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The last how-to

The Tibetan Book of the Dead Translated by Gyurme Dorje Edited by Graham Coleman with Thupten Jinpa Introduction by the Dalai Lama Viking: 536 pp., $29.95

February 19, 2006|Jon Fasman | Jon Fasman is the author of "The Geographer's Library: A Novel."

THE Bardo Thodol, known to us as "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," is a religious book like no other: Whereas the holy writings of the Abrahamic faiths teach their adherents how to live, "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" instructs its readers on how to die. Or, more precisely, it provides both advice and, apparently, experiential accounts designed to teach readers how to successfully navigate bardo -- the spiritual condition that immediately follows death -- and to assist loved ones in that state.

The largest and richest section of the book, "The Great Liberation by Hearing," first appeared in English in 1927, thanks to Walter Evans-Wentz, an American who discovered it while traveling in India. Carl Jung loved the book. So, alas, did Timothy Leary and his acolytes, who saw in it what they most loved: themselves, on acid. To say that Leary and Ralph Metzner's "The Psychedelic Experience," a guide to experiencing an acid trip, is based on "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" is like saying that the governing system of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is based on Thomas Jefferson's writings. "The Great Liberation by Hearing" became the "Infinite Jest" of the late 1960s: a signifier on a shelf, intended to be noticed rather than read (this is not, of course, to denigrate David Foster Wallace's enormous and excellent novel). Now Viking presents us with the text of the entire book, newly translated and illustrated, and with an introduction by the Dalai Lama.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 22, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Tibetan Book of the Dead -- A review of a new translation in Sunday's Book Review said Padmasambhava was credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century BC. In fact, it was the 8th century.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 26, 2006 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 10 Features Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Feb. 19 review of a new translation of the book said that Padmasambhava is credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century BC. It fact, it was the 8th century.

"The Tibetan Book of the Dead's" closest analogue in Western literature is not the Bible but Dante's "Divine Comedy." Whereas Dante relished describing the punishments meted out to the putatively wicked, Padmasambhava (the Indian yogi credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century BC and with this book's authorship) is soothingly humane. More important, Dante created a vast cosmology in which recognizable people receive punishment or reward in the afterlife based on their earthly deeds, but Buddhism posits no such permanent soul. What Jews or Christians find recognizable as an individual soul, explains the Dalai Lama in his lucid introduction, "is understood in terms of a dynamic interdependent relationship of both mental and physical attributes" -- entirely conditioned by events of this world and therefore as finite as life.

In the West, Buddhism remains more talked about than studied, and it has an exotic reputation, centered on such bold, decontextualized ideas as renunciation and asceticism. Readers of this book might similarly find themselves attracted to the exotic -- the pantheon of multicolored gods and bodhisattvas, repeated appeals to the universal "child of Buddha nature" and the esoteric symbology: "If the semen of a man is reddish, he may die or be subjected to slander after six months." Or consider this one:

If one dreams of eating faeces,

Or wearing black clothes of yak hair whilst plunging downwards,

... Or of copulating repeatedly with a black figure or animal,

These are also signs, which are indicative of death.

There's plenty of this sort of material to dig through. But what comes across more strongly is the calm, good-humored, persistent compassion of the narrator, who bombards his readers with second chances and different ways of achieving liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

For this is what "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" offers at its core: not stories of human encounters with an anthropomorphized figure of divinity, or specific counsel on how to live correctly, but advice on how to successfully pass through the state that follows physical death and precedes spiritual rebirth. "The Great Liberation by Hearing" presents prayers for a spiritual teacher or loved one to say at the bedside of the dying, along with signs to recognize whether the prayers have proved successful. Each set of prayers leads into the next with a clause that starts with "if," in case the deceased has not understood. In this way, the narrator offers many opportunities for liberation; he seems steadfastly on the side of the dead rather than, pace Dante, on the side of those inflicting punishments.

Just who this narrator is remains enticingly mysterious -- his life story sounds like a canny tale written by Umberto Eco. What today comprises the complete "Tibetan Book of the Dead" seems to be part of a vast store of teachings that Padmasambhava and his disciples left scattered at sacred locations throughout the Tibetan plateau. He feared his oral teachings would become corrupted in subsequent retellings and wanted to leave a purer record. In fact, he prophesied that these hidden teachings would be found one day during a time of turmoil and crises:

\o7In the future, during the final era, the degenerate age,

When monks [act] like pigs and make women pregnant,

... In that age, a supremely fortunate son will be born.

... And he will be the courageous "Karma Lingpa,"

On his right thigh there will be a mole,

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