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The Tibetan Book of the Dead

A Biography
The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography. Princeton Univ. (Lives of Great Religious Books). Mar. 2011. c.192p. index. ISBN 9780691134352. $19.95. REL
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The Tibetan Book of the Dead is not really Tibetan, as Lopez (Buddhist & Tibetan studies, Univ. of Michigan; The Story of Buddhism) points out here, but an American publication of 1927 by Walter Evans-Wentz. Lopez provides a history of this Western book, whose shape was heavily influenced by Evans-Wentz's interests in theosophy and Celtic folklore. Evans-Wentz, never a Buddhist, believed that spiritualist teachings were universal. His book's prefaces, commentaries, and addenda make up more than twice as much material as the translation of the Tibetan text. Thus Evans-Wentz misled many American readers, who assumed there was one definite Tibetan text, transmitted from an Indian teacher named Padmasambhava, but this is inaccurate. For one thing, Tibet's original Bardo Thödöl wasn't a written but an oral recitation passed down by monks, any of whom may have added to it or omitted portions. Lopez instructs us on all of this, some of which may be heavy going for lay readers. He reminds readers that there are many varied Tibetan exemplars; we aren't sure when they were first written down. No exemplar is widely known in Tibet.
VERDICT A scholarly and informative short read, very useful as a reminder that religious books are not necessarily fixed entities.

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