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Donald Lopez: The Powells.com Interview

Donald Lopez is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. He currently serves as chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and as chair of the Michigan Society of Fellows. His books include Elaborations on Emptiness; Prisoners of Shangri-La; The Story of Buddhism; The Madman's Middle Way; Buddhism and Science; and In the Forest of Faded Wisdom. His edited volumes include Buddhist Hermeneutics; Buddhism in Practice; Religions of Tibet in Practice; Curators of the Buddha; Buddhist Scriptures; and Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism. In 2000 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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Chris Faatz: Professor Lopez, you've just written a book entitled The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography as part of a new series from Princeton called "Lives of Great Religious Books." Can you tell my readers a little about that series and its goals? What is a biography of a religious book? Why is it important that such a series see the light of day? What are some forthcoming titles?

Donald Lopez: The series is a fabulous idea, and I wish I could take credit for it, but it is the brainchild of Fred Appel, the religion editor at Princeton University Press. Fred's idea was to identify some of the most famous and influential religious texts in history — works like the Book of Job, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Bhagavad Gita — and ask a scholar to write a short and accessible "biography." Books have their own lives, what academics call their "reception history," with periods of popularity and obscurity, praise and condemnation, sometimes canonized, sometimes banned. Each of the books in the series talks about the origins and contents of the text itself, but really focuses on the book's influence and the different ways it has been understood in the years — sometimes decades, sometimes centuries, sometimes millennia — since its composition. The other books that are coming out in the first wave are by two of America's leading scholars of religion, Gary Wills on St. Augustine's Confessions and Martin Marty on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison. A series like this is important because it demonstrates that canonical texts, however one defines "canonical," do not become stone monuments, but continue to lead exciting lives.

Faatz: There's no other word for it: Your book is fascinating. It concerns the classic Tibetan — or perhaps I should say Tibetan-English — translation of all time, Evans-Wentz's 1927 publication The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Your book demonstrates that Evans-Wentz's text is mostly a fabrication of a fertile mind, and that it in fact does not even exist in Tibetan. Can you briefly tell this story?

Lopez: Walter Evans-Wentz, an American Theosophist from New Jersey, was on a kind of spiritual vacation in Asia in 1919, spending most of his time studying yoga with Hindu teachers. He traveled to Darjeeling in northern India (the source of Darjeeling tea), an area with a strong Tibetan presence; the name Darjeeling is Tibetan, meaning "Land of the Thunderbolt." There he bought a Tibetan text from a British army officer. Evans-Wentz could not read Tibetan, so he took it to the English teacher at a local school who was a Tibetan Buddhist.

The work was called the Bardo Todol in Tibetan, which means, "Liberation in the Intermediate State through Hearing." It was a large collection of mortuary and meditation texts centered around the idea of the bardo, or intermediate state, the period between death and rebirth, which can last from one instant to 49 days. The "hearing" in the title refers to the fact that such texts were sometimes read to a corpse so that the departed consciousness could hear the teachings and be liberated before taking rebirth again.

Evans-Wentz had only part of the text translated. He then gave it a new name based on his interest in the Egyptian Book of the Dead and surrounded it with all manner of prefaces, footnotes, and appendices. So, the selected chapters that were translated do exist in Tibetan, but Evans-Wentz presents them in ways that are quite alien to, and sometimes directly at odds with, the way those chapters were understood in Tibet.

Faatz: On the other hand, there do appear to be funereal or end-of-life texts in Tibet. What's the difference between these texts and that of the Evans-Wentz book?

Lopez: One of the primary functions of Buddhist monks and priests in any Buddhist culture is to deal with the dead and help them find a better rebirth. By calling his work, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Evans-Wentz gave the impression that Tibetan Buddhism is more fixated on death than Buddhism in other Asian cultures. This is false. However, there is a large literature on how to prepare for death, how to face death, and how to make use of the experience of death on the path to liberation from birth and death.

In fact, the Tibetan title of the work that Evans-Wentz purchased, Bardo Todol, is not really the name of a specific text but the name of a genre of literature on the intermediate state. So, such texts certainly exist and are important in Tibetan Buddhism, but they are not read in the way that Evans-Wentz did. He tried to present the Tibetan text as a confirmation of Theosophical doctrines on spiritual evolution, and in the process he misrepresents the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Faatz: There are numerous commentaries appended to Evans-Wentz's book, most notably one by C. G. Jung. You make short shrift of these as well, claiming that they're uniformly attempts to corral The Tibetan Book of the Dead within the worldview agenda of the writer. Can you speak to this point? How, for example, did Jung approach the text?

Lopez: When I first began studying Asian Religions in the 1970s, Jung was good and Freud was bad, because Jung showed an interest in Asia, with his commentaries on the I Ching, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Secret of the Golden Flower, and other works. However, a closer study of Jung's works shows that he read these works primarily as a confirmation of his own theories, particularly of the collective unconscious, and in the process he ignored or dismissed what the texts themselves say and how they are understood in their own traditions. Jung's various commentaries on Asian texts display what we would today call an Orientalist attitude, claiming, for example, that there is an "Eastern mind" and a "Western mind." Because of the differences between these two, he even believed that if Westerners practiced yoga, they would go insane.

Faatz: You repeatedly refer to Evans-Wentz as "an American Theosophist." What is a Theosophist, and how might that matter in the context of this book? What are the Mahatmas, and what is their importance in Theosophical thinking?

Lopez: The Theosophical Society was founded in New York City in 1875 by the Russian émigré and spiritualist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and the American Civil War veteran Henry Steel Olcott. Largely forgotten today, the society was very influential in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; its members included writers ranging from Yeats to L. Frank Baum, as well as composers like Scriabin and painters like Mondrian. The Theosophists believed that the mystical traditions of all religions derived from a single source and had been set forth by enlightened masters called "Mahatmas," which included the Buddha, Jesus, and the Vedanta philosopher Shankara.

Blavatsky and Olcott played an important role in the transmission of Asian religions to the West and were rare among Westerners in their strong defense of Hinduism and Buddhism against the charges made by Christian missionaries. Walter Evans-Wentz was a Theosophist from his youth, when he first read the works of Madame Blavatsky. Part of his interest in Tibet derived from the Theosophical belief that during the modern period, the Mahatmas had congregated in Tibet. This caused him to hold Tibetan Buddhist scriptures in high regard, but also to read them through a particular, and rather peculiar, Theosophical lens, as I describe in the book.

Faatz: Your book is full of fascinating asides, colorful characters, and strange and, dare I say it, esoteric material. Can you tell us a few of these stories from the book in order to give my readers a taste of what to expect in the book itself?

Lopez: One of the themes that runs through the book is buried treasure, but a treasure not in the form of gold doubloons but sacred texts. In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a very important genre of texts literally called "treasure" — terma in Tibetan — that are said to have been buried in Tibet by the great Indian tantric master Padmasambhava during his visit to Tibet in the eighth century. He felt that Tibet was not ready for certain esoteric teachings at that time, and so he hid texts all over the country, to be discovered at the appropriate moment. The cycle of texts that Evans-Wentz called The Tibetan Book of the Dead is just such a treasure text, discovered in the 14th century.

These texts have continued to be discovered into the twentieth century. Scholars are generally skeptical about the authorship of these texts, and yet they are respected as canonical scriptures. In order to explore questions of authenticity and authorship, I compare the discovery of Buddhist texts in Tibetan soil to the most famous case of the discovery of Christian texts in American soil, Joseph Smith's discovery of The Book of Mormon in upstate New York in 1823. What I want to suggest is that we should see The Tibetan Book of the Dead not so much as a great religious book from Tibet, but as a great religious book from America.

Faatz: Professor Lopez, thanks for your time. It's been both a pleasure and an honor.

Books mentioned in this post




One Response to "Donald Lopez: The Powells.com Interview"

  1.  
    Deb Nelson October 1st, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    Chris Faatz' blog posts are fascinating. Thanks!

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