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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beware of the bardo, 18 Dec 2010
This review is from: The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Or the After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, According to L=ama Kazi Dawa-Samdup's English Rendering (Paperback)
Whatever else "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" might be, it's definitely a spiritual classic and something of a publishing phenomenon. Several different editions and translations exist, but the 1960 edition remains the "classical" one. Translated by Walter Evans-Wentz, it also contains introductory comments written by Carl Gustav Jung, Lama Govinda, John Woodruffe and Evans-Wentz himself. The editor has also appended extensive footnotes to the main text.

"The Tibetan Book of the Dead" is a translation of a Tibetan mortuary text, known in original as "Bar do thos grol". Or rather, it's a translation of a portion of a text from a genre known as "Bar do thos grol". The English title is the translator's. In original, the text is used by the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

Those who read this book should also obtain a copy of "Prisoners of Shangri-La" by Donald Lopez, which contains the true story surrounding this mysterious book. It turns out that Evans-Wentz was a member of a New Religious Movement, the Theosophical Society. For this reason, his interpretations of the Tibetan text should be taken with a very large grain of salt. Thus, Evans-Wentz claims (on the authority of a real lama, no less) that Tibetan Buddhism has a secret message similar to that of Theosophy. Of course, there is no evidence whatsoever for such a claim. Another "lama" associated with this book, Anagarika Govinda, was actually a German national who couldn't even read Buddhist texts in their original language and claimed to have been initiated into the Kagyu sect. Lopez points out that the initiation ritual described by Hoffman (Govinda's real name) doesn't exist. In other words, "Lama" Govinda was something of a fraud. I readily admit that he seems to have been quite a character!

This is all extremely interesting, even entertaining. But what about the actual Tibetan text? "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" describes the fate of the soul after death. Or something to that effect - officially, Buddhists don't believe in an actual "soul". After leaving the dying body, the soul passes through a number of intermediary states known as bardos. In each state, liberation from the cycle of rebirth can be achieved. If for some reason the soul doesn't accomplish this, it is reborn as a god, demigod, human, animal, hungry ghost or denizen of hell.

The book describes the various bardos in chilling detail. At various points, the soul comes face to face with wrathful deities or is chased by demons. Small wonder Jung regarded the book as a description of a deliberately induced psychosis. (A later American commentary on the book, co-written by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, compares it to a psychedelic experience.) There are also certain similarities to a near-death experience. Depending on your psychological state of mind, "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" might strike you as boring, incomprehensible, absurd or downright scary! How I reacted the first time I read it, I won't disclose here.

Regardless of what you think of this text, "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" plus all its forewords in the 1960 edition, are required reading for everyone interested in Tibet, Buddhism and above all comparative religion. What the book really tells us about the bardos is anybody's guess, but it does say a lot about how the Western mind wants to look at Tibet. For good or for worse.

Five stars...and beware of the bardo!
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