Tibetan Book of the Dead

Option III: The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Three Prayer Wheels and Pilgrims, Monastery in Tibet
Three Prayer Wheels and Pilgrims, Monastery in Tibet

Death is a fundamental experience of human life, which has been addressed in various ways among religious traditions. Before exploring a specific text from the Tibetan tradition, please read pages 213-67 in your textbook The Phenomenon of Religion to gain an overview regarding diverse concepts of suffering, sacrifice, and salvation.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a guide for the dead and dying. According to the belief of Tibetan Buddhists, the consciousness of the deceased wanders through an intermediate state for forty-nine days before entering another rebirth. During this period the consciousness of the deceased is able to hear the recitations from the book, which teaches and directs the soul towards the path to enlightenment during its journey through the bardos of death.

movie projector

An excellent introduction to this book is provided in the following videos, which can be viewed in the library at COD (Circulation desk):

* The Tibetan book of the dead: the great liberation / a co-production of NHK/NHK Creative of Japan, Mistral Film of France and the National Film Board of Canada (Santa Monica, CA : Direct Cinema Limited, c1994)

* The Tibetan book of the dead: a way of life

To explore the “Art of Living and Dying” according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead please enter the Special collections department of the University of Virginia here:


Research the following topics, which should also be addressed if you choose a passage from this book (not more than three pages) for your term paper:

* General features of Tibetan Buddhism
* Tibetan perspectives on death and dying
* The Tibetan book of the dead and the art of block printing
* Transitions to the other-world: the Tibetan books of the Dead

Your next step should be to begin to read passages from the primary text

* The Tibetan Book of the Dead Ed. W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Trans. Kazi Dawa Samdup (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1960)

* Introduce the religious, cultural and historical context from which your text originates. For example, if you write about a passage from The Tibetan Book of the Dead you need to introduce Tibetan Buddhism and the specific ways this book was and is used in its original culture .
* Interpretation of your chosen passage: When writing this interpretation, think of your task as explaining this text to somebody who has never heard of it before. Therefore, you need to clarify words that are not known, elaborate on the language (whether poetic-mythic language is used or a philosophical approach is taken), explore imagery, and analyze the impact of this text on the social structure of the group who uses it. The key question for you in this interpretation however should be: What is the religious significance of this text?

Conclude your paper giving a summary of your most important insights gained in this interpretation. You might also compare your text to a passage from another religious context and speak about differences and similarities.


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