The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography

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Overview

"On the history of Buddhism and its transmission to the West, Donald Lopez is the unsurpassable master. The story he tells here about a book that is 'not really Tibetan' and 'not really about death' glistens with delicious ironies and arresting historical parallels. Who else but Lopez would begin a history of The Tibetan Book of the Dead with the story of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith—and then, like a mystery writer, reveal the connections at the end? This is a sly and wildly entertaining book."—Kenneth L. Woodward, contributing editor, Newsweek

"The Tibetan Book of the Dead has a wonderful story, and in this fascinating and charming little book, Donald Lopez reveals himself to be a wonderful storyteller."—Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography

"This smart, entertaining introduction to The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a real delight. Despite its title, Donald Lopez argues, The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a uniquely American book and can be properly read and understood only from that perspective. He demonstrates this by exposing its direct links to American Theosophy and spiritualism at the dawn of the New Age in the early twentieth century, while also drawing interesting parallels to the visionary beginnings of Mormonism."—Bryan J. Cuevas, author of The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead

"This book offers a fascinating and fresh discussion of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and its life as a text in the United States. Donald Lopez argues that persistent threads in American religious life—the tradition of the 'found' text as a repository for ancient wisdom, and a philosophical interest in life after death—help explain the overwhelming success of the book and its endurance as a cultural artifact."—Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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Editorial Reviews

Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly
The focus of Donald Lopez's ingenious, informative, and engagingly written 'biography' is not so much the original Tibetan text but the pioneering edition and translation first issued in 1927 by the American traveler, scholar, and Theosophist W.Y. Evans-Wentz.
— Roger Jackson
The Australian
[T]his biography springs to life when Lopez places its subject within the weird tradition of American spiritualism, complete with Madame Blavatsky's acolytes, Ouija boards and memories of exotic past lives.
— Miriam Cosic
Japan Times
What makes Lopez's biography of Evans-Wentz's book not only amusing (as it unfailingly is) but enlightening is that one suspects he too could have 'chosen any Asian text' that had been ripped from its context and composed a similar story of how meanings, willy-nilly, had attached themselves to it. Having read Lopez's book, we will look afresh at the volumes of unmoored wisdom so many in the West have taken to heart.
— David Cozy
Portland Book Review
The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography is an excellent short introduction to Buddhism, and an intriguing analysis of how ancient texts are used (or invented) to give authority to ideologies.
— Heather Shaw
Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly

The focus of Donald Lopez's ingenious, informative, and engagingly written 'biography' is not so much the original Tibetan text but the pioneering edition and translation first issued in 1927 by the American traveler, scholar, and Theosophist W.Y. Evans-Wentz.
— Roger Jackson
Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly - Roger Jackson
The focus of Donald Lopez's ingenious, informative, and engagingly written 'biography' is not so much the original Tibetan text but the pioneering edition and translation first issued in 1927 by the American traveler, scholar, and Theosophist W.Y. Evans-Wentz.
The Australian - Miriam Cosic
[T]his biography springs to life when Lopez places its subject within the weird tradition of American spiritualism, complete with Madame Blavatsky's acolytes, Ouija boards and memories of exotic past lives.
Japan Times - David Cozy
What makes Lopez's biography of Evans-Wentz's book not only amusing (as it unfailingly is) but enlightening is that one suspects he too could have 'chosen any Asian text' that had been ripped from its context and composed a similar story of how meanings, willy-nilly, had attached themselves to it. Having read Lopez's book, we will look afresh at the volumes of unmoored wisdom so many in the West have taken to heart.
Portland Book Review - Heather Shaw
The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography is an excellent short introduction to Buddhism, and an intriguing analysis of how ancient texts are used (or invented) to give authority to ideologies.
NovaReligio - George Adams
Concise and written with Lopez's usual clarity, this short book at times reads like an exciting spiritual detective story as the author methodically takes the reader through the improbable developments that led to the creation of what, in some sense, is a Western creation brought forth from Eastern concepts. . . . Although written for a popular audience, this book should be of interest to all scholars interested in the metamorphosis of Buddhism as the dharma has become transplanted in the West.
European Legacy - Geoffrey Samuel
Lopez is a good scholar with an engaging style . . . and a reader new to the Tibetan Book of the Dead will find this book a reliable and often entertaining introduction to the work and to its Tibetan and Western histories.
Religion - Katja Rakow
Although the book addresses a broad and general audience, it is still an excellent scholarly study on the translation and transformation of Tibetan texts into a single English book that eventually became a 'timeless world spiritual classic.' The study is firmly set in the complex trajectories of transcultural encounters and should benefit religious studies scholars from different fields of research. For scholars of American religious history, Buddhism in the West, and contemporary religion in the Euro-American context, the book provides an accessible account of the Buddhist and Tibetan background of the text in question; for scholars from Buddhist and Tibetan studies, the book offers a window to modernist adaptations and interpretations of Buddhist texts in 20th-century America. This slim volume will function well in the undergraduate classroom to demonstrate that religious texts are not timeless and fixed entities. . . . Lopez's narrative biography of The Tibetan Book of the Dead will provide a useful and accessible reading assignment for more specialized classes.
From the Publisher
"A scholarly and informative short read, very useful as a reminder that religious books are not necessarily fixed entities."—James F. DeRoche, Library Journal

"The focus of Donald Lopez's ingenious, informative, and engagingly written 'biography' is not so much the original Tibetan text but the pioneering edition and translation first issued in 1927 by the American traveler, scholar, and Theosophist W.Y. Evans-Wentz."—Roger Jackson, Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly

"The focus of Donald Lopez's ingenious, informative, and engagingly written 'biography' is not so much the original Tibetan text but the pioneering edition and translation first issued in 1927 by the American traveler, scholar, and Theosophist W.Y. Evans-Wentz."—Roger R. Jackson, Buddhadharma

"[T]his biography springs to life when Lopez places its subject within the weird tradition of American spiritualism, complete with Madame Blavatsky's acolytes, Ouija boards and memories of exotic past lives."—Miriam Cosic, The Australian

"What makes Lopez's biography of Evans-Wentz's book not only amusing (as it unfailingly is) but enlightening is that one suspects he too could have 'chosen any Asian text' that had been ripped from its context and composed a similar story of how meanings, willy-nilly, had attached themselves to it. Having read Lopez's book, we will look afresh at the volumes of unmoored wisdom so many in the West have taken to heart."—David Cozy, Japan Times

"The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography is an excellent short introduction to Buddhism, and an intriguing analysis of how ancient texts are used (or invented) to give authority to ideologies."—Heather Shaw, Portland Book Review

"Concise and written with Lopez's usual clarity, this short book at times reads like an exciting spiritual detective story as the author methodically takes the reader through the improbable developments that led to the creation of what, in some sense, is a Western creation brought forth from Eastern concepts. . . . Although written for a popular audience, this book should be of interest to all scholars interested in the metamorphosis of Buddhism as the dharma has become transplanted in the West."—George Adams, NovaReligio

"Lopez is a good scholar with an engaging style . . . and a reader new to the Tibetan Book of the Dead will find this book a reliable and often entertaining introduction to the work and to its Tibetan and Western histories."—Geoffrey Samuel, European Legacy

"Although the book addresses a broad and general audience, it is still an excellent scholarly study on the translation and transformation of Tibetan texts into a single English book that eventually became a 'timeless world spiritual classic.' The study is firmly set in the complex trajectories of transcultural encounters and should benefit religious studies scholars from different fields of research. For scholars of American religious history, Buddhism in the West, and contemporary religion in the Euro-American context, the book provides an accessible account of the Buddhist and Tibetan background of the text in question; for scholars from Buddhist and Tibetan studies, the book offers a window to modernist adaptations and interpretations of Buddhist texts in 20th-century America. This slim volume will function well in the undergraduate classroom to demonstrate that religious texts are not timeless and fixed entities. . . . Lopez's narrative biography of The Tibetan Book of the Dead will provide a useful and accessible reading assignment for more specialized classes."—Katja Rakow, Religion

"This [is a] magnificent little piece of literary iconoclasm."—Michel Clasquin-Johnson, Relegre-Studies in Religion and Reception

Library Journal
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is not really Tibetan, as Lopez (Buddhist & Tibetan studies, Univ. of Michigan; The Story of Buddhism) points out here, but an American publication of 1927 by Walter Evans-Wentz. Lopez provides a history of this Western book, whose shape was heavily influenced by Evans-Wentz's interests in theosophy and Celtic folklore. Evans-Wentz, never a Buddhist, believed that spiritualist teachings were universal. His book's prefaces, commentaries, and addenda make up more than twice as much material as the translation of the Tibetan text. Thus Evans-Wentz misled many American readers, who assumed there was one definite Tibetan text, transmitted from an Indian teacher named Padmasambhava, but this is inaccurate. For one thing, Tibet's original Bardo Thödöl wasn't a written but an oral recitation passed down by monks, any of whom may have added to it or omitted portions. Lopez instructs us on all of this, some of which may be heavy going for lay readers. He reminds readers that there are many varied Tibetan exemplars; we aren't sure when they were first written down. No exemplar is widely known in Tibet. VERDICT A scholarly and informative short read, very useful as a reminder that religious books are not necessarily fixed entities.—James F. DeRoche, Alexandria, VA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691134352
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 2/20/2011
  • Series: Lives of Great Religious Books Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 698,417
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Donald S. Lopez, Jr., is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. His many books include "The Story of Buddhism" (HarperOne) and "Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West". He has also edited a number of books by the Dalai Lama.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction 1
Chapter 1: America 13
Chapter 2: India 30
Chapter 3: T ibet 49
Chapter 4: The World 71
Conclusion 128
Coda 153
Notes 157
Index 171

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