The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography

Synopsis


The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the most famous Buddhist text in the West, having sold more than a million copies since it was first published in English in 1927. Carl Jung wrote a commentary on it, Timothy Leary redesigned it as a guidebook for an acid trip, and the Beatles quoted Leary's version in their song "Tomorrow Never Knows." More recently, the book has been adopted by the hospice movement, enshrined by Penguin Classics, and made into an audiobook read by Richard Gere. Yet, as acclaimed writer and scholar of Buddhism Donald Lopez writes, " The Tibetan Book of the Dead is not really Tibetan, it is not really a book, and it is not really about death." In this compelling introduction and short history, Lopez tells the strange story of how a relatively obscure and malleable collection of Buddhist texts of uncertain origin came to be so revered--and so misunderstood--in the West.


The central character in this story is Walter Evans-Wentz (1878-1965), an eccentric scholar and spiritual seeker from Trenton, New Jersey, who, despite not knowing the Tibetan language and never visiting the country, crafted and named The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In fact, Lopez argues, Evans-Wentz's book is much more American than Tibetan, owing a greater debt to Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky than to the lamas of the Land of Snows. Indeed, Lopez suggests that the book's perennial appeal stems not only from its origins in magical and mysterious Tibet, but also from the way Evans-Wentz translated the text into the language of a very American spirituality.

Excerpt

In 2005, I received a telephone call from a newspaper in New Jersey. The journalist had seen a press release about a new translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and thought he might write a story about it. I referred him to a recently published scholarly study of the Tibetan text, but he wondered whether I could answer a few questions. “Is The Tibetan Book of the Dead the most important work in Tibetan Buddhism?” “No,” I said. “Do all Tibetans own a copy?” “No,” I said. “Have all Tibetans read it?” “No,” I said. “Is it a work that all Tibetans have heard of?” “Probably not,” I said. Before I had a chance to explain, the reporter, sounding somewhat bewildered, thanked me and hung up.

In his 1915 essay, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” Sigmund Freud wrote, “It is in-

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