Sunday, February 27, 2011

Blavatsky and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Pt 2

Donald Lopez, Jr., begins his recent biography of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol) with an anecdote about his exchange with a journalist who was planning a piece on the text: “he wondered whether I could answer a few questions. ‘Is The Tibetan Book of the Dead the most important work in Tibetan Buddhism?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Do all Tibetans own a copy?’ No,’ I said. ‘Have all Tibetans read it?’ ‘No.’ I said. ‘Is it a work that all Tibetans have heard of?’ ‘Probably not,’ I said.”

The chance encounter with the text in Darjeeling, India, by Walter Evans-Wentz (1878-1965) at the beginning of the twentieth century was to make it the most recognizable of Tibetan works. A terma text, said to have been hidden by Padmasambhava in the eighth century and rediscovered by Karma Lingpa in the fourteenth, the Bardo Thodol dealt with the transit through the bardo, or intermediate state, between death and rebirth.

It is not a text Blavatsky referred to (for someone who visited Tibet she mentions little of the major religious scriptures of the country, the exception being Tsong-kha-pha’s Lam Rim, an important instruction of the Geluk group), though the term bardo appears in one of the Mahatma letters from 1882.

Although Lopez implies that Evans-Wentz used the text as a means of Theosophical propaganda, not all Theosophists were welcoming of it. A letter from Basil Crump (an associate of Alice Cleather, one of Blavatsky’s personal pupils), written from Peking in 1928 and published later in The Canadian Theosophist of August 1942, warned that the book was not consistent with Blavatsky’s teachings. While in Darjeeling, Crump says: “We warned the Dr. to be careful about the Red Doctrine but he paid no attention and persisted in that line of study.”  The Bardo Thodol was a leading text of the Nyingma school, also known at the Red Caps, a term Blavatsky used for those who practiced black magic.

Parts of The Tibetan Book of the Dead are meant to be read to the dying individual: “Having read this, repeat it many times in the ear of the person dying, even before the expiration hath ceased, so as to impress it on the mind [of the dying one].” This is at variance with the instructions given by Blavatsky’s teachers:  “Speak in whispers, ye, who assist at a death-bed and find yourselves in the solemn presence of Death. Especially have you to keep quiet just after Death has laid her clammy hand upon the body. Speak in whispers, I say, lest you disturb the quiet ripple of thought, and hinder the busy work of the Past casting on its reflection upon the veil of the Future.”—“Memory in the Dying,” October 1889.

Yet, at the same time, Evans-Wentz spoke highly of Blavatsky. He cited some parts from her Voice of the Silence (Book of the Golden Precepts) in his later Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, and says: “The late Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup was of opinion that, despite the adverse criticisms directed against H. P. Blavatsky’s works, there is adequate internal evidence in them of their author’s intimate acquaintance with the higher lamaistic teachings, into which she claimed to have been initiated.” It should be noted, however, that whatever she claimed to have learned in Tibet was of an esoteric nature, a term she consistently uses for oral teaching, outside the canonical scriptures.


Lopez, Donald S. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: a biography. Princeton University Press, 2011. 173 p.

Evans-Wentz, W.Y. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Oxford University Press, 2000. lxxxiv, 264 p.
Compiled and edited by Evans-Wentz, with new Foreword and Afterword by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

Karma Lingpa. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Viking/Penguin, 2006. xlix, 535 p.
The largest selection of texts available in English, translated by Gyurme Dorje.

Cuevas, Brian J. The hidden history of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Oxford University Press, 2003. 328 p. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments to this blog are subject to moderation, and may appear at our sole discretion, if found to add relevance to the site's topics.