Death as a trip

The Tibetan Book of the Dead,

translated by Gyurme Dorje and edited by Graham Coleman with Thupten Jinpa

(Penguin Classics)

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a kind of Baedeker for the afterlife and, like the best guidebooks, its reassuring refrain is “Don’t panic!” After death, it says, you will be assailed by thunderous sounds and bewildering apparitions as first the peaceful deities rise before you, then the wrathful ones, who drink blood and eat the entrails of bloated corpses.

If you are very unlucky, Yama (representing the forces of impermanence and the laws of cause and effect) will chop off your head, lick out your brains and drink your blood, then eat you. The trick is not to be afraid and to remember that you don’t have a body any more, so he can’t hurt you.

These deities are enormous, blotting out the sky, and some have the heads of tigers, vultures, crocodiles, scorpions or bats, but they are also all in our minds. This idea fascinated Jung, who revered The Tibetan Book of the Dead as a great psychological work.

According to Highest Yoga Tantra (from which The Tibetan Book of the Dead derives), only during the process of dying can we achieve liberation from the cycle of existence. Advanced yogis can make trial runs by inducing a deathlike state, but after death the rest of us must try to remember what we’ve read in The Tibetan Book of the Dead and put it into practice. Even the totally unprepared need not despair, however, provided a qualified guru is on hand to read out the relevant bits to our corpse. Ideally, he should have a soothing, melodious voice, to calm us down.

The stakes are high: either we become enlightened and attain buddhahood or we are reborn to experience all over again the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death, stranded in “the swamp of cyclic existence”. If we fail, we should at least try to be reborn in an area where Buddhism is practised, so we can have another go. But it gets worse. If we choose the wrong womb entrance, we might be reincarnated as an animal, an anguished spirit or a hell-being. Even the Dalai Lama isn’t confident of success. “Sometimes I do wonder,” he admits in his introduction, “whether or not I will really be able to fully utilise my own preparatory practices when the actual moment of death comes.”

When WY Evans-Wentz’s English translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead first appeared in 1927, it became an instant classic. Later it was a firm favourite of the postwar counterculture. Timothy Leary recast it as The Psychedelic Experience, a manual for psychedelic voyagers—with the idea being to “shortcut” many years of spiritual training and discipline by dropping some acid—and William Burroughs claimed to be in telepathic contact with Tibetan adepts, subtitling his novel, The Wild Boys, “A Book of the Dead”.

Allen Ginsberg read The Tibetan Book of the Dead while off his head on yagé (a hallucinogenic tropical vine) in New York. In Brion Gysin’s novel The Last Museum, the Beat Hotel in Paris becomes the Bardo Hotel, each room representing another stage in the after-death state. Gysin’s beatnik friends, Ginsberg and Burroughs included, are depicted chanting in the street, their “heads shaven like Tibetan monks” and wearing orange robes.

In fact, Evans-Wentz’s book has been so influential it is surprising to learn that he translated only three chapters of the original work which, it turns out, is not even called The Tibetan Book of the Dead—that was his idea. Its real title is The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States and this is the first complete English translation. It’s a magnificent achievement.

The extra material includes an examination of the nature of mind and some beautiful verse meditations usually sung by monks performing their early morning duties. There are aspirational prayers to be read at the moment of death, as well as a translation of the sacred mantras that can be attached to a corpse in order to bring “Liberation by Wearing”. An unexpected bonus is a light-hearted allegorical masque about travelling through the after-death state.

Gyurme Dorje’s translation avoids the archaic thees and thous of the Evans-Wentz version and emphasises instead the quasi-scientific quality of the text. The result is a clear-cut, practical rendering of this classic of Nyingma literature (the Nyingmapa being followers of the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, stretching back to the eighth century). The familiar, evocative vocabulary has been rationalised—for example, “good and bad karma” are now “positive and negative past actions”—but there are more gains than losses.

Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s senior translator, has advised on the text, as has Zenkar Rinpoche, a revered lineage-holder of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (its correct interpretation transmitted through an unbroken line of masters). There are useful introductions to each chapter, extensive notes and a glossary, everything one could possibly want to prepare for what Timothy Leary called “the ultimate trip”.

As Burroughs once said to Ginsberg: “Tibetan Buddhism is extremely interesting. Dig it if you have not done so.”—Â

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