Tibetan Religion and the Western Imagination:

Translations and Interpretations  of the Books of the Dead

Death in the twentieth century is at once imminent and invisible. Lulled by the false comforts of medical and technological advancement, western culture dreams that progress will domesticate once and for all death's senseless malignancy. Science has offered many solutions to life's questions, but has yet to explain, for example, the spark of new life, the mysterious workings of consciousness, or a person's fate after death. As this exhibit has hopefully demonstrated, the Tibetans possess a vibrant wealth of literature dealing with the nature of consciousness and the dying experience. For centuries Tibet has engaged in the systematic study and analysis of the human death process as a cautious and practical preparation for this inevitable event. In the past several decades, many spiritually inquisitive westerners from both Europe and the United States have turned to the wisdom of Tibet's mature religious understanding for answers to those questions that science and medicine have failed to address. In the end, there is not a single human being who is not going to die, sooner or later. It is therefore impractical, according to some opinions, not to examine the issue with the greatest concern and not to benefit from the trials and errors of ancient tradition. It is this view that has motivated many of the western studies on the Tibetan Books of the Dead, and it is in these studies that Tibet's sophisticated methods of dealing with death and dying are appropriately recognized as a skillful, compassionate, and humane response to life's certain end.
 
 
The Tibetan Book of the Dead. 
Edited by Walter Y. Evans-Wentz and translated by Kazi Dawa Samdup. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1927. First Edition. (On loan from Bryan J. Cuevas)


The Tibetan Book of the Dead. 
Edited by Walter Y. Evans-Wentz and translated by Kazi Dawa Samdup. Oxford: Oxford University Press, June 1936. Second Impression. (On loan from Bryan J. Cuevas)
The first English language translation and commentary of the most famous Tibetan death text, 'The Great Liberation upon Hearing in the Intermediate State' (Bardo Tö-dröl, bar do thos grol chen mo), appeared in 1927. Its editor, Dr. Walter Y. Evans-Wentz (1878-1965), christened the text with the title The Tibetan Book of the Dead in order to convey to the western reader the true character of the text as a whole. The actual translation into English was provided by Kazi Dawa Samdup (Kazi zla ba bsam Īgrub, 1868-1922), who had previously served as interpreter to both the British Government in Sikkim and the Tibetan Plenipotentiary in India, and had also been the teacher and translator for the first great female pioneer of Tibet, Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969) during her stay in Sikkim. After Dawa Samdup's death, over the course of several years, Evans-Wentz reworked, edited, and composed lengthy notes to the surviving translations, basing his interpretive conclusions upon material drawn less from the Tibetan Buddhist traditions (with which he was only vaguely familiar) and more from the Spiritualism of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), founder of the Theosophical Society, and from the neo-Vedantic Hindu views of his Indian guru Swami Satyananda. Consequently, Evans-Wentz's reworking of Dawa Samdup's earlier translations and his copious commentarial footnotes are truly idiosyncratic and impressionistic interpretations of the Tibetan Buddhist doctrines contained in the text. The commentaries of Evans-Wentz certainly bear the imprint of his romantic Theosophical leanings and nineteenth century intellectual prejudices. 
The Tibetan Book of the Dead. 
Edited by Walter Y. Evans-Wentz and translated by Kazi Dawa Samdup. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960. Paperback Edition.
Further contributions to Evans-Wentzās creative interpretations of the Book of the Dead were not offered again until the renowned psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung (1875-1961) psychologized the text's message in his commentary of 1938, which was published for the first time in English in the third Oxford Press edition of 1957 and subsequently prefaced to all future editions of Evans-Wentz's Tibetan Book of the Dead. Jung's insightful essay demonstrated to the wider academic population that this Tibetan text could be relevant beyond the specialized arena of Tibetology and that its content could speak to the concerns of anthropologists, philosophers, and psychologists alike. Moreover, Jung's psychological perspective generated considerable interest in non-academic circles and directly influenced the interpretations of several translations and commentaries that would follow.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo.  
Chogyam Trungpa and Francesca Fremantle. Berkeley, California: Shambhala Publications, 1975.


The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo. 
By Guru Rinpoche according to Karma-Lingpa. Translated with commentary by Francesca Fremantle and Chogyam Trungpa. Boston and London: Shambhala Pocket Classics, 1992.
Based on lectures presented at his own Buddhist institute in Vermont, the charismatic Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa (1939-1987) published his own edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1975. This edition exhibits the distinctive quality of Trungpa's peculiar blend of American counter-culture individualism and Tibetan Buddhist orthodox conservatism. His highly individualized commentary to the translation certainly owes a debt to Carl Jung. In Chögyam Trungpa's view the bardo experience is an active part of every human beingās basic psychological make-up, and thus it is best described using the concepts of modern psychoanalysis, such as ego, the unconscious mind, neurosis, paranoia, and so on. Indeed, the greatest virtue of Trungpa's text is its ability to convey the messages of the Book of the Dead in a free-flowing and comfortable style unburdened by the specialized and obscure language so often encountered in more academic works.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding in the Between.  
Robert A.F. Thurman. New York: Bantam Books, 1994.
This most recent translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead is inspired by the contemporary hospice movement in America. In this new translation, Robert Thurman, Columbia University professor and president of Tibet House in New York City, sets out to produce an even more accessible version of the popular Tibetan text for those individuals who might wish to read it at the bedside of their dying friend or relative. In this way, Thurman's Tibetan Book of the Dead is presented clearly as an "easy- to-read" guidebook for contemporary Americans. His edition is among the first to give simple practical instructions on how to make use of the Tibetan text, and includes a well-informed and extensive commentarial introduction to the essential Buddhist topics that serve as background to the ideas and practices encountered in the original work.
Il libro tibetano dei morti (Bardo Tödöl). 
Giuseppe Tucci. Milano: Bocca, 1949; reprint, Torino, 1972.


A Köztes Lét Könyvei: Tibeti Tanácsok Halandoknak és Születendöknek.  
 György Kara. Budapest: Europa Konyvkiado, 1986. (On loan from Bryan J. Cuevas)
The popularity of Evans-Wentz's edition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead was so tremendous that it went through numerous reprints and was translated from the English version into most major European languages. The text's high level of appeal also inspired several new international translations from the original Tibetan manuscripts. Among these works are included the important translation studies of Giuseppe Tucci (1894-1984) and György Kara. Perhaps as tribute to the pioneering efforts of Evans-Wentz, but certainly in keeping with long established convention, both translations carry the same title as the Evans-Wentz version, in spite of the fact that neither work translates any part of his groundbreaking English edition.
Secret Doctrines of the Tibetan Books of the Dead.  
Detlef Ingo Lauf. Germany: Aurum Verlag, 1975; English translation by Graham Parkes. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1977; reprint, 1989.
In his Secret Doctrines of the Tibetan Books of the Dead, the German Tibetologist and scholar of comparative religion Detlef Lauf helps to clarify many of the symbolic and historical complexities that had continued to elude a great number of commentators on the Tibetan Book of the Dead since the early work of Evans-Wentz. He is also the first western scholar to acknowledge explicitly the literary diversity of this popular text, demonstrating that this so-called 'Tibetan book' is in actuality a rather large collection of books, each with its own separate symbolic content and expressed religious purpose. Moreover, in addition to his insightful contributions to the literary history of the  Tibetan books, Lauf offers an intriguing and thought-provoking comparison with the religious perspectives on death and dying found in other ancient cultures, such as those of Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome.
Tibet Bon Religion: A Death Ritual of the Tibetan Bonpos.  
Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1985.
Recent developments in Tibetan Bon-po studies have profitted immensely from the pioneering work of Per Kvaerne, Professor of the History of Religions and Tibetology at the University of Oslo. In his Tibet Bon Religion: A Death Ritual of the Tibetan Bonpos, Kvaerne provides a detailed description of a Bon-po death ritual as it was performed in India in 1981, focusing specifically on the structure and purpose of the ritual of the illustration cards or jangbu (see Section 3 above). Kvaerne's analysis of the jangbu ritual, in which a drawing of the deceased is used by the officiating lama to guide him or her toward an auspicious destiny, reveals the close relationship between ancient and modern Tibetan perspectives on death, dying, and the dead. This study also introduces the main features and doctrines of Bon as background to the rituals described and includes numerous illustrations and photographs published here for the first time.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.  
Sogyal Rinpoche. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992. (On loan from Bryan J. Cuevas)
In this best-selling work, the internationally renowned meditation master Sogyal Rinpoche combines the wisdom of the most revered spiritual traditions of Tibet with the modern insights of medical science regarding death and the nature of consciousness to create an inspiring and practical self-help guide for all who wish to enhance their spiritual growth. In the words of Sogyal Rinpoche himself, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was written in the hope that it might "inspire a quiet revolution in the whole way we look at death and care for the dying, and the whole way we look at life and care for the living."  With this compassionate goal in mind, Rinpoche offers his own practical perspectives on such traditional Tibetan religious topics as the workings of karma and rebirth, the practices for dying, and the transitional bardos between lives. In addition, he discusses the universal similarities between near-death experiences, especially those reported by Tibetans, Europeans, and Americans, and gives advice on how to care spiritually for the dying.
The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  
Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert. Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1964; second paperback printing, 1983. (On loan from Bryan J. Cuevas)
Beginning with the private experiments of a small group of intellectuals and spreading quickly to America's disenchanted youth, the 1960's psychedelic revolution unleashed for a brief second in history the flash and fury of the unconscious mind upon a repressed and unsuspecting society. More often than not the dazzling and multi-colored archetypes that sprang forth came in the exotic guise of the gods and demons of India and Tibet. Mystical experience and the spiritual quest became synomous with drug-induced altered states of consciousness and the search for the ultimate 'high.'  The message of the day: "tune in, turn on, drop out."  Following a commonly held belief that many of Asia's revered scriptures could be utilized most effectively in the west by replacing their sacred images with western ones, former Harvard psychology professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), enthusiasts of the new counter-culture, took the Tibetan Book of the Dead and presented it as a guidebook for the LSD experience, complete with descriptions of the psychedelic psychodrama of ego-death, involving a 'trip' through a kaleidoscopic limbo (bardo) and a sobering return (rebirth) to the everyday world. Instructions were laid out to mirror the instructions of the lama, whose job it was to gently guide the deceased through his or her own psychic world--a flash of memories and visionary impressions of a life once lived. The Psychedelic Experience did little to clarify traditional Tibetan interpretations of the Book of the Dead, but did succeed in generating a perennial fascination for this and other related Tibetan texts among the rising generation of young American truth-seekers and future scholars.
The Original American Book of the Dead.  
E.J. Gold. Nevada City, California: Gateways/IDHHB Publishers, 1974; Revised edition, 1990. On loan from Gregory A. Hillis.
This volume is another illustration of the hybrid genre of 'Death Manual' inspired by the counter-culture's encounter with Tibetan lamas in Berkeley and environs during the late 1960's and early 1970's. Here we find a light- hearted but ultimately serious guidebook for those who seek to navigate the labyrinth of existence, whether or not, as Gold puts it, they are "attached to a biological machine." The book closely follows the Tibetan model for such manuals, and represents the author's attempt to translate the Tibetan lamas' knowledge of death technologies into an American cultural idiom. This he achieves through employing quotations from Groucho Marx, and distinctly American versions of universal archetypes such as game-show hosts, military drill-instructors, television, funhouses, and strip-poker. In addition, Gold includes order forms for books, tapes, and other curiosities from his "Bardo Shopping Network" mail-order service. Despite its irreverent tone, The American Book of the Dead served as a precursor to the "Post-Death-Experience" (PDE) literature currently popular in New Age bookstores.
Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.  
New York: Buddhist Ray, Inc. Vol. VI, number 1, Fall, 1996. On loan from Gregory A. Hillis.
Many of the hippies and spiritual seekers from the 1960s and 1970s whose introduction to Tibetan Buddhism had been connected with drugs and other psychedelic experiences went on to formally convert to the Buddhist religion, sometimes establishing spiritual communities, etc. Initially, the majority of rites and daily practices in such communities were little more than elaborate pantomimes of Tibetan rituals. As time went on, however, many felt an increasing need to translate these practices into a contemporary Western context, as well as develop a forum for discussion of specifically Western responses to classical Buddhist issues. Magazines such as Tricycle and others arose in the 1980s to fill this growing need. This recent issue of Tricycle is devoted to the topic of the relationship of psychedelic drugs to the development of American Buddhism. The cover is a hallucinatory rendering of a traditional Tibetan thangka, depicting the vivid and intense, but paradoxical and sometimes ambiguous nature of an American Buddhist's experience.


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