The Tibetan Book of the Dead (8th century), translated by Gyurme Dorje
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Buddha statue. Photograph: Getty
Where should we turn when confronting the question of what it means to die: to our own culture, which encourages denial and panic, or to a culture such as that of Buddhist Tibet, in which life was a long and careful preparation for death?
The high priests of scientific materialism assure us that all talk of consciousness continuing after physical death is for children, but the troubling visions presented in The Tibetan Book of the Dead make annihilation seem like the fairytale.
As with all great religious and spiritual texts, there is comfort in the reminder that the trials and agonies we face now are not ours alone: human beings have been screwing things up and suffering the consequences since time immemorial.
There is an element of existential slapstick to the section titled “Plaintive Confession of Rampant Egohood”, as well as gorgeous and visceral poetry: “From beginningless time, without end, I have roamed through cyclic existence . . . The fires of blazing hatred have unabatingly seared my mind.”
Since its introduction to the West a century ago, The Tibetan Book of the Dead has diffused across a web of inspiration. Carl Jung was mesmerised by it; first-wave psychedelic gurus including Timothy Leary admired its awesome luminescence. The minimalist composer Éliane Radigue produced her intense Trilogie de la Mort under its influence, while the film-maker Gaspar Noé’s masterpiece Enter the Void visualises its schema above a sleaze-scape of modern Tokyo.
The book includes strange prayers, masked dramas, and references to bizarre local customs (“the semen should be inhaled through the nose, while it is still warm”). It is the section titled “The Great Liberation By Hearing”, though, that has done most to kindle the passions of a spiritually barren West.
Intended to be read at the bedside of the dying, it describes the terrifying “bardos” through which consciousness passes on being separated from the body. If we are sufficiently alert, we might seize the chance to escape the wheel of becoming. For the rest of us, “The cycle of ignorance and bewilderment is exhausting and undiminishing”.