Powell’s Books speaks with Donald S. Lopez, Jr. about the Tibetan Book of the Dead

Chris Faatz works in the religion section of Powells Books in Portland, Oregon. He contacted us a while back about a Q&A with Donald S. Lopez, Jr. about the surprising origins of The Tibetan Book of the Dead among other things. Pasted below is but one of many questions, so click over to read the complete interview on their site.

Faatz: There’s no other word for it: Your book is fascinating. It concerns the classic Tibetan — or perhaps I should say Tibetan-English — translation of all time, Evans-Wentz’s 1927 publication The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Your book demonstrates that Evans-Wentz’s text is mostly a fabrication of a fertile mind, and that it in fact does not even exist in Tibetan. Can you briefly tell this story?

Lopez: Walter Evans-Wentz, an American Theosophist from New Jersey, was on a kind of spiritual vacation in Asia in 1919, spending most of his time studying yoga with Hindu teachers. He traveled to Darjeeling in northern India (the source of Darjeeling tea), an area with a strong Tibetan presence; the name Darjeeling is Tibetan, meaning “Land of the Thunderbolt.” There he bought a Tibetan text from a British army officer. Evans-Wentz could not read Tibetan, so he took it to the English teacher at a local school who was a Tibetan Buddhist.

The work was called the Bardo Todol in Tibetan, which means, “Liberation in the Intermediate State through Hearing.” It was a large collection of mortuary and meditation texts centered around the idea of the bardo, or intermediate state, the period between death and rebirth, which can last from one instant to 49 days. The “hearing” in the title refers to the fact that such texts were sometimes read to a corpse so that the departed consciousness could hear the teachings and be liberated before taking rebirth again.

Evans-Wentz had only part of the text translated. He then gave it a new name based on his interest in the Egyptian Book of the Dead and surrounded it with all manner of prefaces, footnotes, and appendices. So, the selected chapters that were translated do exist in Tibetan, but Evans-Wentz presents them in ways that are quite alien to, and sometimes directly at odds with, the way those chapters were understood in Tibet.