What can a mere book reviewer add to the wisdom of the ages?
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, first translated in part into English in 1927, is an ancient text and the bible of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism carries with it a complex tradition of polytheism and shares with Indian Buddhism a longing to understand death and dying. This makes Buddhism unique among the world’s great religions, which are in large part focused on what happens before and after death. To the Buddhist, life is a prolonged initiation to ready oneself to die in an enlightened state.
This Penguin edition of the sacred text distinguishes itself with color illustrations and sturdy pages. But most of all, it is distinguished by the introduction by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a man as revered as a human being can be by people all over the world. The Dalai Lama seeks in his brief commentary to explain in layman’s terms the journey of the soul and its connection to the flow of life, beliefs at the core of Buddhist teaching. Leaving aside the intricacies of the many gods and beings that one might encounter in the reading of the book, he elegantly and simply indicates that a good death, which may be accomplished by a good life including meditation, religious ritual and the attempt to come into harmony with all natural phenomena, can lead one to the highest sphere of existence, the domain of the Buddha-body. The Dalai Lama suggests that religious practices be regarded as a way of preparing oneself for an inevitable event. And he admits that
although such practices are part of his own daily routine, “I do wonder whether or not I will really be able to fully utilize my own preparatory practices when the actual moment of death comes!”
This book is long, as a good bible should be, and much of what is contained in it will have a bizarre overtone to people raised in Western faiths. Much of it was meant to be chanted. Some of the information is more than we want to know, describing in unpleasant detail the nightmares and physical deteriorations that presage human death. Yet there is nothing here that we should avoid reading. It’s all about our common experience, the one we can’t share. It’s comforting to know that someone cared enough to collect some road maps for the journey.
As one Tibetan “psalmist” supplicates in the section called “The Acts of Confession,”
At the time of my death, when my mind and body separate,
When I am cut off from the company of spiritual friends and dragged away by Yama,
At that time, when my relatives stay behind in the world,
Yet I alone am led away by the power of past actions,
At that time I will be unprotected and without refuge.
So do not on any account hesitate or delay now,
But draw near to me at this very moment,
And enact the wrathful rites of liberation.