For the first time in 1,300 years, the great Tibetan Book of the Dead has been translated into English.
For a text about dying that is said to have been composed in the eighth century for the benefit of a Tibetan king, The Tibetan Book of the Dead has enjoyed a surprisingly enduring, adaptable and eventful life. Hidden from the world at large for more than 1,000 years, it was not until the 20th century that it first appeared in English translation, going on to serve variously as an academic textbook, occult curiosity and accoutrement to the hippy lifestyle.
Over the years, it has been interpreted as a quasi-theosophical treatise, a guide to psychoanalysis and a new age self-help book. But, extraordinarily, not until now has it ever appeared in full.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead stands alongside Dante's Divine Comedy as one of the great literary works on the afterlife. But while Dante's work is a fiction designed for moral instruction, the Book of the Dead offers a quite literal description of what happens to the mind at death - a user's guide, as it were, to the post-mortem state.
The book elaborates Tibetan Buddhist teaching on the journey of the consciousness through the three stages, or bardos, of dying; the moment of death, the intermediate state between death and rebirth, and the process of rebirth itself. Central to the text is the belief that death presents the greatest opportunity to gain liberation, and so to step off the endless wheel of suffering that is held to characterise worldly existence.
The book was said to have been composed by the Indian yogi Padmasambhava, who is credited with introducing Buddhism into Tibet in the eighth century and regarded as the founding father of the esoteric tradition. Like hundreds of his teachings, the text was supposedly transcribed in a cryptic language and secreted as a "treasure text," to be discovered at a time when it was appropriate to be transmitted to the general populace. It was found, in the 12th century, hidden in a mountain in Tibet by a "treasure seeker" known as Karma Lingpa, who deciphered the cryptic text and passed on the teaching orally to his son. It was several generations before it was finally written down, becoming one of the central teachings in the Tibetan Buddhist canon.
The first English translation appeared in 1927, edited by an American Theosophist named Walter Evans-Wentz, who came across the text while travelling in India. It had been given to him by a British army officer who had recently returned from Tibet. Evans-Wentz commissioned a translation from a Tibetan who taught English at a boys' school, and published it as The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
In fact, Evans-Wentz had stumbled upon only a small portion of the original text - the so-called "Great Liberation by Hearing," a teaching designed to be committed to memory by the dying person, or read to them after death to guide them on the hazardous journey through the after-death state. But it was this small fragment that would form the basis for the innumerable translations and adaptations that have appeared since. "From the Tibetan point of view it's rather odd," says Graham Coleman, who has edited the new, complete translation. "To take only one of 12 chapters is like taking a Shakespeare play and translating one scene - say, Hamlet ruminating on the nature of existence - and forgetting the rest of it."
A practising Buddhist himself, Coleman is the president of the Orient Foundation, the editor of several books and the director of a film trilogy about Tibetan Buddhism and culture. In 1989 he approached the Dalai Lama seeking his help in executing the first complete English translation of the Book of the Dead. The Dalai Lama arranged for Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, head of the school from which the original text derives, to give Coleman a full oral teaching, as it would have been transmitted originally. Over the next 16 years, another scholar, Gyurme Dorje, worked on a new translation of the text, which Coleman refined and edited with the help of the Dalai Lama's senior translator, Thupten Jinpa.
The full Book of the Dead offers a lyrical insight into the Tibetan Buddhist cosmology and its teachings on the nature of mind and consciousness, death and reincarnation. There are chapters on ritual, acts of confession and "consciousness transference." Rhapsodic paeans to the various deities of Tibetan Buddhism jostle with folklore about the signs of impending death ("If the hair on the nape of the neck grows upwards, this indicates death after three months") and the rituals prescribed for averting it.
One passage, in the chapter entitled "Natural Liberation of Fear through the Ritual Deception of Death" suggests that "when an examination is made of one's reflected image optically projected onto the skyˇ¦ if the left hand is missing, one should place the fang of a black striped tiger and the fang of a black dog inside a weasel skin. On top of that one should place a dough effigy, kneaded together with the subject's own urine, and then ritually expel the effigy by throwing it into a river."
Sadly, no advice is given as to how one might acquire a tiger fang.
"Another passage advises that one way of avoiding death is to eat your own faeces," says Coleman. "I pointed out to a lama that this would be more likely to kill you than save you, and he just laughed and agreed with me. Nowadays, nobody would take these sorts of idiosyncrasies seriously. But what is taken very seriously, and is still completely common in Tibetan Buddhist societies, is the awareness that death can come at any time, and that the causes of death relate closely to your own psychological states. If people are sick they usually go to the hospital, but will also ask a lama to do prayers in order to pacify the dissonant states in their own minds, so they become less threatening."
But most compelling and vivid of all is "The Great Liberation by Hearing" - the chapter designed to guide the deceased through the after-death state to "liberation" or a fortunate rebirth. These insights into the post-mortem states are not occult messages, as it were, from the other side, but drawn from deep meditative practice.
"By understanding the way thoughts arise and dissolve, the serious meditator is able to experience a simulacrum of the process of the dissolution of consciousness, which we call death," says Coleman. "You could explain it as an extrapolation of a very profound understanding of the nature of mind."
The journey through the after-death states is described as a series of vivid encounters and revelations; most are, frankly, terrifying. But at each stage, the book offers the consolation that "liberation" can be attained if one is sufficiently primed to recognise and seize the opportunity. The first, briefest, stage is the moment of death itself, when a clear light of "inner radiance" dawns in the dying mind. If one is able to recognise this light as the true nature of mind - and merge with it - then one is immediately "liberated," which is to say, spared the journey towards rebirth. If not, one is thrown into the next, intermediate state.
Here the deceased is confronted initially with a series of visions of the 100 "wrathful and peaceful deities" of the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, each exactingly described. The lord Vajra Heruka, for example, is "dark blue in colour, with three faces, six arms and four legs," carrying a skull-cap, an axe and a ploughshare. "The female Vajrakrodhisvari is embracing his body, her right hand clasped around his neck and her left offering a skull-cap filled with blood to his mouthˇ¦"
These visions are not held to have an inherent reality; rather they are representations of different aspects of the enlightened mind - images depicted in pictures and wall-hangings in temples, which the dying person will be assumed to have meditated on throughout their lifetime. Recognising these images, the text says, is "like recognising your own mother," and presents a further opportunity to merge with the primordial state of being and thus be spared the anguish of rebirth.
However, those clouded by confusion and weighed down by the negative inheritance of their past actions are doomed to roam further downwards into the intermediate state. Now, the subtle mental body of the deceased will experience the sense of being able to move unobstructed through earth, boulders and mountains; they will see their home and their grieving relatives, "as if in a dream," and, realising that they have died, experience an overwhelming suffering "like a fish writhing on hot sand."
Then comes the "life review" in which the "innate good conscience" of the deceased will gather together all of their virtuous actions, counting them out with white pebbles, and the "innate bad conscience" will count out non-virtuous actions with black pebbles. "At this moment you will tremble with extreme fear, awe and terrorˇ¦ In the mirror of past actions [all your virtues and non-virtues] will be reflected vividly and precisely. Your attempts at deceit will be no use. Tying a rope around your neck, Yama [Lord of Death] will drag you forward. He will sever [your head] at the neck, extract your heart, pull out your entrails, lick your brains, drink your blood, eat your flesh and suck your bones. Despite this, you will not die."
At length, reeling from these torments, the deceased will arrive at the portal of rebirth. The book offers advice on "Obstruction of the Womb Entrances" - a sort of last chance saloon - to prevent this eventuality. If not heeded, then the deceased is drawn to seek rebirth in one of the six "realms" of existence - as a god, a demigod, a human, an animal, an anguished spirit or a hell-being, according to their past actions. Those destined for the human realm will be drawn to a man and woman in the act of xxx, experiencing the "co-emergent delight" in the midst of the meeting between sperm and ovum, "until finally you will emerge [from the womb] and open your eyes."
This extraordinary journey has lent itself to myriad interpretations. Evans-Wentz saw it as proof of the theories of reincarnation espoused by the founder of Theosophy, Madame Blavatsky (which had themselves been borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism).
Carl Jung, who claimed that the Evans-Wentz translation rarely left his side, saw the book as evidence for his theories on the collective unconscious. He likened the mutilations inflicted by the demon Yama to the dissociative states of schizophrenia, and suggested that the book should be read back to front - from rebirth to death - as a parallel to the model process of psychoanalysis. Timothy Leary, in his book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1964) saw the Tibetan text as a metaphor and guide for the LSD trip.
More recently, the Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche used the Book of the Dead as the basis for his sweetened Buddhist primer, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which has sold more than two million copies. Fearful, perhaps of his readers bridling at a literal belief in "the six realms" of existence, Sogyal prefers to render them as different aspects of the human condition - locating the "god realms" in California and seeing the "anguished spirits" as capitalist barons, never satisfied no matter much wealth they accumulate.
advertisementColeman is not surprised the book should have been subject to so many varying interpretations: "In a sense, it's a bit like a Shakespeare play, which is so profound in its understanding of the human condition that you can interpret it any way you like."
Coleman believes that "The Great Liberation by Hearing" can be read as "a metaphor for our daily experience." But what is also striking, he says, are the correspondences to contemporary accounts of the near-death experience. "The meeting with the light, the ability to hear, to pass through material objects, and the life review, which I think is the most critical part. The poet Heathcote Williams came up with this beautiful phrase, 'death develops life's photographs', and this seems to be the critical lesson of the book, that it is imperative to understand the consequences of one's actions."
It is the custom of classical Buddhist texts to emphasise their own importance in tones of a salesman's stridency - "If you have to read just one teaching, make it this one!" The Tibetan Book of the Dead is no exception. The book stresses the importance, too, of committing the text to memory, suggesting it should be read aloud three times a day and so clearly impressed to mind "that even if one were to be pursued by 100 assassins its text and meaning would not be forgotten."
A luxury that few modern readers could afford, perhaps. But Coleman insists that its value goes far beyond an academic interest in an esoteric subject. "The Dalai Lama said something very interesting; he said, if we're going on holiday somewhere we buy a map and a guidebook, so we know where we're going and we know what to expect. Then he burst out laughing and said, it's funny, isn't it? People do that when they're going on holiday, but they don't want to do it when they know they're going to die. This is that guidebook."
The above article is from Telegraph
Mick Brown reports