Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

 

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

Cover Interview of May 11, 2011

A close-up

In Tibet, there is a genre of books called terma, which means “treasure” in Tibetan.  According to Tibetan Buddhist belief, in the eighth century, a great Indian master named Padmasambhava came to Tibet to help establish Buddhism there.  His stay was short and there was much for the Tibetans to learn.  He therefore wrote hundreds of works and buried them all over Tibet—in mountains, in pillars, at the bottom of lakes—so that they could be discovered at the appropriate moment in the future.  He also made prophecies about when, and by whom, they would be found.

The Tibetan texts that Evans-Wentz purchased belong to that genre of “treasures” and were unearthed in the fourteenth century.  Scholars of Tibetan Buddhism, and some Tibetan Buddhists themselves, regard these works as spurious, as latter day compositions that are then buried by their author to be immediately unearthed, gaining legitimacy from the claim that they were written by Padmasambhava centuries earlier.

In conjunction with telling this story, I also tell the story of another famous case of buried texts: Joseph Smith’s discovery in 1823 of engraved plates unearthed from a hill in upstate New York.  Smith would later translate these plates into The Book of Mormon.  As unlikely as it might seem, there are a number of interesting parallels between The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Book of Mormon.