Translated by Robert A.F. Thurman.
Bantam Books: New York, 1994.
278 pp., $12.95 (paper).


In this, the latest English translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the first since Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Francesca Fremantie’s 1988 version, Robert A. F. Thurman takes the translation process a step further. He tries not only to translate this text—a manual on death and dying—but also the cultural context in which it can be practiced. As stated in the introduction, Thurman aims to stick with the spirit of the original, which, he says, “was intended to be a popular manual designed for the ordinary Tibetan layperson.” Eschewing “cumbersome” notes—”the dead and the bereaved are not in the mood for such scholarly niceties”—in favor of familiar terms and a glossary, he strives to make the teachings accessible to contemporary Westerners. To this end, he has also added a thorough introduction to Tibetan Buddhism and—most radically—new meditations and visualizations applicable to traditions other than Buddhism (Islam, Christianity, and secular materialism among them). By referring to Pascal and Descartes in the introduction and likening the operation of karma to Darwin’s theories, Thurman relates these ancient Buddhist teachings to Western philosophy. The second part of the book, entitled “The Guidebook for the Journey” offers the original text and commentary interspersed with his own notes and instructions. Part three includes several appendices of supplementary translations.

The text is generously ecumenical, encouraging those who do not feel comfortable meditating on a buddha to meditate instead on a figure from their own religious tradition or the Mona Lisa or even a flower. This popular and pragmatic emphasis is the book’s strength as well as its weakness: when the translator suggests using celebrities as a mandala, one cannot help but wonder what is lost when choosing to forgo Padma Sambhava in favor of Elvis. Reservations aside, Thurman has succeeded in his proposed task: making a book that is clear, concise, and wide open.

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