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the Complete Review
the complete review - religion


The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Donald S. Lopez, jr.

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To purchase The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Title: The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Author: Donald S. Lopez, jr.
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2011
Length: 155 pages
Availability: The Tibetan Book of the Dead - US
The Tibetan Book of the Dead - UK
The Tibetan Book of the Dead - Canada
The Tibetan Book of the Dead - India
  • A Biography

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating (hi)story; quite well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 18/6/2011 Miriam Cosic
The Japan Times A 14/8/2011 David Cozy
TLS . 17/6/2011 Mark vernon

  From the Reviews:
  • "As readable and scholarly as Wills's, this biography springs to life when Lopez places its subject within the weird tradition of American spiritualism, complete with Madame Blavatsky's acolytes, ouija boards and memories of exotic past lives." - Miriam Cosic, The Australian

  • "Lopez's nuanced view of the work he is to interrogate in The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography ensures that his book will be a more interesting work than the reverent exegesis we would have to put up with from a writer who accepts uncritically not just that the text in question is holy, but also that its existence as a discrete entity is beyond question. (...) Lopez is the most artful of writers; there is no flab in this short book." - David Cozy, The Japan Times

  • "(A)s Donald S. Lopez narrates in his lucid biography -- part of a promising new series, Lives of Great Religious Books -- it is not really a book and is hardly known in Tibet." - Mark vernon, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Donald S. Lopez, jr.'s The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a 'biography' of the well-known book with that title -- part of Princeton University Press' promising-sounding new Lives of Great Religious Books-series. The Tibetan Book of the Dead that he writes about is the text originally published in English by Walter Evans-Wentz in 1927 -- a book that Lopez suggests is more American than Tibetan and whose creation and success arose out of specifically American circumstances.
       Lopez notes the texts assembled in The Tibetan Book of the Dead aren't particularly well-known in Tibet -- and that Evans-Wentz shaped them, in his presentation and with the voluminous supporting material accompanying them, to his specific ends, rather than truly reflecting Tibetan Buddhist doctrine.
       The catchy title was meant to echo the popular and already well-known-at-the-time, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, -- with the added irony that the texts he selected are specifically for the living ... -- and:

then he dwarfed that translation with various introductions, forewords, commentaries, appendices, and footnotes. The translation became a code to be broken, using the cipher of another text that is somehow more authentic. For Evans-Wentz, the ur-text is Madame Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine
       Lopez even goes so far as to suggest:
     It seems, then that Evans-Wentz knew what he would find in the Tibetan text before a single word was translated for him. It almost seems that Evans-Wentz spiritual vacation could have taken him to any Asian country and that he could have randomly chosen any Asian text, and he would have produced some version of the book published in 1927.
       Lopez provides a very good introduction into the history of Buddhism, and specifically its concepts of death, rebirth, and enlightenment. He also provides a good overview of the transmission of specifically Buddhist texts and doctrine -- noting that the Buddha's own words were first recorded centuries after his death, and that oral transmission has long been more valued in Buddhism. He also gives an overview of the spread of Buddhism in Tibet -- all issues that are also significant in how The Tibetan Book of the Dead came about.
       Lopez also compares The Tibetan Book of the Dead to similar 'found' religious books, most famously the nutty story of Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon, suggesting what circumstances factor in determining the success or failure of such 'texts'.
       Equally fascinating about the original The Tibetan Book of the Dead is, of course, what people read into it, from those who provided commentary to be published with the book -- among them Carl Jung -- to later readers, and Lopez makes some interesting observations about this as well (though this is one area of his commentary that could have been expanded). American spiritualism certainly had a strong influence on Evans-Wentz in shaping and presenting the text, while the ever-popular public preoccupation with mortality helped it to great success.
       Lopez's The Tibetan Book of the Dead tells a fascinating story (and offers a good introduction to actual Tibetan Buddhist death- and rebirth-theory), and makes a good case for this religious book -- as we know it, and to the extent it can be considered one -- arising out of a specifically American strain of spiritualism. A fine introduction and overview.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 March 2012

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The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Reviews: Donald S. Lopez, jr.: Other books by Donald S. Lopez, jr. under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Donald S. Lopez, jr. teaches at the University of Michigan. He was born in 1952.

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© 2012 the complete review

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