Right time and place for a new lease of life

The Tibetan Book of the Dead
December 8, 2006

Last autumn, I received a telephone call from a newspaper in New Jersey. The journalist had seen a press release about the new translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and thought he might write a story about it. I referred him to a 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. Sounding somewhat bewildered, he thanked me and hung up.

Part of his confusion stemmed from the assumption that every religion must have its one sacred scripture. But in Tibetan Buddhism, there are thousands. That each of the answers to the journalist's questions had been in the negative does not decrease the signal importance of the revealed text under review here. To understand that importance, however, it is necessary to recount briefly the strange modern history of a work whose name is not "Book of the Dead" in Tibetan and whose fame was not particularly great in Tibet.

The fame of The Tibetan Book of the Dead outside Tibet is due to the efforts of an American theosophist named Walter Evans-Wentz (1878-1965). After studying Celtic folklore at Oxford University, Evans-Wentz set out on a world tour. He arrived eventually in Darjeeling in 1919, where he acquired a worn manuscript of a portion of a Tibetan text. Evans-Wentz did not know (and never learnt) Tibetan. However, with a letter of introduction from the local police superintendent, he took the text to the English teacher at the Maharaja's Boy's School in Gangtok, one Kazi Dawa Samdup (1868-1922).

Kazi Dawa Samdup agreed to provide a translation, and over the next two months he met with Evans-Wentz each morning before his school day began.

Evans-Wentz would eventually publish his translations in four books: The Tibetan Book of the Dead , Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines and The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation . Over the subsequent decades, these would be the most widely read Tibetan texts in the world, translated into numerous languages and excerpted in many anthologies.

None would be more famous, however, than The Tibetan Book of the Dead , first published by Oxford University Press in 19. To Kazi Dawa Samdup's translation, Evans-Wentz added copious notes, a lengthy introduction of his own and a foreword by Sir John Woodroofe, who, while serving as judge on the High Court of Calcutta, had become an expert on Hindu tantra.

Subsequent editions added a "psychological commentary" by Carl Jung and a foreword by Lama Govinda (Ernst Hoffmann). Together, the various commentaries, introductions, notes and addenda outweighed the translation of the text itself.

Seeing affinities with The Egyptian Book of the Dead (Madame Blavatsky's first major work was Isis Unveiled ), Evans-Wentz called his The Tibetan Book of the Dead . The book remains in print and has sold more than 500,000 copies in English. Evans-Wentz's work spawned its own tradition, inspiring Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner to produce The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1964). Chögyam Trungpa and Francesca Fremantle translated the same portion of the Tibetan text in 1975, as did Robert Thurman in 1994. The work gained new fame when Evans-Wentz's title was invoked in Sogyal Rinpoche's international bestseller, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1992). Over the 20th century, the Tibetan text that served as the inspiration for these books became somehow lost. In the 21st century, it has been rediscovered.

The Tibetan text is known as the Bar do thos grol, Liberation in the Intermediate State through Hearing . Although there are many texts with this title, the one that Evans-Wentz encountered is particularly important. It is part of a larger cycle of texts of the "heart essence" ( snying thig ) tradition of the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism. This cycle of texts is a "treasure" ( gter ma ), said to have been hidden in Tibet by the Indian tantric master Padmasambhava in the 8th century, to be recovered by Karma gling pa (1352-1405). The cycle is called Zab chos zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol or The Profound Doctrine of Self-Liberation of the Mind [through Encountering] the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities or, more commonly, the Karma zhi khro, The Peaceful and Wrathful Deities of Karma gling pa.

In Tibet, Liberation in the Intermediate State through Hearing , as its name suggests, was used as a mortuary text, to be read by a lama to a dead or dying person so that he or she will hear how to find liberation in the intermediate state between death and rebirth, or, if that does not occur, to find a favourable place of rebirth, ideally in a pure land. The text also served as the foundation for a range of meditative and ritual practices that share a central assumption: that death is not merely something to be feared, but instead provides a rare opportunity in which one's true nature, often obscured in life by the mental and physical processes that constitute the person, becomes nakedly manifest upon their dissolution at death. If that reality can be recognised, liberation is at hand. All of the sects of Tibetan Buddhism developed sophisticated practices in which the stages of death and the intermediate state were anticipated and simulated.

Many of the most famous of such practices for the Nyingma sect are presented in this, the first full translation of the text (of which the Evans-Wentz version comprised about one third). It will immediately become the standard translation. The team assembled by Graham Coleman, president of the Orient Foundation, acquired the best available version of the Tibetan text and produced an accurate and eloquent translation, complete with newly painted illustrations of the peaceful and wrathful deities encountered in the intermediate state. The front and back matter (including excellent annotations, appendices and a detailed glossary) clarify rather than obfuscate (as did Evans-Wentz) this esoteric text. The translator, the English scholar Gyurme Dorje, received oral commentary from some of the leading lamas of the day, and the distinguished Tibetan scholar Thupten Jinpa edited the entire translation. Although members of a different sect (the Geluk), the Dalai Lamas have long had a special interest in Nyingma; this tradition has continued with the current Dalai Lama, who provides an illuminating introduction.

According to the Tibetan tradition, Padmasambhava hid the text in Tibet in the 8th century so that it could be discovered at the appropriate time. The appropriate time in Tibet was the 14th century. The appropriate time for this work of esoteric wisdom to appear in English was perhaps not 19, but 2005. The irony, of course, is that if Evans-Wentz had not produced his eccentric and oddly titled book, we would not have occasion to praise the present work today.

Donald S. Lopez Jr is professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Editor - Graham Coleman with Thupten Jinpa
Publisher - Penguin Classics
Pages - 535
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 713 99414 2

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