My presumption is that when he published a portion of these key texts in 1927, W. Y. Evans-Wentz chose this title to mirror that of Wallis-Budge’s 1895 translation of the Papyrus of Ani, now and forever known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead. It turns out that the document we know as The Tibetan Book of the Dead (a more accurate title of which is The Great Liberation by Hearing) is but a portion of a larger corpus of materials discussing Tibetan Buddhist concepts of death, and the passage from this plane of existence into that intermediate state. Penguin’s extraordinary volume, published in 2006 and available not only as a trade paperback but also as a volume of their Penguin Classics series (2008, reprinted with corrections in 2017), rectifies the omission with a new and lucid translation.
Counting the Evans-Wentz translation and others by Robert Thurman (Quality Paperback Book Club, 1994) and Francesca Freemantle/Chogyam Trumpa (Shambala, 1975), this is the fourth version of this work I have acquired over the years, and, despite my fondness for Evans-Wentz’s weird and wonderful translation and commentary, published as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane by Oxford University Press (with The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, or the Method of Realizing Nirvana Through Knowing the Mind as a companion volume), this is now my favorite.*
An excellent feature of this volume is the introductory essay by the Dalai Lama, which places this material in context of the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the self and its relationship to existence. This is a thoughtful piece of writing that merits close attention in preparing the reader for the different texts included in this publication. As explained in the general introduction, this translation was vetted and deeply informed by consultation with masters of Highest Yoga Tantra, the preferred name of the tradition to which these documents belong. This lends a value and credibility to this translation, which I’m sure will become the standard one.
Now, having said that, get yourself ready for some strange, sometimes difficult, sometimes enlightening reading (and be sure to read Book 5 out loud, for merely by saying the names of the deities listed within “one will avoid rebirth in the lower existences, and Buddhahood will eventually be attained”). The perspective here is clearly not of the West, and that may require some getting used to – but no worries. Maybe the best approach is to read each section through with an open mind, awake to the possibilities of the esoteric perspectives being expounded. A return for a more close reading would then likely be in order.
The preliminary books consist of prayers, supplications, acknowledgement of the peaceful and wrathful deities, acknowledgement of the power of those deities, requests for forgiveness for having strayed from the path, prayers of gratitude, enumeration of some of the omens of impending death, guidance on how to know what form of existence one is likely to pass on to, the means of knowing when death is imminent, and rituals which might assist in averting one’s death. The essence of the text, of course, is the chapters on consciousness transference and the great liberation by hearing. By the guidance of one’s associates (which would typically be other monks, because, due to their complexity and degree of personal investment, these are essentially monastic rituals), one’s consciousness is guided and comforted as it passes through the intermediate or transitional states (usually translated as the bardo states, with the guidance text referred to as the Bardo Thodol, however that nomenclature is not used here). From here, one may pass into one of the innumerable heavens (or hells), rebirth on one of the physical planes, or, much more rarely, some version of nirvana. One seeks, through these rituals, to pass through to the highest state of which one is capable of in this existence.
The texts are repetitive and trancelike, meant to be spoken out loud and presumably, through their repetitiveness, inductive of a trancelike and opened state of consciousness. Bear in mind that some of these texts are meant to be repeated literally tens of thousands of time. Ultimately, the teachings, through contemplation and repetition become internalized and one acquires great merit through diligence and understanding. This is not a task for the dilettante, and in the cultural context of Tibetan monasticism there is significant preparation required before one is even exposed to these texts.
Still, by reading the texts, and giving oneself over to them, a rewarding experience may be had – a change of awareness or a change of perspective that is expansive. The experience can be an immersive one if approached with the correct frame of mind. Maybe, like me, you’ll find yourself drawn back again and again for a taste of a different reality and a means to gain a transformed perspective of the world.
*You may be interested to know that Evans-Wentz also wrote a volume entitled The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, which was recently republished by The Lost Library, Glastonbury (n.d.)