Book review: “The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography” by Donald S. Lopez Jr.

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Book review: “The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography” by Donald S. Lopez Jr.

 

In 2005, Penguin Books published a new translation of Bardo Todol, the collection Buddhist texts that, in the West, has been known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead for three-quarters of a century, and touted it as “First Complete Translation” of a work dealing with life between a person’s death and reincarnation.

Actually, as Donald S. Lopez Jr. points out in his 2011 book The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography, “complete” here is somewhat inexact since Bardo Todol is a cycle of texts of which many versions exist.  Even so, the Penguin book, Lopez writes, is an improvement over the original English edition, put forth by American Theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz.

Many more texts of the cycle are translated [in the Penguin edition] for the first time, the translation is made from a better manuscript, and the translation is more accurate than that first published in 1927.

Lopez, an American expert on Buddhism and Tibet who has edited books by the Dalai Lama, notes that the publicity for the Penguin book is overblown, asserting that the book “embraces the concept of enlightened living and the importance of being open to the wonders of the human experience while, at the same time, thinking beyond this lifetime to a vastly greater and grander cycle.”

In other words, as he summarizes it, “Tibetan Buddhism as self-help.”

The Penguin book itself, however, doesn’t have that tone at all.

 

“Relative obscurity”

The book begins with an introduction by the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who provides a clear and learned contextualization of the material that will follow, setting forth Buddhist views on the nature of the person, of the process of death, and the principles of the practice of Highest Yoga Tantra.

Such background is essential for understanding the Tibetan text, yet no such introduction has been provided in any of the previous translations.

Lopez writes that the Dalai Lama “deftly alludes to the relative obscurity of the Bardo Todol in Tibet,” and adds:

His implication is that the Bar do thos grol chen mo [another title for Bardo Todol] was not one of the best-known works of Tibetan literature in Tibet.  Indeed, even given the great advances in scholarship on, and the popularity of Tibetan Buddhism since the 1920s, it seems unlikely the Bar do thos grol chen mo would have been translated into English even once, much less five times, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, had Evans-Wentz not purchased it…in 1919.

 

Sacred texts

Lopez’s discussion of the Penguin edition comes toward the end of his book, and I’m emphasizing it here because I want to stress the point that the Bardo Todol is part of the holy literature of Tibetan Buddhism.

The texts that are well-translated and well-presented in the Penguin book (and were less well-translated and less well-presented by Evans-Wentz) are part of the religious thought of that faith.

They are sacred texts.

Nonetheless, they aren’t the core of Tibetan Buddhism.  They’re secondary texts.

It is akin, it seems to me — Lopez doesn’t say this — to trying to understand the Jewish Bible knowing only the Book of Micah, a seven-chapter text about the judgements and warnings of one of the 12 minor prophets.

Or of trying to gain an insight into the Christian New Testament knowing only the 25-verse Epistle of Jude with its railing against apostates.

In either case, the work is part of the broader faith, not the core.

 

“Timeless world spiritual classic”

Lopez mentions the obscurity of the Bardo Todol as a contrast to overblown rhetoric that Evans-Wentz and others used in promoting The Tibetan Book of the Dead as some key to the inner secrets of Tibetan Buddhism.

What’s clear to me, from reading the Lopez book, is that these texts deal with one small area of Buddhist thought and can easily be misunderstood without the sort of context that, for instance, the Dalai Lama brought to the Penguin book.

OK, so why is Lopez writing his book?

Why is his biography of The Tibetan Book of the Dead included in the Lives of Great Religious Books, that sterling series of religious, social and cultural history by Princeton University Press?

Why?

Because, over the past eight decades, The Tibetan Book of the Dead has been a crazy-wild bestseller in the West, read by millions, including Allen Ginsberg, John Coltrane, Timothy Leary, Arthur Conan Doyle and Carl Jung.  “From the time of its first incarnation in a Western language, The Tibetan Book of the Dead has taken on a life of its own as a timeless world spiritual classic,” writes Lopez.

 

“Strange story”

Yet, what readers have gotten from these English versions (except, aside from its publicity, the Penguin book) isn’t what they thought they were getting.

Again, I want to stress that the texts themselves are sacred and real.

But, starting with the Evans-Wentz publication and continuing with the many later editions of that work, the texts have been put in settings that made them look like something they weren’t.  Lopez writes:

Thus, 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.

A few pages later, Lopez writes:

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 past century, providing in each case an occasion to imagine what it might mean to be dead.

[Lopez’s] book 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….

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is not really Tibetan, it is not really a book, and it is not really about death.  It’s about rebirth: the rebirth of souls and the resurrection of texts.

Evans-Wentz’s classic is not so much Tibetan as it is American, a product of American Spiritualism.

 

“Shanghaied” — my word

What happened is that the sacred Buddhist text was shanghaied by Evans-Wentz and put to his own purposes — that its words were presented in a way to prove points that Evans-Wentz wanted to make, regardless of their true meaning.

Those are my words.  Lopez doesn’t use the word “shanghaied.” Yet, he does write:

During the last decades of British and American colonialism, the Tibetan text of the Bardo Todol became a kind of colonial commodity, the raw material exported to the city of the colonizer, where it is manufactured into a product…

 

“Any Asian text”

My reading of the Lopez book leads me to think that Evans-Wentz was well-meaning in the sense that he didn’t think he was perpetrating a fraud.  Yet, what he did was arrogant and disrespectful.  He already thought he had answers to life’s great questions.  He took the Bardo Todol to use as a vehicle to sell those answers.

Evans-Wentz gave his book the name The Tibetan Book of the Dead because there is an Egyptian Book of the Dead.  He thought they both came from the same source although he had no evidence of that.

Here’s how Lopez puts it:

It seems, then, that Evans-Wentz knew what he would find in the Tibetan text before a single word was translated for him.  It almost seems that Evans-Wentz’s spiritual vacation [during which he found the Bardo Todol] could have taken him to any Asian country and that he could have randomly chosen any Asian text, and he would have produced some version of the book published in 1927. 

 

Strange, indeed

My reading of the Lopez book is that it is a debunking of the Evans-Wentz book.

Lopez doesn’t use any word like “debunking” in his text, and neither does it appear on the book jacket.

Yet, the great accomplishment of Lopez is to show, in 157 pages, how sacred the Bardo Todol is while at the same time obscure, and detail how that sacred text was twisted and tortured by Evans-Wentz to say what he wanted the book to say.

Wisely, Lopez doesn’t speculate on those millions of readers of the various editions of the Evans-Wentz book.

How much of the popularity of the Tibetan Book of the Dead has to do with the texts themselves?  With what they actually say?  With what they actually mean?

And how much has to do with Evans-Wentz’s fuzzy-minded, wrong-headed interpretation of the texts?

To what extent are those who think they are learning about the supposed secrets of a supposedly hidden Asian faith are actually learning about the tenets of Evans-Wentz Spiritualism?

Lopez is to be congratulated for writing a book about such a complex and convoluted story — strange, indeed.

 

 

Patrick T. Reardon

7.19.18

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