W H Auden claimed that bad books wither and vanish like dead leaves, and critics shouldn't waste their energies on them. The strangely enduring role in western culture of the Tibetan Book of the Dead suggests that he was wrong. The book has been around since 1927, when a rich wandering American called W Y Evans-Wentz published a translation by a melancholy Tibetan schoolteacher of the Bardo Thodol ("The Great Liberation by Hearing"), a manuscript Evans-Wentz had acquired on his travels in the Indian Himalayas. A shrewd self-publicist, he named it after the voguish Egyptian Book of the Dead. It has never lacked disciples.
In the 1930s Carl Jung, later to endorse Mein Kampf and flying saucers, provided a woolly "psychological commentary" on the text. In 1960 Timothy Leary, LSD evangelist, produced The Psychedelic Experience: a manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead - a surprisingly lucid guide to taking acid, rendered absurd by linking it to "Tibetan" stages of death and rebirth. Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, Philip K Dick, Will Self and countless seekers after truth all claim to have derived inspiration from it. This 21st-century edition, purged of druggy connotations and clearly aimed at the New Age market, allows us to ask: why has a book so unconnected to genuine Buddhist teaching exercised such a powerful hold on western imaginations?
In one sense, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is simply translations from a vast 17th-century anthology of Tibetan Buddhist funerary rites, designed to be read by priests at the bedside of the dying. The purpose of such rites, given Buddhist belief in reincarnation, is obvious: to assist the deceased's rebirth in a higher state of grace, and eventually to attain nirvana, the complete dissolution of self. Those whose lives have lacked spiritual discipline can expect the opposite, as the text warns: they "will indeed fall into the great abyss of cyclic existence and be tortured unbearably" - and be reborn as a dog in a dog-kennel.
This new Penguin translation contains the most extensive compilation of these texts in English, ranging from endless incantations and exhortations to the "Great Liberation by Hearing", which occupies a quarter of the book. This is an account of the demons that one will encounter after death, such as Yama, who will "sever your head at the neck, extract your heart, pull out your entrails, eat your flesh and suck your bones". This chapter is easily the best, yet still repetitive. Imagine the children's book The Gruffalo, at inordinate length, without the jokes.
This edition does nothing to make the book less weird, or to clarify its enduring popularity, but it does trail an army of new devotees. Joanna Lumley claims that it "opens a compassionate window on to an ancient and unfamiliar landscape and makes it seem like home". She must have skipped the chapter on recognising symptoms of illness, which includes this:
If the semen of a man is reddish,
He may die or be subjected to slander after six months.
However, if its whiteness is undiminished,
There is no obstacle to life,
And the semen should be inhaled through the nose, while it is still warm.
In similar vein, Gayle Hunnicutt believes that reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead "will give me greater peace of mind and benefit all around me". Did she get much peace of mind from the advice for averting death? "One should face westwards towards the sun when it is close to setting, and remove one's clothes. Then placing a dog's tail under you and some excrement in a heap in front, one should eat a mouthful of excrement, and bark like a dog. Repeat three times."
One could tolerate this if there was also profound Buddhist wisdom here; after all, anyone who has visited a Tibetan Buddhist temple knows that its arts are obsessed with demons and bodily fluids. But the paucity of philosophy in these chapters is striking. At best, one finds occasional reiterations of Buddhist principles couched in childlike terms: discard your ego, renounce the illusion of earthly attachments, act with compassion towards others. But that's about it - those in search of an explanation of Buddhist philosophy, or any sense of the clarity and beauty of the Buddha's teachings, could glean more from the Buddha's Wikipedia entry than from these hundreds of pages. No wonder serious scholars of Tibetan culture view the Tibetan Book of the Dead as an amusing curiosity, a hangover from pre-Buddhist animist traditions in Tibet, targeted at superstitious rural folk.
On a visit to an isolated Buddhist village in the Himalayas last winter, I asked the local priest to perform a ceremony to bless our journey. We crouched on the floor of his dark temple while he recited pages of Buddhist scripture, occasionally beating a drum. After the ceremony was over, I asked him the meaning of the words he'd read out, and he confessed he had no idea. He could read the Tibetan, he explained, but he couldn't understand it. "It keeps the villagers happy, though," he told me, grinning. "They don't understand it either!" It is depressing to think that the western readers of the Tibetan Book of the Dead are equally in the dark.