Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2023

Abstract

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is one of the most popular Eastern scriptures in the West, in part because it has been framed outside of religion, as a kind of psychology. And yet its translators have also used it to stake claims in the debate about the relationship between psychology and religion, generally Buddhism, but also Theosophy, a religious and philosophical system founded in 1875, which tried to unify all religions. The first major English translation of the Book of the Dead was published in 1927, by W. Y. Evans-Wentz, who was a Theosophist, with the assistance of Kazi Dawa-Samdup. Evans-Wentz framed the text as supporting the existence of a universal religion grounded in science, altered terms to support Theosophical beliefs, and also opened the way to psychologized interpretations. Carl Jung’s 1937 introduction to the Evans-Wentz- Samdup translation solidified a psychologized reading. In 1975, Francesca Fremantle and Chogyam Trungpa produced a more accurate translation, which continued the psychologizing trend. The 2005 translation by Gyurme Dorje, with Graham Coleman and Thupten Junpa, is the most traditional and technically accurate, yet also shades meaning towards universal appeal. My evaluation of the orientation of these three translations—Theosophical (Evans-Wentz, 1927), psychological (Fremantle-Trungpa, 1975) and traditional (Dorje, 2005)—highlights the difficulty of translating religious terms. The translation history also sheds light on the ongoing debate about the compatibility of the aims of psychology (self-development) and Buddhism (self-eradication) and provides a foundation for my argument that psychologized renderings are simply a part of theological drift, a process that is continual and ongoing in religious traditions.

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