In 2005 a journalist telephoned the eminent scholar of Buddhism and Tibetan Studies, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., and asked him whether “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” was the most important work in Tibetan Buddhism.
“No,” Lopez replied.
“Do all Tibetans own a copy?”
“Have all Tibetans read it?”
The journalist makes a final attempt:
“Have all Tibetans heard of it?”
Lopez: “Probably not.”
The problem, as Lopez says he would have explained if the reporter had stayed on the line, is that “the work by Walter Evans-Wentz titled ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’ is not really Tibetan, is not really a book, and it is not really about death.”
Lopez’s nuanced view of the work he is to interrogate in “The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography” ensures that his book will be a more interesting work than the reverent exegesis we would have to put up with from a writer who accepts uncritically not just that the text in question is holy, but also that its existence as a discrete entity is beyond question.
We are almost prepared, therefore, when, having concluded his introduction, Lopez takes us not to the gates of Lhasa, but instead to 19th-century New England where we find that all-American holy man, Joseph Smith, in conversation with the angel Moroni.
To make a long and amusing story short, Smith receives from the angel a sacred text “inscribed on plates of ore,” along with a pair of the special spectacles he’ll need to decipher them.
Lopez is the most artful of writers; there is no flab in this short book. Hidden texts and American spirituality, we come to see, are central to the story he tells about the life of Evans-Wentz’s “Tibetan Book of the Dead.”
Like the plates of ore on which “The Book of Mormon” was, according to Smith, inscribed, the texts from which Evans-Wentz made his “Tibetan Book of the Dead” had been purposefully concealed until those who were destined to reveal them emerged. They were, as Lopez puts it, “time-release revelations.”
Evans-Wentz, “a great collector of texts in languages he never learned to read,” was not the finder of the time-release revelations that became his signature work — he never visited Tibet — but they made their way to him and, with help from “the English teacher of the Maharaja’s Boarding School for Boys in Gangok,” a Tibetan called Kazi Dawa-Samdup, he read them not through the eyes of one steeped in and respectful of Tibetan religion and culture, but through the eyes of one formed by the arcana of the Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society.
Among the wisdom that Evans-Wentz imbibed during his time as a Theosophist is the notion that “Atlantean masters called mahatmas or great souls … had congregated in a secret location in Tibet,” a place which, in the words of one of Blavatsky’s disciples “is quite unknown to and unapproachable by any but initiated persons.”
As silly as this may sound, it is also familiar: The notion that Tibet is as remote, as magical, and as mystical as Middle Earth is still with us, and surely accounts in part for the continuing popularity of Evans-Wentz’s book, and also of the Tibetan Buddhism with which, Lopez convinces us, the book has only the most tenuous connection.
Indeed, as crude a measure as page-count provides evidence that Evans-Wentz’s book is about something other than the Tibetan text that is, ostensibly, at its core.
“In The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” Lopez writes, “the various prefaces, commentaries, forewords, introductions and addenda together constitute slightly less than twice the size of the translation of the Tibetan text. But even this is misleading, since within the translation, Evans-Wentz’s notes often take up at least half the page, in some cases up to 80 percent.”
Why is all this textual apparatus necessary?
Just as Madame Blavatsky had to translate the texts she received from mahatmas in Tibet (they were written in the secret Senzar language), so it was necessary for Evans-Wentz to interpret his Tibetan texts in ways that would make them congruent with his theosophical beliefs.
“It almost seems,” Lopez writes, “that Evans-Wentz … could have randomly chosen any Asian text, and he would have produced some version of the book he published in 1927.”
What makes Lopez’s biography of Evans-Wentz’s book not only amusing (as it unfailingly is) but enlightening is that one suspects he too could have “chosen any Asian text” that had been ripped from its context and composed a similar story of how meanings, willy-nilly, had attached themselves to it.
Having read Lopez’s book, we will look afresh at the volumes of unmoored wisdom so many in the West have taken to heart.