Review of the Tibetan Book of the Dead

The more I can’t have something, the more I want it.  I don’t mean like forbidden fruit, I just like rare, unobtainable things.  I love watching movies that once were lost but now are found, such as Beyond the Rocks (1922, presumed lost for 80 years), Sherlock Holmes (1922), or the Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, discovered in the closet of an insane asylum); I’ll wait years for movies I want to see to be released on any home video format; but my holy grail of unobtainable treasures has to be ancient literature that’s unavailable in English, whether in part or in their entirety, specifically sacred texts.  The Mandaean John book will probably never be translated in full, I’m still searching for a complete edition of the Bhavishya Purana, and there’s little chance the Baha’i Faith will ever release any of the Bab’s full works like the Bayan (Persian or Arabic), Kitab-i-Asma, or the Qayyum al-Asma.

What’s amazing about these older books is how the faithful have preserved them over the years.  All originally written by hand, they have been tediously copied manually for centuries, generation after generation.  In our digital age of instantly downloadable ebooks we often take for granted just how time consuming it used to be to make a single copy of a book.  Even today in lamaseries across Tibet, monks are still hand-printing books from prints carved 3-4 centuries ago.  Out of hundreds of thousands of these books, only a few fragments have seen print in English, and only the Tibetan Book of the Dead has been completely translated.  There’s about as much likelihood of any of those other books being printed in the West as there is of any of the current Dalai Lama’s books being published in Chinese occupied Tibet.

I had avoided previous publications called the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” because they were really only a single chapter of the complete volume, which wasn’t fully released in English until 2005.  This body of literature has been erroneously called the “book of the dead” in the West since part of it was first printed in English in 1927, named for its similarity in theme to another funerary text, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which was also popular at the time.  Its real name in Tibetan is the Bardo Thodol, sometimes translated as “Liberation through Hearing.”

In the 2005 edition, His Holiness–the presently exiled 14th Dalai Lama–gives what is referred to as an introductory commentary, although it really doesn’t illuminate the Book of the Dead.  He gives a polished, commercially friendly introduction to Buddhism, but further reading of the scripture itself will show how far removed his modern, humanistic practice is from historical Tibetan Buddhism.  For starters, the Book of the Dead reveals, or rather unravels, a more mythological and religious Buddhism than Western admirers of the Dalai Lama may be comfortable in accepting; but his introduction reads more like a Buddhist gospel tract written for evangelizing.

Contrary to how it’s generally represented to the West as humanist and atheistic, this Buddhism is jarringly polytheistic.  The book operates with an assumed knowledge of the 42 peaceful deities and 58 blood-drinking wrathful deities of Tibetan Buddhism.  There is no explanation, backstory or folklore provided in-text for these characters; readers unfamiliar with the Tibetan mythology (or even with their Hindu counterparts sharing the same names) will be frustrated by seemingly endless descriptions of these figures and their consorts, differing only in color or articles being carried.  Some of these figures are provided a pictorial reference on colored plates in the center of the book, and although it does demonstrate the explicit mid-coitus position the text refers to when it describes these bodhisattvas “in union” with their corresponding consorts, or the horrific appearances of the wrathful deities drinking blood from cups of human skulls, they are still left a mystery.  Of course, those who’ve read any other Buddhist scriptures will be familiar with the prose style of formulaic repetition, with the same sentences and paragraphs cloned over and over with only slight word changes.  Most of the first few chapters are prayers and chants with very little immediate context, that comes later.  Not much else will be recognizable to students of other schools of Buddhism, the religion’s founder only gets a passing reference as Sakyamuni, and there’s only one single quote from any other Buddhist scripture (which, unfortunately,  the editor fails to cite in the endnotes).  The first chapters read more like a prayer book, and to the uninitiated it would be like trying to learn about Christianity by reading a hymnal.

The passage of time hasn’t been kind to the next section, a guide for recognizing and preventing the signs of death.  The editor points out that Tibetans have mostly abandoned these practices in favor of modern medicine.  Much of it is complete and utter quackery, although some of the suggestions aren’t so unscientific, such as its understanding that the first culture of urine in the morning is different from any other later in the day.  Still, this is just one correct guess out of many incorrect conclusions from a wide ranging obsession with urine, semen, and menstrual blood.  The passage on dream interpretation is the most interesting to me, in which it correlates an estimated remaining lifespan based on dreams so specific that probably only the power of suggestion within that culture could cause them.  The translation here also doesn’t transfer so well to Western culture.  For instance, when it says you will die within a year if you dream of “being disemboweled by a fierce black woman”, it’s not actually referring to “black” as in race, but more like demonic or shadow figures.  Obviously, a closed kingdom like Tibet had never seen Africans, and most today still haven’t; this is something that probably should have been explained in the endnotes.  With all its medicinal and scientific shortcomings, it’s strange that section is still included in the text today.  Adherents will point out that scriptural infallibility is not a Buddhist concept; their scriptures were penned not through divine inspiration, but from observation and precedent.  With that in mind, however, it makes even less sense to retain scientifically refuted information in their scriptures, especially if the faithful no longer even practice it.

After this comes the largest and most popular section, which was previously published by itself as the Book of the Dead, and reads like a Buddhist last rites manual.  Although descended from Hinduism, Buddha’s philosophy was a caste-less shortcut out of the Hindu cycle of reincarnation.  In Hinduism, one is locked into the caste, body, gender, and species that one is born into; one cannot advance any further in this lifetime, the only hope for advancement is in one’s next life.  Buddhism circumvented this with the revolutionary concept that regardless of birth, anyone could potentially achieve Enlightenment in this same lifetime.  Tibetan Buddhism employs yet another shortcut, because even if one didn’t attain Enlightenment in life, everyone still has an opportunity at death to reach nirvana or attain a higher station in the next birth.  As the book itself says, “it is extremely important to become skilled [during one’s lifetime] in the process of dying.”

This “liberation through hearing” is supposed to be recited by a lama or spiritual teacher with perfect clarity and pronunciation to the subject (preferably) while they are dying, and continually repeated well after death.  The procedure starts with a reading intended to guide the subject towards enlightenment.  If that fails, the next reading provides guidance to be reborn in the realm of the gods, and so on.  First it tries to make the soul avoid being reborn as a human, called “obstructing the womb,” but if that fails then it tries to guide the subject towards a new birth and avoid the realm of animals, then the anti-gods, and finally hell.  Of course, even if one fails at every turn, after a graphic description of endless torture and death at the hands of Yama (a deity lifted from Hinduism who presides as judge over the Buddhist netherworld, though not really a “devil”), the text comforts us by assuring as that this hell is just as much an illusion as the material world.  Tibet’s isolationism shines through in this passage as it specifically admonishes the subject against choosing a birth either far east or west where Buddhism is not practiced.  From that perspective, one can better understand the rationale of keeping Tibet closed off for centuries, since it was believed anyone who really wanted to go there could have chosen to be born there.  This text also displays the human-centric focus of Buddhism, despite its belief that the cycle of reincarnation encompasses all living things: one could be expected to read this funerary text to an unconscious human subject or even a corpse, but not to an animal (alive or dead), not even the part instructing how to avoid being reborn as an animal, or worse.

The book suddenly shifts to an unexpected change in genre: a lighthearted masked drama still performed by monks in the near-Tibetan regions to this day.  It’s considered “lighthearted” even though the subject is souls being damned to hell in a court of the gods, with their good and bad conscience providing evidence in the form of white (good) and black (bad) pebbles representing their deeds in life, and weighing these pebbles in a scale to determine the soul’s fate.  This section is amazingly consistent with the entirety of preceding chapters.  The descriptions of the deities make sense here as instructions for costumes and set pieces, and the prayers and mantras are incorporated into the dialogue.

Finally, the book concludes with a collection of mantras intended for use in amulets.  This serves as yet another shortcut in the system, because it is believed that even those who do not practice Buddhism can attain enlightenment through wearing these amulets.  The mantras are transliterated from a script only remotely related to sanskrit, so trying to determine the actual or supposed meaning requires dependence on the notes.  Like the complete edition, the scholarship is impeccable, but it mostly only helps to highlight how flawed a book it really is.  Roughly, a third of the book is devoted to notes and a glossary of terms.  The extensive bibliography shows how much the translator and editor have done their homework, but this book is still not suitable for casual readers, and even the most committed students would probably be frustrated even with a doctorate in Tibetan studies (one of the frequently cited sources is, after all, the translators own unpublished dissertation).  In the end, it is what it is, and this edition probably does the best it can to compensate for the limitations of the text.    It’s worth a read if you’re like me and you like forbidden books, but otherwise it’s not hard to see why the Dalai Lama’s Western fans went so long without an English translation of the most famous Tibetan book ever written.

the 100 peaceful and wrathful deities

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