The Great Liberation by Hearing

Until now, what is commonly referred to in English as the Tibetan Book of the Dead was actually just an excerpt, or chapter, called the Bardo Thodol or The Great Liberation by Hearing. The entire 1,300 year old funerary text, credited to Padmasambhava, the great yogi who brought Buddhism to Tibet, is actually a much larger book. On this point, the Telegraph elucidates:

[It] was this small fragment that would form the basis for the innumerable translations and adaptations that have appeared since. “From the Tibetan point of view it’s rather odd,” says Graham Coleman, who has edited the new, complete translation. “To take only one of 12 chapters is like taking a Shakespeare play and translating one scene—say, Hamlet ruminating on the nature of existence — and forgetting the rest of it.”

Sadly, for now the new complete translation is not available in the United States. Nonetheless the Telegraph article gives us an entertaining and enlightening review of the text’s history within the English-speaking West. Here’s a few highlights from the article:

  • Carl Jung, who claimed that the [original] Evans-Wentz translation rarely left his side, saw the book as evidence for his theories on the collective unconscious. He likened the mutilations inflicted by the demon Yama to the dissociative states of schizophrenia, and suggested that the book should be read back to front – from rebirth to death – as a parallel to the model process of psychoanalysis.
  • More recently, the Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche used the Book of the Dead as the basis for his sweetened Buddhist primer, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which has sold more than two million copies.
  • “The Great Liberation by Hearing” can be read as “a metaphor for our daily experience”... The poet Heathcote Williams came up with this beautiful phrase, ‘death develops life’s photographs’, and this seems to be the critical lesson of the book, that it is imperative to understand the consequences of one’s actions.”

Last week the Telegraph published, An alternative revelation, a review of the complete translation.

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