One summer afternoon in the early 20th century a young Trenton man lounging on the banks of the Delaware River had an overwhelming sensation that “this is not the first time I possessed a human body.”
Writing about the experience later, he said this “ecstatic-like vision” produced a realization that “came flashing into my mind with such authority that I never thought of doubting it, a mind-picture of things past and to come” and that “my life was to be that of a world pilgrim, wandering from country to country, over seas, across continents and mountains, through deserts to the end of the earth, seeking, seeking for I knew not what.”
That searching led Trenton-born Walter Evans-Wentz to travel the world, interact with world-renowned philosophers and writers, study at prestigious universities, become an expert in Eastern religion, and producing a line of books on Eastern spirituality that included the English language translation that popularized “The Tibetan Book of the Dead.”
Born on February 2, 1878, Evans-Wentz wrote that he was raised in a small brick cottage standing on “ground consecrated to freedom by the historical Battle of Trenton of the American Revolutionary War.”
His father, Christopher Wentz, was a German who arrived in the 19th century and established a real estate business. His mother was Mary Evans Cook, whose Irish Quaker ancestors reportedly arrived in America in the early 17th century.
Evans-Wentz often noted that his mother was a major influence on his life and began using her name as part of his own when he published his first book, “The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries’’ — inspired by his mother’s Irish folk tales.
The future Buddhist was raised a Baptist, but as he grew older the family began to embrace the ideas of spiritualists and freethinkers.
His father became interested in the occult and was much taken with the work of Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society. Her claim to have been inspired by Tibetan monks also inspired Evans-Wentz, who had disregarded Christianity for religions that espoused rebirth.
Although more interested in an ascetic life, Evans-Wentz used his father as a model and became a successful realtor and used the funds to pursue his spiritual interests.
He was 24 years old when he followed his father to work in real estate in California and enrolled at Stanford University. There he studied with American philosopher and “The Variety of Religious Experience” author William James.
After earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford in five years, Evans-Wentz went to Oxford and begin his studies for “The Fairy Faith” by traveling through Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, and Ireland collecting stories about pixies, fairies, and goblins. Oxford University Press published the book in 1911.
During his travels in Ireland, he developed an association with Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who shared Evans-Wentz’s fascination in Celtic folklore and theosophy and was interested in the American’s work. Yeats, along with the Irish poet known as A.E., is mentioned in the book’s dedication.
Funding himself through his investments, Wentz extended his travels to Italy, Greece, and other places “where great souls of past times have lived and thought.”
He arrived in Egypt, where the events of World War I forced him to remain for 29 month and where he was detained in 1915 under the suspicion of being a German spy.
Evans-Wentz then decided to head to India but wanted to do so without war-related interference. He contacted a fellow Oxford student and now a military agent, T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.
“Dear Wentz, there is no difficulty about getting to India. To be on the safe side we have wired to ask if they can allow you to wander about as you please,” Lawrence wrote — allowing Evans-Wentz to study Buddhist spirituality and gain international notoriety for spurring the early, if not first, English translation of the “Bardo Thodol.”
While the name is roughly translated as “Liberation through Hearing (the sacred text read),” the book is more known in the west by the title Evans-Wentz’ chose, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” — allegedly inspired by his familiarity with the “Egyptian Book of the Dead.”
While Evans-Wentz produced, edited, and wrote extensive introductions to the book’s several sections, the actual translator was Lama Kazi Dawa. Born near the India/Tibet border, Kazi Dawa had been taught the Tibetan language by his grandfather and trained by the British as an interpreter. He was also a confidant, guide, and translator to the French-born Buddhist scholar Alexandra David-Neel (noted for her intrepid foot journey to the Tibetan city of Lhasa in 1924).
The first edition of the Evans-Wentz “Book of the Dead” was printed in 1927 and then revised to include an essay on Tibetan spirituality and psychology by the noted psychoanalyst Carl Jung — whom Evans-Wentz contacted directly.
While “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” is Evans-Wentz’s most famous book, he also produced “Cachuma and Sacred Mountains,” “Tibet’s Great Yogi, Milarepa,” and “Tibetan Yoga and Secret. He also wrote the preface for “The Autobiography of Yogi.”
During World War II, Evans-Wentz returned to the United States and lived the last of his 23 years mainly at the Keystone Hotel in San Diego — selected because it was near the city’s only vegetarian restaurant. He also had a small house near the Mexican border where he would sometimes visit to practice Buddhist spirituality and write the “Sacred Mountains” book that examined Native America and its parallels to Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism.
“I am haunted by a realization of the illusion of all human endeavors,” he wrote in one of his late diary entries. “As (the Tibetan master) Milarepa taught: buildings end in ruin, meetings in separation, accumulation in dispersion, and life in death. Whether it is better to go on here in California where I am lost in the midst of the busy multitude or return to the Himalayas is now a question difficult to answer correctly.”
The question was answered when died in 1965. His body was cremated and his ashes taken to a small temple in northern India — ending a long search that began one summer day on the banks of the Delaware River in Trenton.