Kazi Dawa Samdup and Walter Evans-Wentz

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography is part of a new series from Princeton University Press called “Lives of Great Religious Books.” The volumes in the series describe the origins and legacies of some of the most famous religious works from around the world. I was invited to write about The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It is a particularly apt work for the series, because in addition to its great fame, it raises a number of questions about how religious books come to life, how they gain—or claim—canonical status, and how they die and are reborn, often at unexpected times and places.

The above photograph, taken in Gangtok, the capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim in 1919, shows the two men who created The Tibetan Book of the Dead. On the left stands Kazi Dawa Samdup (1868-1922), a Sikkimese of Tibetan descent. He would serve as translator. On the right stands Walter Evans-Wentz (1878-1965), an American from Trenton, New Jersey. He would serve as editor of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

There is something slightly misleading about the photograph. Evans-Wentz is dressed in the brocades of a Tibetan aristocrat. Such dressing-up is of course a commonplace of the colonial period, but Evans-Wentz had little interest in Tibet or Tibetan Buddhism. He was a devotee instead of several of the Hindu swamis of the day, and his deepest devotion was to the Theosophical Society, founded by the Russian medium Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) and the American Civil War veteran, Colonel Henry Olcott (1832-1907) in New York in 1875. Although largely forgotten today, the Theosophical Society was very influential in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially among European and American artists and writers (from William Butler Yeats to L. Frank Baum). They believed that the mystical traditions of all religions arose from a single core, set forth to the world by a series of Mahatmas or “great souls,” who included Jesus and the Buddha. Once living on the island continent of Atlantis, in recent centuries the Mahatmas, seeking to escape the increasing levels of magnetism elsewhere in the world, had congregated in Tibet. This is what may have drawn Evans-Wentz to Sikkim and the Tibetan borderlands.

Kazi Dawa Samdup is dressed in the traditional robe of a Tibetan layman. Over his left shoulder he wears the red and white cotton shawl of a lama (the Tibetan word for “guru”) of the Nyingma or “Ancient” sect of Tibetan Buddhism, but he was not a lama. He was a schoolteacher, the English teacher at the local boarding school for boys. Evans-Wentz had purchased a Tibetan text from a British Army major who had recently returned from Tibet. The text was entitled the Bar do thos grol in Tibetan, literally “Liberation in the Intermediate State through Hearing.” It consisted of a number of shorter works meant to be studied by the living or read to the dead, instructions and prayers for finding liberation from rebirth during the “intermediate state,” a liminal period of up to forty-nine days between death and reincarnation.

For the Theosophists, Ancient Egypt was a source of esoteric wisdom; Madame Blavatsky’s first major work was Isis Unveiled. Evans-Wentz, on learning what this Tibetan book was about, asked Kazi Dawa Samdup to translate portions of it. Over a period of several weeks, Evans-Wentz visited Kazi Dawa Samdup before his school day began and they would work on the translation. Evans-Wentz then added his own extensive, and often eccentric, preface, introduction, footnotes, and appendices that together outweigh the translation itself. Then, seeking to evoke The Egyptian Book of the Dead, he dubbed it The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Published by Oxford University Press in 1927, it would become the most famous Buddhist text in the Western world.

Yet the original text whose translation formed the core of The Tibetan Book of the Dead was not a particularly famous or influential work in Tibetan Buddhism, and like the photograph of its translator and editor, it is not quite what it seems. It belongs to a genre of texts called terma in Tibetan, literally “treasure.” When Buddhism was first being established in Tibet in the eighth century, it is said that an Indian master named Padmasambhava buried a large cache of texts all over the country—in mountains, inside pillars, at the bottom of lakes—so that they could be discovered at the appropriate moment in the distant future. Hundreds of such works were unearthed over the centuries, forming an important component of the canon of the Nyingma sect. The texts are said to have been written in a secret code, one that only their discoverer can read and then translate into Tibetan. Scholars of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as some other sects of Tibetan Buddhism, regard these texts with skepticism, seeing them as latter day creations that seek legitimacy through a claim to the ancient past. The Bar do thos grol is such a treasure text, said to have been composed in the eighth century and unearthed in the fourteenth. Evans-Wentz discovered it in the twentieth century, but it was in a language he could not read. He had selections from it translated into English, read it using his own Theosophical code, and presented it to the world.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead thus seems to entail multiple layers of dissimulation, beginning with the photograph of its translator and editor, and extending back to the ancient Tibetan text—how ancient remains a question—that lies buried under the prefaces, notes, and appendices of the American Theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz. And yet, it has been reprinted many times since 1927 and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The Tibetan text itself has been retranslated repeatedly, most recently in 2005 in “the first complete translation”, with various Tibetan lamas, including the Dalai Lama himself, offering their commentary.

It has been reprinted, of course, because it has been read, and because it has offered some degree of comfort to those who wonder what lies beyond death. It has often been the first book read by those who go on to develop a serious interest, even an academic interest, in Buddhism or in Tibet; and this from a book that, from almost every perspective, is not what it purports to be. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a work more recent than it claims, offers a particularly compelling opportunity to ponder that old question of the relation between what we call “religion” and what we call “truth.”

Liked it? Take a second to support Mr. Purrington on Patreon!