Donald S. Lopez, Jr.


On his book The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography

Cover Interview of May 10, 2011

In a nutshell

Princeton University Press has started a new series entitled “Lives of Great Religious Books,” and my book is one of the three inaugural volumes.

The idea behind the series is that books have lives, that in addition to the particular time and place of their composition, they also move through time and across space, where they meet unexpected fates and fortunes.  Scholars call this the “reception history” of a text.

Princeton has chosen some of the most famous religious texts from around the world and asked a scholar to recount the life of that book for a general audience.  I was asked to write about The Tibetan Book of the Dead, certainly the most famous Tibetan work in the world and perhaps the world’s most famous Buddhist text.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead has had a rather strange life.  Despite its great fame, it is not famous in Tibet.

In 1919, an American named Walter Evans-Wentz, who was traveling in India at the time, purchased a set of Tibetan mortuary texts from a British Army major who had recently returned from Tibet.  Evans-Wentz could not read Tibetan so he took them to the English teacher at the local boarding school for boys, who translated a selection of the texts.  Evans-Wentz then provided his own preface, introduction, notes, and appendices (which together outweigh the translation itself) and called it The Tibetan Book of the Dead.  It was published by Oxford University Press in 1927 and has gone on to sell over a half million copies.

Evans-Wentz was a Theosophist, and in the book I discuss how he read the translation through a particular lens of American spiritualism, one that obscured, and in some cases misrepresented, the meaning of the Tibetan text.

I then go on to talk about the book’s remarkable persistence and its place in a kind of New Age canon that developed in the 1960s and that continues to the present day. The Tibetan Book of the Dead was important to Timothy Leary, for example, inspiring his own book The Psychedelic Experience.