16 May 2011


Donald S. Lopez, Jr., The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography, Princeton University Press. 2011.

The four-hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible has given rise to a large number of articles, along with radio and television programmes, about its origins and influence. Now Princeton University Press has begun to issue a series of 'Lives of Great Religious Books', beginning with 'The Tibetan Book of the Dead', which, in the Evans-Wentz edition, was one of the 'bibles' of the hippie movement, and has sold more than a million copies.
The Bardo Tõdõl, to give its original title, is a terma, that is, a work supposedly written in Tibetan in the eighth century by an Indian tantric master named Padmasambhava, and then, when the original Buddhism of Tibet collapsed amongst the political turmoil of the following century, hidden in rocks, or at the bottom of lakes, or inside pillars of ancient temples; and then relocated by psychic means in the eleventh century, and used to found what, on this basis, was termed the 'Ancient' sect of Buddhism. This legend is dubious, of course: modern scholars have questioned whether Padmasambhava even existed; and suggested that if he did, he may have been an expert on irrigation rather than religion.

Lopez considers that the Evans-Wentz edition should be considered as essentially an American rather than a Tibetan work. He traces the American Spiritualist movement back to Joseph Smith; who in the 1820s claimed to have been guided by an angel to dig up some inscribed gold plates, which proved to have been buried more than a thousand years earlier by a general of the Nephites, an Israelite tribe who had preceded Columbus to the New World by two millennia. These he translated into English with the aid of a pair of crystal spectacles, and published as The Book of Mormon - the story is curiously similar to that of the terma of Padmasambhava. Smith was followed by the Fox sisters, and then Madame Blavatsky with her Theosophical Society.

Walter Yelling Wentz - it was only as an adult that he adopted in addition his mother's maiden name of Evans - was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1878, and later moved to southern California with his family, where he would receive a diploma from the Raja-Yoga School and Theosophical University at Point Loma. He later obtained an M.A. in English from Stanford University, travelled to Europe, and was awarded a Bachelor of Science in Anthropology at Oxford. Having spent most of the First World War in Egypt, he travelled to India, where he became "a great collector of texts in languages he never learned to read".

In Darjeeling he purchased some Tibetan block prints, and had them translated by Kazi Dawa Samdup, an English teacher at a boy's boarding school in Gangtok, the capital of the small Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim, who worked on them every morning before lessons for two months. These provided Evans-Wentz with the material for three books, The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1927, the title an imitation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead published in England by Wallis Budge). Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (1935), and The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (1954). One point that was not made clear in the first of these was that it was only a small portion of a large corpus of similar works, and did not include the part most commonly used in Tibet.

The word bar-do means 'between two [lives]'. and refers to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, which may occur in any one of six realms, "as gods, demigods, humans, animals, ghosts, or hell beings." The Bardo Tõdõl consists of a set of instructions to the newly departed soul, given by reciting them over the dead body, and intended to give it the best possible rebirth. Or so it appears, but it seems that two of the sections included in Evans-Wentz Tibetan Book of the Dead were really intended as meditation manuals for the living.

By the time of the third edition (1955), the text itself occupied rather less than one third of the whole, the remainder being taken up with prefaces, introductions and footnotes. These included an eighteen page 'Psychological Commentary' by Carl Jung, and an `Introductory Foreword' by Lama Anagarika Govinda, who was not, as has sometimes been thought, a Tibetan, but a German originally named Ernst Lothar Hoffman, though unlike all of the other contributors to the book he had actually visited Tibet, if only for three months (and had never learned Tibetan).

Summing up, Lopez remarks that it is widely believed that "The present is a degenerate age, unable to solve the problems that afflict it; the solution lies in the past," and hence it ancient scriptures. However. "Evans-Wentz colonized a Tibetan text. turning it into a tome of his American version of Theosophy." On the other hand: "But the fabrication of lineage in what, from the perspective of historical scholarship, Tibetans had done for centuries." -- Reviewed by Gareth J. Medway.

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