Tibetan Book of the Dead

In 1927 American anthropologist, Walter Evans-Wentz published a bestseller he called The Tibetan Book of the Dead taking his lead from the Edwardian fascination with all things Egyptian. Only five years earlier Howard Carter had discovered King Tut’s tomb. Evans- Wentz’s book or subsequent translations can be found in most bookstores and the original has never gone out of print. During the rebellious Hippie days, the book was re-interpreted by Timothy Leary at Harvard to guide and justify the use of LSD. How can an eighth century Buddhist text still capture our imagination? Simple really. It might just hold the key to what happens after death.

Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup & Walter Evans-Wentz, circa 1919

Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup & Walter Evans-Wentz, circa 1919

Not that this book will ever really be mainstream. How could it be in a society perpetually captivated by youth and the denial of death? Americans do not talk about death. It is taboo. People die in hospitals and nursing homes, and we like it that way. As a society, we are all about acquiring stuff and death has its upside. Maybe we’ll inherit something. That’s probably about as deep as it goes. We muddle through funerals and try very hard to get back to normal. It is the odd fellow who contemplates his own death. So if you are a typical American, this is where you go look for something ego-comforting and fluffy elsewhere on the web.

Ah, but what if you’re not typical. Come closer because we are about to examine the origin of a mysterious text and answer some questions about what happens to you when you die.

PADMASAMBHAVA, wall painting in Bhutan, Baldiri, 2007

PADMASAMBHAVA, wall painting in Bhutan, Baldiri, 2007

Sometime in the eighth century the famous Indian saint, Padmasambhava entered Tibet. Today he is known for converting the indigenous demonic spirits of Tibet to Buddhism, doing healings, and producing miracles. He also wrote a funerary text which he called Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State. Some scholars have called it the first how-to book, but today we  know it as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Upon reflection, Padmasambhava felt he couldn’t release the book to a population of newly created Buddhists. He hid the book keeping it safe for future generations. Six hundred years later, treasure revealer (terton), Karma Lingpa had a vision and was able to recover the manuscript.

The book is a guide for what happens to your consciousness as it passes from this life to the next. Reading it before death allows for preparation and familiarization with the process.

For, at this singular opportunity, you could

attain the everlasting bliss (of nirvana).

     So now is (certainly) not the time to sit idly,

     But, starting with (the reflection on) death, you

should bring your practice to completion.

In Tibet, the text is read for the dead by monks during a forty-nine day transition period. After encountering the light (similar to what NDE survivors report), the deceased is faced with three bardo states. Each phase offers the opportunity for liberation (enlightenment). Rare individuals who have been well-prepared avoid subsequent phases having mastered the understanding of consciousness, avoid rebirth, and become enlightened. Others pass through the bardo stages where various peaceful and terrifying beings appear arriving at the third which concerns itself with rebirth. A person’s karma then directs rebirth into one of six realms. The human realm (although not the most comfortable) is considered to be the best because it offers the possibility of eventual enlightenment. The deceased has the ability to choose his parents and the best situation for the next incarnation.

Zhi Khro Bardo Thodol: Mandala associated with The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Zhi Khro Bardo Thodol: Mandala associated with The Tibetan Book of the Dead

The value of The Tibetan Book of the Dead does not lie in its vivid descriptions of the entities the deceased meets along the way because those can be viewed as cultural constructions. Interestingly enough though, it might explain why Christians meet Jesus or Muslims meet Mohammed as reported in near-death accounts. The bardos are constructions of the mind, self-generated, and culturally dependent. You can only create what you are familiar with and what scares you the most. So the value of this profound and lyrical text is an overall familiarization with the process of death as a transition of consciousness. From the Tibetan standpoint, death doesn’t have to be a scary unknown. It is knowable and everyone can prepare for it. What would it be like to live a life not fearing death? How would our world change?

Watch a History Channel Documentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead:



The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Pilgrims of the Clear Light- Biography of Walter Evans-Wentz by Ken Winkler


Filed under Book Review, Buddhism


  1. Pingback: Tibetan Book of Living and Dying – Durham Cool

  2. Great topic! Great writing! Will have to read again.

  3. Pingback: Tibetan Book of Living and Dying - Durham Cool

  4. “I understand about pain because that’s where I am too. It’s not the death I fear, but the pain I might have to endure. And that quickly morphs into an individual’s right to control his/her own death. Probably should do a piece on that sometime…”
    Dear Ellis, this so much echoes my own sentiments. If I become involved in years to come with any big social issue, it will be the latter…the manner in which we make our transition is so important – it should not be determined eg by an emergency paramedic who is legally obliged to resuscitate whether that was our wish or not. My husband and I in addition to having completed Advance Directives, have also been able to obtain legal, signed documents to keep in our home, stating that we do not wish resuscitation to be performed on us. We do not live in a cultural phase here in the West which exhibits much wisdom about death and dying, so it’s as well to try to do everything possible to avoid unwanted intrusion…

    • We have similar documents in the US for this and it does help. So does having hospice care. But as a society we don’t deal with death at all well. We should have more control but as a society we are so afraid. All that slippery slope stuff…

  5. So interesting…I knew about the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but never bothered to really read up on it. Thank you for such an interesting post. This idea of death is not really that different from Hindu beliefs or the one in Dr. Brian Weiss’s books. Guess some things really are universal.

  6. Pingback: Are you prepared for death? Here’s how to get ready. | melt your mind

  7. downturnabyss

    Really good to see this mentioned. It’s a thought provoking piece about a thought-provoking point. The thing about death is that it’s the last great adventure. If there is something after our bodies die, then living in a three dimensional and corporeal world there’s no way we’re equipped to understand it until it happens. And if there isn’t anything, we won’t know anyway, so it doesn’t matter. It could be revelatory though, and should be looked on as an ongoing journey, even if it turns out it’s not. Anyway, it’s not death that I fear, it’s the physical pain that might surround dying, as I’m male, and therefore have an extremely low pain threshold!

    • I understand about pain because that’s where I am too. It’s not the death I fear, but the pain I might have to endure. And that quickly morphs into an individual’s right to control his/her own death. Probably should do a piece on that sometime. However, in a few weeks I will be interviewing an author with a collection of cultural death stories. She calls death the “ultimate wonder.”

      • downturnabyss

        That will be an interesting read. Death is fascinating because one way or another it’s an inevitable next step, yet if you are interested in it people still – generally – see you as ‘morbid’, which isn’t the case. I wonder if it’s because they’re afraid of it, but am loathe to attribute motives without any back-up.

      • That reminds me. My Dad used the word ‘morbid’ any time the subject of death was brought up. He couldn’t watch a medical show or drama with a hospital in it. It was all too ‘morbid.’ In fact, he wouldn’t go to a hospital. He was very afraid of death. So yes, I do think some people see death as morbid and scary.

  8. LClark

    I need to pull this one back off of my shelf for a re-read. Thank you for an interesting post!

  9. Thank you, Ellis, for a very interesting blog. It sets a high standard for bloggers. You did not mention that, perhaps there are some who have cause to fear death; those who have intentionally caused harm to others.

  10. I think the first time I heard of The Tibetan Book of the Dead was in a J.D. Salinger novel when I was twentysomething. So much of what you’ve written here touches home with me right now. Thank you. I’ll be picking up the TBof theD soon.

  11. Great post and discussion. It is interesting and while my mother was dying I read “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche. It was comforting at such a horrible time in my life. Thank you for stopping by my blog which led me to yours.

  12. Thank you kindly for stopping by my blog, NESTpirations, and liking “Selfie of my Soul: Sitting Within My Dream.
    This is sadly, very true. After losing my son, society was quick to “lovingly” usher me back to normalcy again. Angels both past and present walk the earth. We need to honor the process of death as we honor the process of life! Be well.

  13. Pingback: WHAT IF YOU DON’T HAVE TO DIE TO FIND OUT? | ellisnelson | Thomas Rydder

  14. guymax

    Hi Ellis. Very nice essay.

  15. robertsonwrites

    This was very fascinating to read. I ponder over death and the different theologies that surround death often. I have never really heard of what is offered here. Apparently, I have not read enough…

  16. the cosmic pilgrim

    Reblogged this on the cosmic pilgrim.

  17. the cosmic pilgrim

    Reblogged this on the cosmic pilgrim.

  18. Yes, what if you do not have to die to find out?

    But -what if we have what we expect to find out wrong-?

    (Because you do not, and we do… why do I feel so confident about this? Come find out.)

    Ahh, now we are onto something.

    What if you do not have to die, to discover what death is? But… perhaps more provocatively, what if death is not death -but a form of intelligence-?

    Do you notice that nearly everyone is -terrified of actual intelligence- on Earth?

    Did you notice all the stories of heaven sound like ‘a place of profound seeing and intelligence’? And, in fact, if it -were not this- how could it be heavenly?

    And what if, contrary to both popular and esoteric beliefs, there is something far stranger going on than we imagine? Or… more provocatively, what it -what death is changes as we change-? Do you think that being on Earth is the same -no matter what we do-? Why might death be different? Worse still, what if our stories about NDEs and ‘the Afterlife’ are -not- stories of heaven… but of something we do not have the correct model or class for, say, a radically personal -relational phenomenon- whose nature we have utterly misinterpreted? Everything I heave learned and experienced inclines me toward these questions, and -directly- away from human cultural models, most of which are far too self-interested (in being advertised, propagated and sustained) to be trustworthy.

    • Entirely possible. Similar to quantum physics discussions where we live in a three dimensional world and try to speculate living in a world of eleven dimensions. We do not have the ability (limited by our brains) to go there. Mystical literature is all about experience. Search for yourself and test what others have said. It is all an approximation of reality.

  19. SJ

    This is interesting! I would definitely look for that book. (:

  20. Your comment to Andrea:
    “I like to think of these synchronicities as hugs from the Universe. Things fall into our hands at just the right time.”
    I fully agree. That you liked my post about Getting…older http://knittinginflashes.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/getting/ brought me here. Thank you. Now I plan to read the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

  21. Interesting post! My neighbor’s son is suffering from cancer so she’s been reading a lot of inspirational books to help her cope. One book she read was “Proof of Heaven” about a reputable neurosurgeon’s near death experience. I read the book and it moved me so much that I wrote two posts about it. Here’s the links if you’re curious:
    Have a wonderful weekend! Celeste 🙂

  22. Hi Ellis, thank you for liking my post and revealing to me your wonderful and most interesting blog!

  23. Dear Ellis, I have not read your books yet. I am going to order What If you don’t have to die to find out today.
    Thanks for liking my blog. bettykbecker.wordpress.com

    I am planning to eventually put this blog into a book. I also am taking a break from the blog now after this last post about Abraham Speaks.
    I feel after aout 56 postings if the readers didn’t get it yet, it probably isn’t for them.
    Thanks again for the email. Light and Love, Betty

  24. Vedic astrology is based on Past karmas – Karmas based on previous birth + what you are doing to in this life. We know fifth house of the birth chart is for past karmas, spiritualism, intelligence and others.

  25. grevilleacorner

    great post thanks. I read this book about 3 years ago and it helped me with my practice of accepting and understanding impermanence and death. It also rei forces the importance of training your mind towards wholesome thoughts for happiness in this life and for a happier ‘transition’. Cheers Stephanie

  26. Very interesting post. I just read your book again. There is much wisdom in it. I enjoyed it so much!

  27. While my e-book, The Ultimate Wonder, World Stories Illuminating Death, does not have the spiritual power of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, it is my attempt to get people to see death differently. You may enjoy it.

  28. Reblogged this on Anya Phenix and commented:
    Die before you die, so when death comes you may embrace it instead of fearing it.

  29. everything in the book is ones own waking experience, and the severe emotional disaffection found in the world each day. It is of course ignored as Death itself is ignored.This brings about the neurosis and paranoia of the population all separated by there own desire and self interest.

    Go to the light now as the Bardo describes, see that there is only one essence which everything is part of , there is only one thing,
    Just as with the cells in the body they are all individual but they are all communicating with themselves because they are one , universal mind.

    We are not our bodies and we are not our thoughts, all the cells in our bodies are replaced every six months.We change our thoughts at the drop of a hat. If you want to die before you die ,observe yourself observing what you are doing,The way you might observe a cell in your own body like if you cut your hand and bleed, you do not think that those millions of blood cells are me, you have a deeper understanding.But essentially you are a cell in the supreme consciousness.You can not Die because you do not independently exist.Find the light of consciousness within.
    reality will change, ESP, paranormal, precognition and intuition are an indication of it.

    Great post Ellis

    • Well said with great examples. I listened to a Theosophy lecture this week by a Buddhist master. He did a wonderful job in explaining dependent arising and how it led the Buddha to make his breakthrough. But a question at the end floored me. Someone asked about the existence of a soul which he has always believed in. It was apparently his first exposure to the idea of no independent existence and he was left, well…mystified. In retrospect, I guess it is shocking for people who haven’t been exposed to nor experienced (started to glimpse) profound truth.

  30. Thank you Ellis. I’m finding when people can be shown well worn stepping stones to new ideas, the gates open.

  31. I have this book in my library, but have to go through it. I believed as you said, that when we understand the stages of consciousness that prepares us for death, we won’t fear death anymore. So many out there worry about aging and dying and not accepting it gracefully as a process that is yet another stage of living.

  32. Thank you. I’ve read a few Buddhist texts but not this one. Your review has piqued my curiosity and I’ll probably look into this.

  33. Clairsentient1

    Reblogged this on Beacon of Aquarius.

  34. I read this book and got a lot out of it. It helped me feel calm during my father’s passing.

  35. I am going to read the copy I have!

  36. Excellent post! I just read Tibetan Book of the Dead about six months ago and it significantly shifted my perspective not only about death and dying, but also about living. I’m also relieved to hear someone else voice the observations I’ve made about our American society: We are obsessed with youth, to the point where we are in total denial about the natural aging process and dying.

    Have you read Luminous Emptiness by Francesca Fremantle? I’ve heard that it’s one of the best guides to the Tibetan Book of the Dead out there, and I have it on my to-read list but have not yet dived into it.

    Once again, excellent post and thanks so much for your review on this. I really think more people in our society should be exposed to this beautiful, wondrous book.

    • I haven’t read Freemantle’s book but it sounds like a great resource. So many books, so little time! I loved this lyrical, magical text. It feels a little like a friend taking your hand and saying okay, listen- you can do this. When Evans- Wentz died in 1965, The Tibetan Book of the Dead was read at his funeral.

  37. Andrea

    Thank you, Ellis! I just picked up this book yesterday, in anticipation of my trip to Nepal later this year. And thank you for the link to the History Channel. It’s been amazing — enlightening? — how everything Nepal and Tibet have been coming to me, just like this. I look forward to learning so much more. Thanks again.

  38. Art and Picture Framing

    Beautiful images.

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