Professor Jonathan A. Silk (Leiden University)

The Significance of Buddhist Scriptures

In all of our careful philology, we often lose sight of what should be a fundamental question: What do Buddhist scriptures mean? This is not (here) a theologian’s question, but that of historian. To address this question as historians, we need to think about related questions, or sub-questions: To whom, and under what conditions, do these scriptures mean or signify in the first place? 

There is an ambiguity here which Prof. Silk would like to explore: what something ‘means’ refers to its ‘significance,’ which in turn refers to the manner in which it is understood. Scriptures are understood both to ‘mean’ and to ‘be,’ that is, to convey content and to have status, or to put it in other words, both to have import and to be important. Regarding the importance of these scriptures, rather than assuming a status, we must think about those for whom they possess(ed) some importance or significance.


Jonathan A. Silk. Photo: Ute Hüsken

This presentation attempts to offer a few suggestions of ways to approach these fundamental questions. Among other things, it asks questions such as: if scriptures share pericopes or stock expressions, what—and how—do such shared materials signify in their different contexts? How are we to understand the relative importance of preserved scriptures when their contents often seem so similar? If scriptures are created through the collection of pre-existing elements, (how) do they differ from anthologies?

Approx. 44 minutes. 40,6 MB


About the lecturer

Jonathan A. Silk (1960) studied East Asian Studies at the Oberlin College in Ohio and subsequently Buddhist Studies at the University of Michigan. At the latter university he obtained his PhD in 1994 with the thesis: The Origins and Early History of the Mahāratnakūţa Tradition of Mahāyāna Buddhism, With a Study of the Ratnarāśisūtra and Related Materials.

During his studies, Silk spent several years in Japan supported by various grants. After his PhD, Silk became Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the Grinnell College in Iowa and in 1995 at the Department of Comparative Religion of the Western Michigan University. Since 2002 he occupied the same position at the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). There, Silk has been director of the South & Southeast Asian Languages Program. Silk received several awards during and after his studies, and occupied a fellowship six times, the last one at Yale University.
Currently, Silk is Professor of Buddhist Studies at the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies. 
Published Apr. 27, 2011 1:13 PM - Last modified Apr. 27, 2011 2:24 PM