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What is The Tibetan Book of the Dead? Who is Walter Evans-Wentz? Or even Madame Blavatsky? Is there any connection between Mormonism and Buddhism, between Joseph Smith and Evans-Wentz, between 19th century American Revivalism and Spiritualism and Tibetan Buddhism? These questions would not have puzzled the American general public in the 1960s, nor would they intimidate today's Buddhist expert and theosophical afficionados. However, for those who do not fit into such categories, and that means most of us, Donald Lopez's book is a most welcome arrival.
Donald S. Lopez, Jr. is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor and Department Chair in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. He specializes in late Indian Mahayana Buddhism and in Tibetan Buddhism and commands classical and colloquial Tibetan. His numerous books include A Study of Svatantrika (Snow Lion Press, 1987); The Heart Sutra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries (SUNY Press, 1988) Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of Heart Sutra (Princeton University Press, 1996); Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (The University of Chicago Press, 1998); The Story of Buddhism (Harper One, 2001); The Madman's Middle Way: Reflections on Reality of the Tibetan Monk Gendun Chopel (The University of Chicago Press, 2005); Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed (The University of Chicago Press, 2008). He is general editor for the Princeton Readings in Religion series and his edited works include Buddhist Hermeneutics; Buddhism in Practice, Religions of Tibet in Practice, Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism, Buddhist Scriptures, Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism, as well as a number of books by the Dalai Lama. He also wrote a New Foreword and Afterword to the fifth edition of Evans-Wentz's The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Oxford University Press, 2000)
The American radical theologian of the death of God, Thomas Altizer, enthusiastically welcomes the argument constructed by the "distinguished Buddhologist" Donald Lopez that Evans-Wentz’s The Tibetan Book of the Dead is not "a product of Tibet but rather of modern Theosophy, being the creation of the Victorian Theosophist, Walter Evans-Wentz." Altizer continues, "Lopez associates this book with the Book of Mormon in its creation of Scripture and places it within the American millenarian tradition, thereby unveiling yet another esoteric identity of America." (unpublished letter, of July 1, 2011, used with permission).
Donald Lopez designs The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography as an elaboration of his paradoxical reversal of our expectations: the "work by Evans-Wentz entitled The Tibetan Book of the Dead is not really Tibetan, it is not really a book, and it is not really about death. It is 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 . . . [and] a remarkable case of what can happen when American Spiritualism goes abroad." In contrast to the stilted style of scholarly works of similar high expertise, Lopez's book is closer to a picaresque novel and to a roman a cle in which the narrator follows the protagonist through wildly unexpected adventures and in which there occurs a surprising denouement.
In the introduction The Tibetan Book of the Dead published for the first time in 1927 is introduced as the fruit of the collaboration between Walter Evans-Wentz, an American editor and spiritual seeker enthusiast, and Kazi Dawa Sandup, a Tibetan English teacher and translator. The text had been selected by Evans-Wentz from a set of Tibetan texts used in funeral ritual purchased in Darjeeling from Major Campbell who had bought it in Tibet. The text was considered a terma-text (treasure-text), buried prophetically by Padmasambhava in the 8th century, discovered by Karma Lingpa in the 14th century, rediscovered by Evans-Wentz in 1927 who, Lopez emphasizes, buried it one more time under layers of prefaces, introductions, forewords, and annotations, to be unearthed by readers in the West in its five editions or "incarnations" of the 20th and 21st centuries (1927, 1949, 1957, 1960, 2000). Lopez explains its appeal by our "enduring fascination" with Tibet and death that peaked several times last century, especially during and between the two world wars and the 1960s. Until the Chinese invasion and Tibetan emigration, there lingered a fascination with an idealized view of Tibet as a land of ancient wisdom unpolluted by and inaccessible to the West. While the anxiety about death and the "future of living," naturally enhanced during turbulent times, created a deeper receptivity for a book that details the postmortem state which turned into fascination during the revival in the 1920s of 19th century American Spiritualism as well as the Acid explorations and New Age enthusiasm of the 1960s. Lopez reminds us that The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead published in 1964 by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, Richard Alpert (subsequently Baba Ram Das), the 1966 Beatles's album Revolver in which "Tomorrow Never Knows" opens with the lines "Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream," John Coltrane's 1966 recording OM in which Coltrane and Pharaoh Saunders read aloud from The Tibetan Book of the Dead are all products of explorations of after-death experiences under the guidance of the rediscovered terma-text. Also witnessing to this phenomenon are the Living/Dying Project in San Francisco founded in 1975, and more recently, Adrian Lyne's 1990 film Jacob's Ladder, the audio version read by Richard Gere, a video dramatization narrated by Leonard Cohen, a reading aloud version adapted by Jean-Claude van Italie, a Thomas Scoville's comic book version, the 2007 Discovery Channel documentary, part of Decoding the Past series. After this tour de force cataloguing some of the cultural products inspired by the Tibetan classic, Lopez promises to entertain the reader with the "strange story of The Tibetan Book of the Dead" which "involves a journey to strange lands with ancient masters, secret teachings, and buried texts" and delights warning that this exotic journey "begins in America."
The first chapter or rather act, "America," sets the stage for this "strange story" in the "unexotic areas of New York, New Jersey, and Vermont." Lopez builds up the tension of his argument in this original scholarly narrative by bringing up 19th century American figures that one would not commonly connect with The Tibetan Book of the Dead, but that would prove seminal in understanding its genesis as well as would support Lopez's theory of religion. The story begins with Joseph Smith, his visitation by angel Moroni, his discovery of the inscribed plates, transcription and translation, events that culminate with the registering of the Book of Mormons in 1838. The next figure is James Strang who declared himself Joseph Smith's successor, had his own revelations, and discovery of a sacred text, and who found the Church of Latter Day Saints in 1845. The Fox sisters follow with the story of their claimed communication with the dead. A significant moment in the 19th American Spiritualism occurs with the founding of the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875 by Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky or Madame Blavatsky, the Russian emigre and medium. Lopez presents the main founders of the society, its claims, and goals. They will be relevant for Evans-Wentz's make-up. Henry Olcott, Madame Blavatsky, her successor, Annie Besant, A. P. Sinnett, and, for a while, Krishnamurti maintained that theosophy was an "ancient wisdom that was the root and foundation of the mystical traditions of the world . . . dispensed over millennia by a group of Atlantean masters called mahatmas or great souls." While not Tibetan, these mahatmas have congregated in a secret location in Tibet in the modern age to "escape the increasing levels magnetism elsewhere in the world." The mahatmas, especially Koot Hoomi and Morya, under whose tutelage Madame Blavatsky claimed to have studied in Tibet remained in psychic communication with her and the other leading theosophists. Under the masters' inspiration, the goals of the society were designed as the "formation of a universal brotherhood without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color; the encouragement of studies in comparative religion, philosophy, and science; and the investigation of unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man."
Lopez has set the stage for introducing Evans-Wentz, the creator of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in the form that we know it. Walter Yeeling Wentz (1878-1965), born in Trenton, New Jersey, to parents who while members of the Baptist Church turned to freethinking and spiritualism. At a very young age, Wentz, too, manifested interest in spiritualism and became familiar with the theosophical ideas in his adolescence when he read Madame Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. He joined the American section of the Theosophical Society and in 1903 received a diploma from the Raja Yoga School and Theosophical University. While studying at Stanford toward his MA in English, he met Yeats, himself a member of the Theosophical Society, and William James as visiting lecturers. He received a B.S. in Anthropology at Oxford University and his doctorate at the University of Rennes. Under Yeats's influence he moved to Europe to study Celtic folklore and in 1911 published The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. This first study already bears the marks of his mature work. Lopez emphasizes his focus on the doctrine of rebirth which he considers a form of "spiritual Darwinianism" or "esoteric theory of evolution," as well as his prediction that science will evolve to endorse the scientific nature of the doctrine of rebirth--two themes that will reemerge in his Buddhist Tibetan works of maturity. Wentz added his mother's name, Evans, to his own and from then on has been known as Evans-Wentz.
At the end of the first chapter, while the connection between the Theosophical Society and Evans-Wentz is clear, one questions the relevance of Joseph Smith to Evans-Wentz and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. A brilliant scholar of Buddhism, Lopez is also an ingenious raconteur and creator of suspense: this question will be answered only in the concluding chapter.
Chapter two, "India," introduces the Indian Buddhist view of death and rebirth as a constant in the history and geography of Buddhism. Classical Buddhism, Lopez explains, presents a moral universe in which beings wander ("samsara" is literally translated by "wandering") through the six realms of gods, demigods, humans, animals, ghosts, and hell beings fueled by karma, with no beginning and no end, except for those who enter Nirvana, the state of freedom from birth and death. The realm of rebirth is not determined by the cumulative effect of past actions but rather by a "complete action" fulfilled in one of the past lives. Since the choice of the complete action, thus the place of rebirth, depends on the state of mind at the moment of death, practical instructions on how to prepare for death and how to undergo the process of death acquired utmost importance. But what is death? Indian Buddhist theories of death are based on the Indian Buddhist system of human physiology which was transmitted to Tibet. According to it, the death process is a graded withdrawal of the winds (in Sanskrit, prana) from the 72 channels and their gathering in the central channel. The process involves eight dissolutions undergone through the following experiences: mirage, thick smoke, fireflies, sputtering butter lamp, radiant whiteness, radiant redness, radiant blackness, clear light mind. While in early Buddhism rebirth was envisioned as immediate, Tibetan and East Asian Buddhism introduced the notion of bardo (in-between, intermediate) an interval of 7 to 47 days between death and rebirth, and bardo being (subtle body, fully formed, that assumes the body of the next life, and undergoes visions of light and darkness. The goal of Buddhist practice suffered a progressive shift from the early Buddhist concept of Nirvana as cessation of consciousness, to Mahayana Nirvana as purification of consciousness or immortality and omniscience of Buddhahood, to Tantric Buddhist Nirvana for which the doctrine of bardo became paramount. For Tantric Buddhism, Lopez argues, bardo is not a "limbo to be entered because of past and future lives," but an "opportunity for the vital transformation of consciousness that results in Buddhahood." Naropa, the 11th century Bengali scholar and yogi, develops the "most advanced theory" of Tantric Buddhist practice, subsequently transmitted to Tibet. For Naropa's Buddhist Tantra, Lopez argues, the stages of death are not a "mechanical process driven by karma," but a 'rare opportunity for achieving Buddhahood here and now."
In the chapter on Tibet Lopez introduces Tibetan Buddhism, the main source of Evans-Wentz's creation and the figure of Padmasambhava, the legendary originator of terma (treasure text) during the "early spreading of the dharma" in the 8th century. Trisong Dentsen, the 38th king of Tibet, invited Padmasambhava, the famous Indian Tantric master, to further the conversion of Tibetans to Buddhism. Padmasambhava dictated thousands of texts in coded script, legend has it, and hid them all over Tibet to await for more propitious times to be revealed. He prophesied a detailed program of progressive discovery and revelation of the terma that included the identifying marks of the treasure-revealer. Lopez remarks ironically that the prophecy "uncannily came true." In the 11th century, in contrast to the other Buddhist sects that established their authoritative texts in India, a fact that implied intense travels and exchange, the Ancient Sect began to discover its terma conveniently "concealed in the Tibetan landscape" itself. Instructions on death, bardo, and rebirth belonged to the genre of terma and soon proliferated in all sects. Padmasambhava's prophecy began to be fulfilled when Karma Lingpa, a treasure revealer, made the discovery of the main text of Bardo Todol. The transmission of the terma was accomplished through generations of lineage holders: Padmasambhava to Karma Lingpa, to his son, to Nyida Ozer, to monk Gyarawa, in the 15th century, who organized the material into a coherent ritual system, to Rigzin Nyima Drakpa, in the 17th century, who edited the transmission into a sequence of 17 chapters organized around three bardos and the corresponding experiences, of clear light, mandala visualizations, and rebirth. At the end of the 18th century Drakpa's edition of Bardo Todol was printed: it thus became one of the varieties of liturgies available for local lamas' use at funerals. In 1919 Major W. L. Campbell bought a set of block prints of Tibetan mortuary texts, brought them to India, and sold it to Evans-Wentz.
Now that all threads, except one, have converged toward the moment of Evens-Wentz and his creation of the classic The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Lopez devotes the main chapter "The World" to a presentation of all the elements contributing to the production of the book, Evans-Wentz, the American editor and Kazi Dawa Sandup, the Tibetan translator, their brief encounters and formal correspondence, as well as Wentz's claim of discipleship, unsupported by evidence. Lopez's discussion of the front matter of subsequent editions authored by Evans-Wentz, Sir John Woodroffe (pseudonym Arthur Avalon), Carl Gustav Jung, Lama Govinda (Ernst Lothar Hoffman) is edifying, and so is the presentation of Evans-Wentz's introduction to the first edition. In these first editions (1927, 1948, 1955, 1960) the Tibetan text was dwarfed by non-Tibetan commentaries signed by Western enthusiasts playing out their own biases and trying out their pet theories.
In the preface to the first edition Evans-Wentz's commitment to theosophy is manifest. He introduces himself as the "mouthpiece of a Tibetan sage" and as a disciple of a lama, while we know by now that both claims are false. Wentz's preface to the second edition emphasizes the theosophist theme of the loss of a pre-Christian and pre-Buddhist art of dying in the West and his belief in the catalyzing role of Bardo Todol to revive the "inner light of wisdom"; while in the preface to the third edition he anticipates the time when Western science will come to endorse the insights of the East, the existence of rebirth in particular--another theme dear to theosophy already present in his first publication.
Lopez devotes fifteen pages to Evans-Wentz's introduction to the first edition. This attention is due to the theme of authority developed by Evans-Wentz that is at the center of Lopez's entire argument. Lopez maintains that Evans-Wentz constructs a dual source of authority. First he locates authority not in himself but in the Tibetan translator and Tibetan lamas while invoking the power of lineage from guru to disciple reaching back to Padmasambhava, a second Buddha, origin of terma as sacred text, and initiator of transmission. Second, Wentz claims the authority of the scholar and anthropologist, thus bringing together in support of his interpretation of the text the authority of Eastern esoteric religion and of Western science. Evans-Wentz argues for the similarity between the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Tibetan text, which justifies his choice of the title. Once authority established, the main points proposed by Evans-Wentz regard symbolism--a secret international code common to initiates which allow deviations from the text--and the esoteric doctrine of rebirth, Wentz's "most creative contribution" according to Lopez, which departs from classical Buddhist doctrine. The esoteric doctrine of rebirth supported by both Madame Blavatsky and Evans-Wentz brings together Darwinian evolutionism and spiritualism. Contrary to classical Buddhism that maintains the possibility of rebirth as both ascent to higher levels and descent to inferior ones, theosophy insists on gradual progression. Evans-Wentz concludes with the theosophical notion of a fundamental similarity between Orient and Occident, ultimately, declaring the oneness of mankind.
Finally, Lopez adduces the Tibetan text itself. The translation includes seven chapters from the Bardo Todol cycle organized by Evans-Wentz in two Books (I and II) and an Appendix. Book I comprises the bardo of death and the bardo of reality. The bardo of death is defined by the experience of clear light consciousness, whose recognition as the fundamental form of consciousness and wisdom liberates from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The bardo of reality is the intermediate state in which visions of peaceful and wrathful deities, of bright light of heavens and dull light of hell realms, respectively, occur over 14 days. Bardo visions, Lopez notes, constitute the most famous part of Bardo Todol. Liberation from samsaric cycle may take place during this stage on condition the deceased recognizes the visions as creations of one's own unenlightened mind. If one fails, one is still instructed to follow the bright light and avoid the dull since rebirth depends on the state of mind in the bardo of experience or rebirth which is the content of Book II. The Appendix contains four prayers to be read by the living to the deceased.
Lopez advances his critique of Evans-Wentz's selection of texts, product, and theoretical bias. The irony, Lopez argues, is that Wentz selected the wrong texts--"meditation manual for tantric practitioners and not mortuary instructions for ordinary dead"--and dwarfed the translation with commentary. More significantly still, Evans-Wentz's commentary of the traditional terma is grounded in what Lopez calls his "Ur-text," namely, theosophy.
An informative review of five new translations follows. The 1960s fascination with death--as witnesses the passionate interest in the works on death and reincarnation of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Raymond Moody--was responsible for the renewed interest in Bardo Todol, and the flurry of new editions and translations. Lopez mentions the translation of the same text by Francesca Fremantle and Chogyam Trumgpa with a depth psychology emphasis; Lama Sogyal Rimpoche's translation marked by cosmopolitan eclecticism (1992); Robert Thurman's translation that includes three more chapters (1994); Stephen Hodge and Martin Boord's illustrated translation (2000); the Dalai Lama's "complete translation" of 2005 which, Lopez estimates, is superior to all previous ones: it is double the size of Evans-Wentz's, unbiased, and provides the essential background for understanding the Tibetan text.
Lopez concludes this substantial and dense chapter by inviting us to view the Tibetan text as a "colonial commodity, the raw material exported to the city of the colonizer, where it is manufactured into a product, that is then sold back to the colonizer at a high price."
The Conclusion is an occasion for a theoretical reflection on the genesis and destiny of religious traditions, thus on authority and the conditions for the possibility of transformation of a book into scripture, ordinary text into authoritative or sacred text. Lopez reflects that Hinduism, Buddhism, both Theravada and Mahayana, as well as Mormonism or Theosophy have tried to establish themselves by establishing a source of unquestioned truth and absolute authority. Lopez argues that religions require deep truth and distant origins in time and space because it is this distance from us that confers authority and changes a book into scripture. The "fate of texts, he writes, is not determined by content, but by the degree of remove from the light of history." Joseph Smith, James Strang, Margaret Fox, Madame Blavatsky presented elements of great religions too, but they were not sufficiently distant in time and space. Familiarity kills both authority and the sacred.
What is the connection between Joseph Smith's angelic visitation and textual revelation and Evans-Wentz's Tibetan Book of the Dead? Lopez does not claim a direct line between Smith, Fox, Blavatsky, and Evans-Wentz. Given the presence in both of the characteristic marks of classical religions, how can the difference in their fate be explained? Lopez identifies the answer in the failure or success of establishing authority. While Smith, Fox, Blavatsky have claimed authority from themselves, Evans-Wentz derived authority for his eccentric interpretation from another, the Tibetan translator, and, by fabricating a lineage of transmission (Evans-Wentz, Kazi Dawa Sandup, Karma Lingpa), from Padmasambhava himself. Lopez maintains that Evans-Wentz's "crime" was to pretend a false origin of the text and in fact to have consistently projected into the Tibetan text the tenets of Theosophy. The real line of transmission was rather Evans-Wentz, Blavatsky, Olcott, Fox. Evans-Wentz thus "gave American Metaphysical Religion a Tibetan pedigree." Ultimately, though, Lopez admits, Tibetans as well as Americans fabricate lineage, both "Tibet and America are places of prophecy and fulfillment."
© 2011 Alina N. Feld
Alina N. Feld (Ph.D., Boston University) teaches religious studies, ethics, and Western and Eastern philosophy at Dowling College and Hofstra University in New York. Her core interest has been philosophical investigation of the meaning of being human and related questions of moral responsibility, with special attention to issues of transcendence and fallibility. Her scholarly work has been cross-cultural and interdisciplinary, attempting to mediate between different philosophical and spiritual traditions, and between theological and cultural dimensions of modernity.