Excerpted from The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography published by Princeton University Press © 2011. Posted by permission. Come to the launch of Princeton University Press’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series on Thursday, March 24, in New York City, hosted by the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU and the SSRC Program on Religion and the Public Sphere.—ed.
In his 1915 essay, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” Sigmund Freud wrote, “It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators.” Four years later, the American Theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz, traveling in the Himalayas, chanced upon a Tibetan text and asked the English teacher of the Maharaja’s Boarding School for boys in Gangtok, Sikkim to translate it for him. What is known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the product of their collaboration.
The Tibetan work that was given this name by Evans-Wentz is one of many Buddhist texts known by the title Bardo Todol (in transliterated Tibetan, Bar do thos grol, literally, “Liberation in the Intermediate State through Hearing”). It belongs to the genre of Tibetan literature called terma (gter ma) or “treasure.” It is said to have been composed by the great Indian tantric master Padmasambhava, who visited Tibet in the eighth century. Knowing that his teachings would be needed in the distant future, he dictated books to his consort and scribe (the queen of Tibet) and buried them—sometimes in a cave, sometimes in a lake, sometimes in a pillar, sometimes in the heart of a disciple yet unborn—to await discovery when the time was ripe for their contents to be revealed to the world. He composed thousands of such works. The book called Bardo Todol, buried in the eighth century, had been unearthed in the fourteenth century. Evans-Wentz would discover that Tibetan text in the twentieth century and, burying it under prefaces, commentaries, introductions, and annotations, he named it The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Since its publication in 1927, the book has been discovered by millions of readers in the West who have used it to do what Freud deemed impossible: imagine their own deaths.
Once it had appeared in English with this title, The Tibetan Book of the Dead would go on to have its own series of discoveries in the West, over the course of almost a century. Seven major reincarnations (and several minor ones), seven discoveries of this text, each somehow suited for its own time, have occurred in English since 1919. So although the first sentence of Evans-Wentz’s preface to the first edition reads, “In this book I am seeking—so far as possible—to suppress my own views and to act simply as the mouthpiece of a Tibetan sage, of whom I am a recognized disciple,” the version of the book that we have today is filled with other voices (the various prefaces, introductions, forewords, commentaries, notes, and addenda comprise some two thirds of the entire book) that together overwhelm the translation. The increasing popularity of the work compelled this unusual assortment of authorities to provide their own explanation of the text.
This amalgam of commentaries, surrounding a translation of several chapters of a much larger Tibetan work, has become the most widely read “Tibetan text” in the West. Its appeal derives from the irresistible combination of two domains of enduring fascination: Tibet and death. At the time of the publication of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Tibet, still a remote land in the high Himalayas, was regarded by many as a place where esoteric wisdom, long since lost elsewhere, had been preserved. Bounded on the south by the highest mountains in the world, at a time when mountains signified a cold and pristine purity, Tibet was imagined as a domain of lost wisdom.
Even greater than the lure of Tibet is the eternal fascination with death. When Freud asserted that it is impossible to imagine one’s own death, what he meant by death was the cessation of mental functions. But in the Buddhism of Tibet, consciousness never ceases, but passes through birth, death, the intermediate state or bardo (a Tibetan term that, as a result of Evans-Wentz’s book, found its way into Webster’s Third New International Dictionary), and rebirth, over and over again, until the achievement of buddhahood. Much of the allure of The Tibetan Book of the Dead can be attributed to the fact that it was the first work to offer an extended discussion of the Buddhist doctrine of death and rebirth to a large audience in the West, a doctrine elaborated in the Tibetan text with detailed descriptions of visions of peaceful and wrathful deities that appear in the nether world between death and birth. This vision of the afterlife found a ready audience during a different intermediate state, the period between the world wars. The late nineteenth century had been the heyday of Spiritualism, where mediums claimed to contact the spirits of the de-parted. Spiritualism experienced a revival after the First World War, when so many sought to know the fate of their lost fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, turned to Spiritualism and sought to contact his son Kingsley, who died as a result of wounds suffered at the Battle of the Somme, while Freud wrote Thoughts for the Times on War and Death in 1915 as two of his sons served in the German army. The publication of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927 preceded by two years the onset of the Great Depression, a period of profound anxiety in Europe and America about the future of the living. An ancient Tibetan text that described the post-mortem state in such precise and elaborate detail, and which explained that death was not an end, but a beginning, and that death was, indeed, an opportunity for enlightenment, offered both fascination and comfort.
Yet beyond the historical exigencies of its publication, The Tibetan Book of the Dead has proved remarkably resilient in subsequent generations, gaining far more readers in its English version than the Tibetan text—upon which it is based—ever had in Tibet. And it has been put to a remarkable range of uses. Today, in addition to various translations, one can purchase an audio version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, read by Richard Gere; a video dramatization of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, including film footage from Ladakh and an animated depiction of the state between death and rebirth, narrated by Leonard Cohen; The Tibetan Book of the Dead for Reading Aloud adapted by the playwright Jean-Claude van Italie; and a comic book version, The Comic Bardo Thodol by Thomas Scoville.
In a footnote to his introduction, Evans-Wentz writes that he and Kazi Dawa Samdup felt, “that without such safeguarding as this Introduction is intended to afford, the Bardo Thodol translation would be peculiarly liable to misinterpretation and consequent misuse . . .” They could have had little idea of the myriad ways in which their collaboration would be read. Removing the Bardo Todol from the moorings of language and culture, of time and place, Evans-Wentz transformed it into The Tibetan Book of the Dead and set it afloat in space, touching down at various moments in various cultures over the course of the past century, providing in each case an occasion to imagine what it might mean to be dead.
This biography tells the strange story of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It argues that the persistence of its popularity derives from three factors: The first is the human obsession with death. The second is the Western romance of Tibet. The third is Evans-Wentz’s way of making the Tibetan text into something that is somehow American. Evans-Wentz’s classic is not so much Tibetan as it is American, a product of American Spiritualism. Indeed, it might be counted among its classic texts.