Donald S. Lopez, Jr.


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

Cover Interview of May 10, 2011

The wide angle

As someone who went to college in the 1970s and was interested in “Eastern Philosophy” as it used to be called, I read The Tibetan Book of the Dead and assumed it was a classic Tibetan text.  When I became a student of Tibetan Buddhism, I learned something about the Tibetan works upon which it is based and noticed the significant discrepancy between those works in Tibetan and how they are represented by Evans-Wentz.

I explored this topic in an earlier book on the Western fascination with Tibet, published in 1998, Prisoners of Shangri-La.  For the present Princeton volume, I wanted to return to the story in more detail—not in order to debunk what Evans-Wentz did, which is easy enough to do, but to look at the book from another angle.

I wanted to try to understand The Tibetan Book of the Dead not so much as an odd appropriation of a Tibetan text, which it certainly is, but rather as an important work in the history of American spiritualism.

We tend to forget how important the practice of spiritualism, in which one contacts the spirits of the dead, once was in America, especially after the great loss of life in two great wars, the Civil War and the First World War.

Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society, was a medium herself.  She believed that the mystical traditions of all the world’s religions originated from a single root, which she called Theosophy, the “knowledge of God.”  These traditions were disseminated throughout history by enlightened masters called mahatmas or “great souls,” who in recent centuries had congregated in Tibet.  This, along with the fact that the books dealt with the fate of departed souls, was likely one reason for Evans-Wentz’s interest in the Tibetan texts he purchased.

Much of my book is devoted to the Tibetan texts themselves, their own fascinating history, and the Buddhist teachings they contain concerning death, the “intermediate state” between death and rebirth, and the process of rebirth itself.

In Tibetan Buddhism, this intermediate state can last from one instant to forty-nine days, and it is considered a time of both great opportunity and great danger.  The Tibetan texts provide advice on how to navigate it in order to transform rebirth into enlightenment.

Beyond that, however, my book takes up the question of what happens when religious texts move across time and across cultures.  In particular, I explore how religious texts gain authority, how they become canonical, how they become somehow sacred.

In the case of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Evans-Wentz made use of both the apparent antiquity of the Tibetan texts as well as the magic and mystery surrounding Tibet in order to invest his own Theosophical views with a certain antiquity and with the exoticism of Tibet, despite the fact that those views are not present in the original texts.  But rather than see this as a case of fraud, it is more important, and more useful, to see it as a case study, with lessons that might be applied to any work that is deemed sacred by a particular tradition.