The pilgrim's home: Downtown San Diego, courtesy of Jim Coit.
The pilgrim’s home: Downtown San Diego, courtesy of Jim Coit.

Walter Evans-Wentz didn’t speak Tibetan and he never translated anything, but he was known as an eminent translator of important Tibetan texts, especially a 1927 edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was for many Westerners the first book on Tibetan Buddhism that they took seriously. “He didn’t claim to be a translator in his books,” says Roger Corless, Professor of Religion at Duke University, “but he didn’t mind leaving the impression that he was.”

Like many figures who played important roles in bringing Buddhism to the West, Evans-Wentz didn’t call himself a Buddhist, and he seems to have stumbled almost accidentally upon the texts he eventually published. With his naive sincerity, flowery rhetoric, lofty vision, and messianic tone, he might be taken today for a proto-New Age crank.

Nonetheless, he became a highly respected scholar.  He even projected a vaguely British affect in his writings, signing his books “W Y Evans-Wentz, M.A., D.Litt; D.Sc. Jesus College, Oxford.” But Evans-Wentz spent comparatively little time at Oxford and actually grew up before the turn of the century in Trenton, New Jersey.

The man who would later praise the hermit ideal was a dreamy, lonely youth who liked to spend his afternoons lazing beside the Delaware River, sometimes without his clothes. On one of those afternoons he had an “ecstatic-like vision,” and remained “haunted” by the conviction that “this [was] not the first time that I [had] possessed a human body,” but now “there came flashing into my mind with such authority that l never thought of doubting it, a mind-picture of things past and to come…. I knew from that night my life was to be that of a world pilgrim, wandering from country to country, over seas, across continents and mountains, through deserts to the end of the earth, seeking, seeking for I knew not what.”

Evans-Wentz did become a pilgrim, wandering through Egypt, India, Sikkim, China, and Japan. He was particularly mobile between the two world wars, when he worked on The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

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