Professor Gombrich (1937) is perhaps the best, but certainly the most well-known Pali teacher in the world. In addition, he is one of the most influential scientists in the field of early Buddhism. He has been a professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford throughout his working life. Unfortunately, there was never a Pali chair. That is also why, when he had to retire in 2004, he set up the OCBS (Oxford Centre of Buddhist Studies).
Richard Gombrich was born in London in 1937, the only child of the famous art historian Ernst Gombrich and the classical pianist Ilse Heller. His father wanted him to study Latin and Greek, and Richard turned out to be so good at classical languages that while in high shcool he won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford. After a year and a half he was completely fed up with Latin and Greek: the strict way in which it was taught at that time made him consider studying Chinese. However, this was in Mao’s time, which meant that it would be impossible to travel to China.
Michael Coulson was an old school friend of Richard’s, and was a few years ahead of him. Coulson made him enthusiastic about that other classical language, Sanskrit (in 1976 they released ‘how to teach yourself Sanskrit’ together). Richard, however, had to enter military service first, and was stationed in Germany during that time. On weekends and holidays he spent a lot of time there with friends of his father, a couple whose wife had converted to Buddhism. Richard was intrigued by Buddhism, especially by Buddhist psychology and ethics. He felt no need to become a Buddhist himself, but wanted to explore its cultural and historical roots. To do that, he had learned through his upbringing and training, a thorough study of the source texts was a necessity.
Back at Oxford, he therefore chose Pali as a minor during his Sanskrit studies. It was a problem that the professor who taught him was a professor of Sanskrit without any interest in the Pali texts. In fact, Richard had to master the language through self-study. He himself says that that is the worst way of learning a language, and that he might have achieved much more if he had had a good teacher.
Also in the field of Buddhism there was little to be gained in Oxford. You could take a Buddhism exam at the faculty of theology, but no one ever did. As a result, when Richard wanted to sit for the exam, the university had to get an examiner from outside: dr. Edward Conze, a very learned and rather eccentric man. However, no one had thought it worthwhile to tell Conze what aspects of Buddhism Richard had studied. As a result, except for one question, he had not even heard of the subjects that the exam was about! With the courage of desperation, he spent the whole three exam hours answering the only question he did understand – and got a very high grade!
Richard Gombrich has written a number of high-profile articles. For example, he questioned the traditional dating of the birth and death of the Buddha (563-483 BC ). Because of his article, people worldwide have come to accept that the date 480-400 BC is more likely. 
The booklet ‘Buddhism and Pali’ (2018) has also caused a lot of controversy. Pali was long considered a ‘dead language’, but Gombrich has very successfully argued that the language of the Pali Canon may actually have been the spoken language of the Buddha himself.
At the age of 39, Richard Gombrich became a professor at Oxford University, and remained so until his compulsory retirement at the age of 67. However, he held always a chair for Sanskrit, because there seemed to be no interest in a separate pali chair. That is why, after his retirement, he founded the OCBS (Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies), because he felt that there was far too little attention for studying Pali.
Professor Gombrich is an unconventional teacher. For example, the Pali summer school he offered for years at the OCBS accepts students without any knowledge of classical languages. He doesn’t demand people to learn lists of words, but demands what he calls “intellectual integrity.” This means that he asks his students to check with themselves whether they have actually fully understood the subject matter, and if not to make every effort to get there. ‘Look up everything’, he urges his students. Many of the students translate with tables and diagrams of inflections and cases on the table. This way of working ensures that the lessons are open to a very wide audience. Buddhists who want to be able to read the source texts themselves, Hindus with an interest in another Indian language, philologists, Jains…
It goes without saying that such a stubborn and unorthodox way of working will not appeal to everyone. It is not the old-fashioned European way of learning a classical language, where you first have to learn all the cases plus the exceptions to the rules, using short sentences where in order to learn the grammatical terms for each inflection or combination. With Professor Gombrich , the following applies: first the text, then the theory. It is not easier, but much more fun to work in this way, although the chances are that there will be gaps in the knowledge of the student is greater.
Students are expected to work together in small groups, where they can help each other, and where the emphasis lies on cooperation rather than competition. Gombrich is a friendly but very demanding teacher: he does not accept laziness or laxity, but knows how to inspire his students in such a way that they really work hard.
The combination of openness to all students with the demand for great commitment provides a maximum chance of developing a larger number of serious translators. Worldwide, the number of translators from Pali remains low, although this is the ultimate opportunity to get as close as possible to the Buddha and his words. Gombrich is someone who has been trying all his life to change that and to open up the wealth of the Pali to as many people as possible.
A selection from the the publications of Richard Gombrich:
- Precept and practice: traditional Buddhism in the rural highlands of Ceylon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.
- Teach yourself Sanskrit: an introduction to the classical language. (Editor: Coulson, Michael) London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1976.
- The perfect generosity of Prince Vessantara. (Co-author: Cone, Margaret) Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.
- Theravada Buddhism: a social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988.
- Gombrich, Richard, and Gananath Obeyesekere. Buddhism transformed: religious change in Sri Lanka. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988. Paperback ed. 1990.
- How Buddhism began: the conditioned genesis of the early teachings. London: The Athlone Press, 1996.
- Theravada Buddhism: a social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo. 2nd rev. ed. London: Routledge, 2006.
- How Buddhism began: the conditioned genesis of the early teachings. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2006.
- Gombrich, R. (2018b). What the Buddha Thought. Motilal Banarsidass.
- Gombrich, R. (2018a). Buddhism and Pali. Mud Pie.
 Dating the Buddha: a red herring revealed. In: Heinz Bechert (ed.), The Dating of the Historical Buddha/Die Datierung des historischen Buddha. Part 2. (Symposien zur Buddhismusforschung; IV,2). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992, pp. 237–259.