I’ve been reading about Walter Evans-Wentz, an American anthropologist who was the first to publish an early translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927.
He was called a “gypsy-scholar” by his professors at Oxford, not without some truth, since he spent an enormous amount of time in Mexico, Europe and the Far East. This predates contemporary pioneers of Western Buddhism such as Bob Thurman, Uma Thurman’s father and Leonard van der Kujp with whom I had the pleasure of taking Tibetan Buddhism back in my Boston days. We are talking about the year 1919 when Evans-Wentz arrived at Darjeeling and began translating the text.
He was a practicing Buddhist and a yogi. Like some anthropologist who “go native,” Evans-Wentz wanted to permanently stay in India, but was compelled to return to the US during World War II.
According to Harry Oldmeadow in Journeys East, he was a “puritanical and isolated man,” who spent the last 25 years of his life in a motel in Sam Diego, following a strict vegetarian diet, and becoming rather involved with Yogananda’s Self Realization Fellowship in California. Oldmeadow writes: “He spurned public life and never took on the role of spiritual teacher…of his life he wrote…he had ‘striven to love all mankind of all nations and races and faiths…dwelt in the solitude of the deserts, of the jungles, of the mountaintops….” The underpinnings of his theosophical views are evident in his description of himself.
In the Foreword to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, it is stated that Evans-Wentz was more of a practitioner of Hindu yoga than Tibetan Buddhism. He never did learn Tibetan, but did claim that he was the recognized disciple of a Tibetan lama, maybe even the first Western one.
It is also noted that the Tibetan Book of the Dead was read at his funeral in the way that it was originally intended to be read.