally, see how it's saying "we are" and "our past"? That's identification and appropriation right there! Why is this stuff "we" and what makes that past "ours"?

Now, with all of the above, when you say "we are a bundle of processes, and every moment are remaking ourselves, using the materials inherited from our past" - and while saying this you understand what Buddhism would mean by "bundle", "process", "moment", "remaking", "materials" and "inherited from the past" - as well as the limit of what's meant by "we" and "our" - then you can understand the picture that this phrase is trying to paint.

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    Great answer. I've seen 'dhamma' translated by some as 'thing-event', which seems a helpful way to do it and quite quantum mechanical. . – user14119 Jan 29 '19 at 15:50

From my very basic understanding it's true that there is a bundle of processes ie the skandhas but we are not them. I used to think that but have since learnt that it's not the case. The skandhas are the skandhas and not self.

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Yes the word ''process'' is the newest fancy buzzword created by modern atheist philosophers, in order to avoid what they despise the most: being seen as what they are, ie still christian, having only swap God and soul for some Republic and their latest science of kinematics and Dynamics. They strive to clearly separate themselves from their roots of the christian scholars who were obsessed with a substance, essence, fixed entity, soul, from the middle ages after the theist christians revived the academia of the greeks and became obsessed with rationality and going to university in order to become a good rationalist... Those atheist intellectuals are proud of themselves to have found a word not used by the theist intellectuals. According to them, everything is process, or an algorithm, or a computer, with an input taken by some black box outputting something.

Long time ago, those christian scholars claimed that only animals were machine, and the humans were special snowflake, because humans have a fixed essence like a soul, and of course, like any intellectual they ran into problem like ''how can the soul be afflicted by materiality'' . THen the atheist christians --- who still love to boast about how they ridiculed all the theist christian scholars, thanks to they their worship of science --- claimed that ''animals are machine (just like before), but humans do not have soul, only humans are LIKE machine (but they are not)'' Today, those same atheist speculators claim that everybody and everything is a machine, a computer, a computation, an algorithm, a thing that has an input and an output. As usual with puthujjanas, generation after generation, they are only good at creating idiotic world views.

For the word being, it is the same sotry. The word being is the meaningless word created by speculators long ago, and each generation of intellectual puthujjanas cannot resits from offering a ''definition'' of being and fantasizing what a being does or does not.

Fortunately, the buddha clarified this. The buddha famously claims that being only means craving or clinging.https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn23/sn23.002.than.html So what's a being? it's craving. What's existence ? it's craving. what's a ''sense of self'' (the puthujjanas who have created ''pragmatic dharma'' love to use this expression) ? it's craving.

Craving is meaningful. Any human knows what craving is. All the other words created by philosophers, like being or existence are meaningless. So no craving means no existence, no being, and no self.

To answer the question, it is okay to use whatever idiotic buzzwords philosophers create as long as you do not take it seriously. It is not even false to ''view reality as a process'' like they say. But you cannot be wrong to keep using words indeed used in the sutta, meaning ''Samudaya '', dukkha, sankharas, and ''nirodha''. Those words are the only words which matter, over any word created by speculators. Like bikkhu analayo says, the generic word used by the buddha is sankhara https://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/pdf/5-personen/analayo/encyclopedia-entries/sankhara.pdf

This is how to use those words, once the citta sits in samadhi:

"'I tell you, the ending of the mental fermentations depends on the first jhana.' Thus it has been said. In reference to what was it said? There is the case where a monk, withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities, enters and remains in the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation. He regards whatever phenomena there that are connected with form, feeling, perception, fabrications, and consciousness, as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a disintegration, an emptiness, not-self. He turns his mind away from those phenomena, and having done so, inclines his mind to the property of deathlessness: 'This is peace, this is exquisite - the resolution of all fabrications; the relinquishment of all acquisitions; the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding.' http://obo.genaud.net/a/dhamma-vinaya/pts/an/09_nines/an09.036.hare.pts.htm#p1

Today puthujjanas always ask ''How to combine samadhi with vipassana? I do no t understand please help''. Well that's how you do it: with right view and right intention, meaning rejecting whatever is conditioned, meaning dukkha, in order to get the ''resolution of all fabrications'', meaning nibanna .

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Richard Gombrich is not Sangha. The Buddha taught to take refuge in the Noble Sangha.

The quote above is self-view. Its not Buddha-Dhamma.

Also, in terms of ultimate truth, the Buddha never taught "we are beings".

"Beings" is also a self-view. Refer to SN 23.2. SN 15.10, SN 12.2 (jati), DN 1, etc.

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If not, what would be a more accurate summary?

Richard Gombrich is concerned about the reality of processes.

The Buddha was concerned about the reality and ending of suffering.

After truly comprehending the noble truths of suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path, I will completely make an end of suffering.’ SN56.44

Richard Gombrich, in that brief quote, acknowledges the ephemerality of processes but completely misses the main point about suffering. Indeed, later in the document, Gombrich states:

Learning to meditate on an (often misconceived) idea that one has no self is a self-centered activity that I think likely to be self-defeating.

This is a very odd statement to make about Buddhism. Contrast that statement with what the Buddha actually says:

This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self --MN62

The Buddha is simply stating that what is observed is not self. That is a simple statement and one that can be verified individually.

Here is how the Buddha responded to "not self". He said nothing.

“Then does the self not exist absolutely?” But for a second time the Buddha kept silent.

And if the Buddha said nothing, then where did Gombrich come up with his view?

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