On a rainy morning in 1919, Walter Evans-Wentz walked a winding mountain path into Gangtok, Sikkim, in northeastern India. An American scholar, he was seeking to translate the Bardo Thödol, a Tibetan Buddhist guide for the after-death bardo journey to rebirth. Through a letter of introduction from my Tibetan great-grandfather, Evans-Wentz met Lāma Kazi Dawa-Samdup, a well-known translator and the headmaster of a government boarding school. They began working together and—with Dawa-Samdup translating and Evans-Wentz editing—completed the first English version of the Bardo Thödol, entitled The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Oxford University Press, 1927).
The translation ignited an enduring fascination in the West with the 8th-century teaching said to have been written by Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), the Indian spiritual master who brought Buddhism to Tibet. Inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead’s depiction of individual transformation, Carl Jung said the volume was his “constant companion.” It was also embraced by counterculture figures like Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass), the co-authors of The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1964), a guide to the psychedelic drug trip as a bardo journey from death of the ego to rebirth into greater self-awareness. The popularity of The Tibetan Book of the Dead has continued unabated; including subsequent translations, over a million copies have been sold.
Almost eighty years after Evans-Wentz and Dawa-Samdup met, I began to study their translation of the Bardo Thödol for a novel I was writing based on my Tibetan family history, about three generations gathered in Darjeeling (my mother’s hometown) for the funeral of the patriarch. I felt drawn to The Tibetan Book of the Dead because my novel related to death, my great-grandfather had helped make the English translation possible, and—thinking over the plot for my book—I was intrigued by the fact that Guru Rinpoche’s guide was intended to benefit not only the dead but the living.
It took me years to understand The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I thought I’d just read it and see what it was about, but the words felt impenetrable. How to make sense of statements like, “If the instructions be successfully applied to the deceased… then, by the meeting of the Mother-Reality and the Offspring-Reality, karma controlleth not.” And, “The aggregate of thy principle of consciousness, being in its pure form—which is the Mirror-like Wisdom—will shine as a bright, radiant white light, from the heart of Vajra-Sattva.”
Part of the challenge arose from my lack of familiarity with Tibetan Buddhism. Born to a Tibetan mother and an American father, I’d grown up in ’60s and ’70s suburban New Jersey and California, watching Bewitched and eating cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, celebrating Christmas and the Fourth of July, hiking in the Sierras and rocking out at Santana, Heart, and Fleetwood Mac concerts. Because my mother wanted me and my siblings to feel like we fit in, she didn’t talk to us about Tibet or Buddhism. Also, as a girl she’d felt bored by family prayers in the altar room, by arcane ceremonies carried out in dim monasteries, and had been thrilled to leave behind the old country for the bright, modern world of medical school at Columbia University. She referred to Buddhist ritual as “mumbo jumbo” and “all that hocus pocus.” As for my father, a psychiatrist from New Jersey, he was attracted to Tibetan culture but not the religion, and tended to view Western interest in Buddhism as “woo-woo” New Age spirituality.
In college, I majored in comparative literature (the French and Latin American novel) and planned to make my life in Paris as a writer. But when I graduated, I found I wanted to explore my missing half and went instead to Darjeeling to live with my grandmother. Chatting with her over tea, hearing her stories, initiated an exploration of my family history and Buddhist philosophy that I’ve been engaged in for more than three decades now.
As I visited my grandmother through the years with my mother and my daughter, the idea for my multigenerational novel took shape. Studying The Tibetan Book of the Dead, I realized the after-death interval can be viewed as divided into three stages—with our actions in each determining the nature of our journey and rebirth—and I decided to structure my book in this way. The first part of Guru Rinpoche’s guide is about coming to see we are dead. “When the consciousness-principle getteth outside [the body, it sayeth to itself ], ‘Am I dead, or am I not dead?’” the text explains. “It cannot determine. It seeth its relatives and connexions as it had been used to seeing them before.” The deceased might take up to four days to acknowledge her death; she may hover about, calling to her relatives: Why are you weeping?
In the second stage, we encounter frightening visions of deities and demons, projections from our subconscious that are like our dreams when we sleep. This is an opportunity for us to recognize that these apparitions, our perceptions, have no independent existence.“Whatever…terrifying visions thou mayst see,” The Tibetan Book of the Dead instructs, “recognize them to be thine own thought-forms.” In his introduction, Evans-Wentz says that these thought-forms are “airy nothings woven into dreams” and that “complete recognition of this psychology by the deceased sets him free into Reality.”
The third part of the voyage is about judgment and rebirth. We appear before Yama, Lord of the Dead, who holds a mirror (our memory); good deeds are weighed against bad on Yama’s scale (our conscience), and the nature of our existence going forward is decided.“If the scale weighs you’re full of sin,” my grandmother used to tell me, “in hot, boiling oil you’re thrown and your body is roasted! With all the burns, you’re finished.”
Even as I gradually understood more about The Tibetan Book of the Dead, though, its essence eluded me. Talking with my husband one day about how the novel was going, I said I was having a hard time getting hold of the deeper wisdom of Guru Rinpoche’s book. “It all feels very abstract.”
“An 8th-century teaching about traveling from death to rebirth feels abstract?”
We laughed. “I know, I know!” I replied. “Still, there’s something I’m missing.”
Then two things happened that changed my understanding of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, as well as my view of how to live my life.
Not long after the conversation with my husband, my grandmother died, at the age of 100. I left home in Tokyo for Darjeeling and after three days of travel arrived at my grandmother’s house in the Himalayan foothills. Her body had been laid out on cushions in the altar room and covered with white silk khada blessing scarves; five lamas seated at her side read aloud from the Bardo Thödol, playing horns, ringing bells, and banging a drum. On the old wooden altar painted with Tibetan lucky symbols, butter lamps burned beneath the statue of Guru Rinpoche that generations of our family had prayed to. Condolence callers filed in, offering incense and khadas.
In the days leading up to the cremation, we sat with the lamas next to my grandmother’s body. I’d never quite grasped the concept underlying the literal translation of Bardo Thödol—“Liberation in the Intermediate State Through Hearing”—but, as the lamas spoke to my grandmother, the idea became clear: hovering in the after-death bardo, my grandmother could hear Guru Rinpoche’s teachings, be enlightened by their wisdom, and move on to her new life.
Another point I hadn’t fathomed but now understood was how The Tibetan Book of the Dead could benefit both the dead and the living. The lamas urged my grandmother to face reality, saying things like this:
O nobly-born, that which is called death hath now come. . . . Do not cling, in fondness and weakness, to this life.
Listening to the lamas, my family members and I could think about our own situations. We were encouraged not only to let go of my grandmother so we could carry on with our lives, but to make the most of our precious human existence by considering other ways that attachment and denial might be hindering our path forward—were we clinging to a dead marriage, a meaningless job? I found myself reflecting on how hard it can be to acknowledge “what is” even as we know reality is there whether or not we choose to face it. And I was moved to realize that The Tibetan Book of the Dead is 8th-century tough love powered by compassion: at the same time we’re told to rip off our blinders and confront reality, the lamas offer us companionship and support.“We are like a spiritual friend to your grandmother,” one lama explained. Day and night they stayed by her side so she was never alone and, as I grieved, their presence reassured me.
The second thing happened in Tokyo six years later, in 2010, when I contracted a life-threatening heart infection called endocarditis. Bacteria proliferated in my mitral valve; possible complications included a heart attack, stroke, catastrophic organ damage, intracranial hemorrhage, and neurological failure. Stunned and terrified, staring day after day at the white walls and ceiling of my hospital room, I thought about how the term bardo also refers to intervals when ordinary life is suspended—like during illness or an accident—and I remembered a story about my great-grandfather. Riding his pony back down to India from Tibet after a diplomatic mission in 1912, he got caught in an avalanche. “The whole party including the mules was buried,” my grandmother had told me over tea one afternoon in Darjeeling, twilight falling on the peaks of Mount Kanchenjunga. “Only my father survived! Praying with his prayer beads, Save me, Guru Rinpoche, save me, he waved his arm up through the snow. The search party saw his hand with the beads and he was saved.”
I’d heard many stories from my grandmother about her father’s devotion to Guru Rinpoche. A police officer, diplomat, and Buddhist scholar who worked with the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, my great-grandfather, S.W. Laden La, translated excerpts from Guru Rinpoche’s biography into English (published in Evans-Wentz’s Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation). Every winter he led a group of Buddhists on pilgrimage from Darjeeling to Tso Pema, the lake in northern India where Guru Rinpoche is said to have been born from within a lotus. On the lake was an island that moved in your direction if you were a good Buddhist; it always floated toward my great-grandfather as he approached. Wonderful as these stories were, I’d never felt they held personal weight, since I wasn’t Buddhist. As I lay gravely ill, though, they took on new meaning for me.
Tormented by excruciating joint pain and unremitting headaches, violent chills and horrific nightmares, I longed to return to my ordinary existence as a wife and mother, writer and literature professor. Things probably aren’t that bad, I told myself as—like the traveler in the after-death bardo who refuses to accept what’s happened—I fantasized about spontaneous remission. I wondered if, trapped in the snow, my great-grandfather had wished he were riding down to Darjeeling as usual on a sunny winter day in the Himalayas and assured himself things weren’t that dire.
Then the bacteria in my heart valve traveled to my brain, lodging in the occipital lobe and obstructing the flow of blood to the surrounding tissue. It was likely, the doctors said, that I’d end up paralyzed or in a vegetative state, or die. Overwhelmed by despair, I realized that my great-grandfather had survived because he didn’t turn away from the truth of his predicament. He could have expended his dwindling energy and time on denial, clinging to the life he’d known even though it no longer existed. Instead, he acknowledged the bardo he was in and saved himself. In the most profound way possible, as I confronted death, my great-grandfather’s story helped me sustain hope by illuminating the wisdom at the heart of The Tibetan Book of the Dead: accept reality but don’t give up. And as I faced the reality of my situation, I understood that, whether or not I survived, I could determine how I journeyed through the bardo; I saw how Guru Rinpoche’s guide inspires us to embrace our role as the creators, the artists, of our lives. These insights brought me a new feeling of integration, a sense that my ancestral past and my outlook as a Westerner were coming together.
Legend says that when Guru Rinpoche was traveling around Tibet, he concealed terma (“treasure”) teachings—including the Bardo Thödol—in caves, rocks, lakes, the sky, the mindstream, to be found at the right time by later generations. Like one of these termas, my great-grandfather’s lesson was hidden in our family mindstream and revealed to me when I needed it most. Evans-Wentz said in The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation that my great-grandfather “was one of the really true Buddhists of our generation, who not only fostered but also practically applied the Precepts of the [Buddha].” My great-grandfather’s faith had felt distant since I wasn’t Buddhist, but I discovered that it encompassed a dedication to living by Buddhist principles that was of vital relevance to me.
In his introduction to my great-grandfather’s translation of Guru Rinpoche’s biography, Evans-Wentz wrote, “Nothing is known either of the origin or of the end of [Guru Rinpoche]. According to tradition, [he is] believed never to have died.” The same can be said for the wisdom in the Bardo Thödol, which lives on as Guru Rinpoche intended, for me and for all those it has encouraged and guided through the centuries. I’m reminded of this continuity by one of the family heirlooms I keep next to my desk for inspiration: my grandmother’s prayer beads, with which she prayed every morning and evening to Guru Rinpoche. They originally belonged to my great-grandfather and were given to her when he passed away in 1936, the same prayer beads he waved up through the snow that winter morning in Tibet.