The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
Sogyal Rinpoche 
Edited by Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey 
Harper San Francisco: San Francisco, 1992.
356 pp. $22.00 (hardcover)

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is an ambitious endeavor. Sogyal Rinpoche, a charismatic Cambridge-educated tulku with a worldwide constituency, has teamed up with Andrew Harvey (a former don at Oxford; Journey in Ladakh, Hidden Journey) and Patrick Gaffney (an expert on all things Tibetan) to recast the soul-craft of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in a way helpful to Westerners. The nature of the bardo (intermediate) states is seemingly well-known to Tibetan practitioners, but the existing translations of this book (by Evans-­Wentz, Trungpa and Freemantle) are desiccated, highfalutin, or obscure.

Here the authors have sought to place the work, which is a sort of guidebook for the initiated to the hereafter, in the broader context of living and dying. The book functions alternatively as an epistemological defense of karma and rebirth; as a critique of Western systems of denial; as a systematic guide to revealed knowledge of the bardo; as a kind and very practical manual for caring for the dying and looking at the feelings that arise for the living in such situations; and as a comparison of Buddhist theory with modern physics. Overarching is the aspiration to usefully apply the insights of a distant culture to our own. Such a complicated and ambitious project is bound to encounter a number of interesting problems.

Sogyal Rinpoche
Sogyal Rinpoche

“What is at stake,” say the authors, “is the knowledge of absolute reality.” Access to this primordial field is blocked by the accretion of thoughts and concepts coming from our dualistic identifications. In the bardo, as in life, “the ordinary mind clings onto the illusory experiences as something real and solid” but “… they become spectacularly magnified.” Thus, these universes parallel each other in a meaningful way: “What is occurring in the bardo of dharmata at death, and whenever an emotion begins to arise in our minds, is the same natural process.” Sogyal Rinpoche asks if perhaps the “process the bardos reveal is true not only … of all the different levels of consciousness and of all the different experiences of con­sciousness, both in life and death, but perhaps of the actual nature of the universe itself.” And this search for parallelism is expanded into a fascinating comparison of bardo lore to the work of Sogyal Rinpoche’s friend, David Bohm, the avatar of the New Physics.

Given this approach, it is disappointing that while the emotions are very much at issue, there appears not to be a single reference to psychoanalytic theory in this long work. The psycho­analytic vocabulary is the master discourse of our culture, along with art, for examining states of interiority. The idea that there is an absolute reality is common to Freud and Buddha; and unlayering the supervening states of conscious­ness that form character and identity (and are also known as delusion) is an endeavor common to both schools. To neglect the opportunity to discuss cathection, transference, and identification, in this context is a wasted opportunity.

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