Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

“English Book of the Dead”: Tibetan or Theosophical?

[A friend, Thomas Wittenberg, sent us an article from the journal Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly (summer 2011). It is a review of a new edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz; the editor of the new version (Princeton University Press, 2011; $19.95. 192 pp.) is Donald S. Lopez, Jr.; the Buddhadharma reviewer of the new edition is Roger Jackson, a professor of Asian Studies and Religion at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.]

The Tibetan text Bardo Thodol (“Liberation through Hearing While in the Intermediate State”) was first published in English in 1927 by W. Y. Evans-Wentz, characterized as an “American traveler, scholar, and Theosophist.” The editor of the new version calls the well-known and influential English version, somewhat surprisingly, “not really Tibetan,” “not really a book,” and “not really about death.” The book had significant influence on the Beatles, movies like Jacob’s Ladder, TV shows like Twin Peaks, and respected authors on death like Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross and Raymond Moody. However, the editor argues that it is not really about death because it focuses on tantric practices used by the living, not really a book because it is based on only a fragment of the original, and not really Tibetan because it was inspired by and focuses on a Theosophical view of reality. Nevertheless, the reviewer concedes that the English book “has indeed become a ‘timeless world spiritual classic,’ whose influence will continue to be felt despite all we now know about its composition and contents.”


Walter Y. Evans-Wentz (r) and Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup in 1919

The new edition traces the book’s composition and contents back to “Henry Steel Olcott, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society, whose teachings of a vaguely Indic religion behind all religions, preserved and telepathically transmitted by hidden masters beyond the Himalayas, attracted a young dreamer and adventurer from New Jersey,” namely W. Y. Evans-Wentz (1878-1965). Evans-Wentz (according to Wikipedia) had read Blavatsky’s two major works, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, as a teenager. After taking his first two degrees at Stanford University, he studied Celtic mythology at Jesus College, Oxford. The latter academic work resulted in another Theosophically oriented book on The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911). Evans-Wentz’s very influential work is an instance of the effect Theosophy has had on modern culture, which is generally unknown, even by Theosophists.

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