"The Tibetan Book of the Dead": A Biography

by Donald S. Lopez Jr.
     
 

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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

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

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

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400838042
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Publication date:
02/07/2011
Series:
Lives of Great Religious Books
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
192
File size:
1 MB

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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