Universiteit Leiden

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Jonathan Silk receives Guggenheim Fellowship

The Guggenheim Fellowship is a prestigious award for US nationals. There are more than 3,000 applications every year, and this year only 188 were honoured. Professor Jonathan Silk is one of these 188, the first ever at Leiden University, and he tells us more about the fellowship and what he will do with it.

This fellowship, awarded by the Guggenheim Foundation, covers a broad range of areas: humanities scholars are recognized alongside mathematicians and poets. Silk specialises in Buddhist literature, and presented a research proposal investigating how ancient Buddhists articulated their fears of the decline in the vitality of their tradition: 'By looking at a select set of prophecy texts, we can discover how Buddhists of long ago feared the decline of Buddhism, since they express their anxieties in literary form.'

Past, present and future

'One of the very interesting thing about these stories is that they can be understood to follow the pattern called vaticinium ex eventu,' Silk explains. 'These are "predictions" made after the author has already learned about the event the prediction refers to. The narrators of these stories I study are offering a prediction about what, in the time of the text, refers to the future, but which actually for the author is already his present.'

'It is extraordinary that these kinds of prophecies present themselves as something future-oriented, while they are actually about the present. Buddhist literature makes these prophecies known through the dreams of the stories' protagonist. In my research, I want to explore further how a fear of the decay of Buddhism, that is, of a sort of moral weakening, these kinds of prophecies ,and the dreams through which they are conveyed are connected, and what all this might tell us about the ideology of Buddhists of the time when these stories were composed.’


This is not the first time Silk applied for this scholarship. 'I had applied before several times, and had basically given up, but a casual talk with a friend who had earlier held the same fellowship inspired me to simply try again. So I did, and this year I was successful. Perseverance pays off! There are so many good projects for the Guggenheim Foundation to choose from, and the fact that I have been chosen feels like recognition not only of what I have already achieved in my academic career, but also of what I still hope to achieve. I am hugely excited about this grant and can't wait to actually carry out the research!'

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