Etymologically derived from the Greek ἑρμηνεύειν, to interpret, the term “hermeneutics” is often presumed to gesture to Hermes, messenger of the Gods. Although the historical validity of this connection with Hermes has been questioned by contemporary scholars, it suggests an abiding concern with the interpretation of messages (and messengers) of purportedly divine origin. Since the 17th century, the domain of hermeneutics has been extended to the interpretation of texts more generally: to questions concerning their nature, principles to be used for making sense of them, and guidelines for selecting among alternative interpretive options. Still more recently, hermeneutics has focused on the nature of interpretive practice: what interpretation is, and whether and to what extent interpretation is correctly understood as central to the human sciences or, more broadly, to human experience. The phrase “Buddhist hermeneutics” may be used to reference any of these aspects of hermeneutics, but for the purpose of this article it will be generally understood as marking the specific principles and practices that Buddhists in various places and times have used to make sense of the texts and experiences that they count as important to their lives as Buddhists. The principles and practices at work in Buddhist hermeneutics exert their effects at various interrelated personal and social levels. They contribute to the construction of a conceptual framework in light of which persons understand themselves and the world around them: how things are, how things could be, and how one should go about settling competing claims to authority. This framework facilitates a sense of community that functions both synchronically and diachronically, as practitioners of diverse backgrounds are joined with each other and with Buddhists of the past in the pursuit of coming to understand the meaning of Buddhist teachings.
From the very earliest stages of Buddhist tradition, Buddhist thinkers have been concerned with interpretation(s) of Buddhist teachings. The term “interpretation” is, of course, notoriously polysemic: it can be used to denote the meaning of something (one arrives at an interpretation) as well as the means by which that meaning is determined (one engages in interpretation). The term “hermeneutics” is, however, usually used more narrowly, to denote the principles and practices by which one comes to understand the meaning of something—often, but not always, a text (Lopez 1988). Among Buddhists, the meaning of Buddhist teaching is often claimed to be singular—the teaching manifests a “single taste” (ekarasa)—while the means used to convey this meaning are claimed to be both inexhaustibly various and tailored to the sensibilities of divergent audiences (Pye 2004). One of the tasks of Buddhist hermeneutics is to reconcile these claims of multiplicity and unity: to explain (or explain away) prima facie discordances between or within texts and find ways of reading apparently novel and problematic passages as sounding variations on old and familiar themes (Gomez 2005, Lopez 1988, Thurman 1978). This activity contributes to, and occurs against, a background of views regarding the nature and function of reading practices (Griffiths 1999) and the potentialities and limitations of human language more generally (Abé 1995). The extent to which traditional Buddhist assumptions regarding interpretation are compatible with, or may be illuminated by, concerns of contemporary philosophical hermeneutics is an issue explored in different ways in Maraldo 1986 and Pye 1973.
Abé, Ryūichi. “Word.” In Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism. Edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., 291–310. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Less concerned with Buddhist hermeneutics than with Buddhist attitudes toward language more generally, this essay offers a brief general survey of the conceptual background against which traditional understandings of interpretive practice have emerged.
Gomez, Luis O. “Buddhist Books and Texts: Exegesis and Hermeneutics.” Vol. 2. In Encyclopedia of Religion. 2d ed. Edited by Lindsay Jones, 1268–1278. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005.
An excellent starting point for the study of Buddhist hermeneutics. Originally published in 1987 and revised for the second edition (2005) of the Encyclopedia of Religion, this article provides an accessible overview of major themes and issues.
Griffiths, Paul J. Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
A trenchant treatment of traditional views on, and roles played by, reading in the religious lives of Buddhist and Christian thinkers during the first millennium CE. The work’s conclusion may be usefully juxtaposed with Griffiths 1981 (cited under The (Buddhist?) Hermeneutics of Buddhist Studies).
Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Buddhist Hermeneutics. Essays originally presented at a conference held at the Kuroda Institute for the Study of Buddhism and Human Values in Los Angeles in the spring of 1984. Studies in East Asian Buddhism 6. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1988.
The outcome of a pioneering conference on Buddhist hermeneutics convened in 1984, this volume, indispensable for the serious student, collects a range of papers of very high quality that explore hermeneutic practice across many Buddhist traditions. Several papers are individually cited in other sections of this article.
Maraldo, John C. “Hermeneutics and Historicity in the Study of Buddhism.” Eastern Buddhist 19.1 (1986): 17–43.
Challenges the uncritical application of the term “hermeneutics” to premodern practices of exegesis and probes the extent to which historical consciousness has historically been manifest in Chinese and Japanese Buddhist traditions.
Pye, Michael. “Comparative Hermeneutics in Religion.” Paper presented at the fourth annual colloquium of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster (England) in January 1972. In The Cardinal Meaning: Essays in Comparative Hermeneutics: Buddhism and Christianity. Edited by Michael Pye and Robert Morgan, 9–58. Paris: Mouton, 1973.
A probing and accessibly written introduction to hermeneutic issues raised by attempts to study religious traditions comparatively. Uses insights gained from Ernst Troeltsch to survey approaches to Buddhist texts taken by 20th-century scholars of Buddhism in Europe and Japan.
Pye, Michael. Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2004.
The most thorough and detailed treatment of skillful means (Skt. upāya [kauśalya], Ch. fangbian, Tib. thabs mkhas) available in English. Concentrates on sources particularly influential in East Asian Buddhist traditions. Originally published in 1978.
Thurman, Robert. “Buddhist Hermeneutics.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 46.1 (1978): 19–39.
Although sweeping in many of its claims and characterized by a tendency toward rhetorical exuberance, this early and accessibly written essay by Robert Thurman remains a valuable introduction to some of the basic concerns of Buddhist hermeneutics across Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese traditions.
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