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The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Learn More in these related Britannica articles:. This book describes in detail the frightening apparitions the deceased encounters day after day while in the day interval between death and rebirth, and its reading is analogous to…. It is based mainly on the rigorous intellectual disciplines of Madhyamika and Yogachara philosophy and utilizes the Tantric ritual practices that developed in Central Asia and particularly in…. History at your fingertips. Sign up here to see what happened On This Day , every day in your inbox!
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Notice. 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. It argues that the persistence of its popularity derives from three factors…The first is the human obsession with death.
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The second is the Western romance of Tibet. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is not really Tibetan, it is not really a book, and it is not really about death. 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. 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….
How did this Tibetan guide to dying sell three million copies?
Yet, what he did was arrogant and disrespectful. He took the Bardo Todol to use as a vehicle to sell those answers.
He thought they both came from the same source although he had no evidence of that. It seems, then, that Evans-Wentz knew what he would find in the Tibetan text before a single word was translated for him.
Yet, the great accomplishment of Lopez is to show, in 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. 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? The translation became a code to be broken, using the cipher of another text that is somehow more authentic. It almost seems that Evans-Wentz spiritual vacation 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 Lopez provides a very good introduction into the history of Buddhism, and specifically its concepts of death, rebirth, and enlightenment.
He also provides a good overview of the transmission of specifically Buddhist texts and doctrine -- noting that the Buddha's own words were first recorded centuries after his death, and that oral transmission has long been more valued in Buddhism. He also gives an overview of the spread of Buddhism in Tibet -- all issues that are also significant in how The Tibetan Book of the Dead came about.
Lopez also compares The Tibetan Book of the Dead to similar 'found' religious books, most famously the nutty story of Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon , suggesting what circumstances factor in determining the success or failure of such 'texts'. Equally fascinating about the original The Tibetan Book of the Dead is, of course, what people read into it, from those who provided commentary to be published with the book -- among them Carl Jung -- to later readers, and Lopez makes some interesting observations about this as well though this is one area of his commentary that could have been expanded.
American spiritualism certainly had a strong influence on Evans-Wentz in shaping and presenting the text, while the ever-popular public preoccupation with mortality helped it to great success.