The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead

Synopsis

In 1927, Oxford University Press published the first western-language translation of a collection of Tibetan funerary texts (the Great Liberation upon Hearing in the Bardo) under the title The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Since that time, the work has established a powerful hold on the western popular imagination, and is now considered a classic of spiritual literature. Over the years, The Tibetan Book of the Dead has inspired numerous commentaries, an illustrated edition, a play, a video series, and even an opera. Translators, scholars, and popular devotees of the book have claimed to explain its esoteric ideas and reveal its hidden meaning. Few, however, have uttered a word about its history. Bryan J. Cuevas seeks to fill this gap in our knowledge by offering the first comprehensive historical study of the Great Liberation upon Hearing in the Bardo, and by grounding it firmly in the context of Tibetan history and culture. He begins by discussing the many ways the texts have been understood (and misunderstood) by westerners, beginning with its first editor, the Oxford-educated anthropologist Walter Y. Evans-Wentz, and continuing through the present day. The remarkable fame of the book in the west, Cuevas argues, is strikingly disproportionate to how the original Tibetan texts were perceived in their own country. Cuevas tells the story of how The Tibetan Book of the Dead was compiled in Tibet, of the lives of those who preserved and transmitted it, and explores the history of the rituals through which the life of the dead is imagined in Tibetan society. This book provides not only a fascinating look at a popular and enduring spiritual work, but also a much-needed corrective to the proliferation of ahistorical scholarship surrounding The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Excerpt

The Tibetan Book of the Dead was first translated and published in English in 1927, has since gone through numerous reprints and translations into most major European languages, and continues to inspire many new translations from the original Tibetan texts. The book has truly become one of the foremost spiritual classics in world history. The aim of this study is to investigate the Tibetan history of this celebrated book. Recognizing that western scholarship has been too apt to view The Tibetan Book of the Dead as an abstraction outside of real time and space, I set out in this book to explore the origin and transmission of this literature in Tibet within its own complex religious and social arenas. As a carefully contextualized study of religious texts and their history, this book is an exploration not only of certain religious ideas and practices embedded in historicized texts but also of the texts themselves. It is my hope that the detailed focus of this study may help to provide a clear vantage point from which to survey more general aspects of the transmission of religious ideas, the production and distribution of religious literature, and the influence of institutions on religious practice within Tibet and neighboring areas.

Much of the research for this book was originally conducted for my doctoral dissertation submitted to the Department of Religion at the University of Virginia. I owe, therefore, a special debt of gratitude to my supervisors, Jeffrey Hopkins and David Germano, and to my readers, Paul Groner and Daniel Ehnbom. I am especially grateful for their thoughtful criticisms and suggestions for improvement. My research benefited also from the inspiration and charitable assistance offered to me by many scholars around the world. I should like to express my sincerest gratitude to E. Gene Smith, executive director of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC), whose vast knowledge of Tibetan bibliography, history, and lineage is second to none. I have . . .

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