By Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Princeton University Press, $19.95, 173 pages

10“For Evans-Wentz, the ur-text is Madam Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine…a work that she claimed to have received from the mahatmas in Tibet. …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 Evan Wentz’s 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 [The Tibetan Book of the Dead].”

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is said to be the inspiration of an Indian Tantric master who was visiting Tibet in the 8th century. He dictated the texts to his consort, then hid them – in a lake, a pillar, a cave, the heart of a future disciple – until the world was ready to receive them. A millennium later, a British army officer bought a set of block prints in Tibet, and sold them in Darjeeling to an American on a spiritual holiday. The American, Walter Evans-Wentz, took the texts to a boarding school English teacher and acquaintance of the founder of the Theosophical Society, Madam Blavatsky, for translation.

What Lopez asserts is that the text is not a book and it’s not Tibetan either. Lopez bookends his thesis with the story of Joseph Smith who, with the aid of a pair of crystal spectacles, translated the Record of the Nephites from what he called Reformed Egyptian. Evans-Wentz didn’t communicate with angels or the dead, and he couldn’t read, let alone translate Tibetan. But like Smith and Blavatsky’s books, his text was unearthed from an unknowable past and interpreted through the crystal lens of American Spiritualism.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography is an excellent short introduction to Buddhism, and an intriguing analysis of how ancient texts are used (or invented) to give authority to ideologies.

Reviewed by Heather Shaw