Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz (February 2, 1878 – July 17, 1965) was an American anthropologist and writer who was a pioneer in the study of Tibetan Buddhism, and in transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to the Western world, most known for publishing an early English translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927. Today, Evans-Wentz is best known for four texts translated from the Tibetan, Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa (1928), Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (1935), The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (1967).

Early life and background

He was born as Walter Yeeling Wentz in Trenton, New Jersey in 1878. His father was a real estate businessman, of German descent, while his mother was Irish. He also had two brothers and two sisters.[1] Though initially a Bapist, his father had turned to spiritualism and Theosophy.[2] As a teenager he read Madame Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine at his father's library and became interested in the teachings of Theosophy and Occult.[3] Subsequently, at the turn of century, he moved to San Diego in California, and joined his father's profession, but also because it was close to Lomaland, the American headquarters for the Theosophical Society, [1] which he joined in 1901.[4]

Evans-Wentz joined the Stanford University at the age of 24. Here he studied religion, philosophy and history and was deeply influenced by visitors William James and W. B. Yeats.[2] He went on to receive B.A. and M.A degrees.[1] He then studied Celtic mythology and folklore at Jesus College, Oxford[5] (1907). He travelled across Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany, and the Isle of Man to collecting stories about pixies, fairies, and goblins, and published his thesis about Fairy Faith as a book, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic countries in 1911.[1][6] At Oxford, he also added his mother's Welsh surname Evans to his name, being known henceforth as Evans-Wentz. [4]


While at Oxford, he met T.E. Lawrence, a British Army officer, who advised him to travel to the Orient. [2]

Thereafter, funded by his rental properties in Florida,[4] he started travelling extensively, spending time in Mexico, Europe, and the Far East. He spent the years of the First World War in Egypt. He boarded a ship from Port Said, Egypt for Colombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).[7] Here he started studying the history, customs and religious traditions of the country,[7] and also collected a large number of important Pali manuscripts, which were later donated to Stanford University. Next in 1918, he travelled across India, covering important religious sites, "seeking wise men of the east". He met spiritual figures like Yogananda, J. Krishnamurti, Paul Brunton, Ramana Maharishi, Sri Krishna Prem and Shunyata. He also visited Theosophical Society Adyar, where he met Annie Besant and came close of Swami Satyananda and Swami Shyamananda.[4]

Finally he reached Darjeeling in 1919;[7] there he encountered Tibetan religious texts firsthand, when he acquired a Tibetan manuscript of Profound Doctrine of Self-Liberation of Mind by Karmalingpa, from Major Campbell, a British officer who had just returned from Tibet. He next met Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup (1868–1922), an English teacher and headmaster at Maharaja's Boys School, in Gangtok, Sikkim. Samdup had remained a staff of the 13th Dalai Lama, during his exile years in India in 1910, more importantly for Evans-Wentz, he had already worked as a translator with Alexandra David-Néel, the Belgian-French explorer and travel writer, who had converted to Buddhism and Sir John Woodroffe, noted British Orientalist. [4][7]

Thereafter for the next two months, Evans-Wentz spent morning hours, before the opening of the school with Samdup working on the text. During this period, they worked out the origins of what was to become The Tibetan Book of the Dead. He soon left for the Swami Satyananda's ashram, where he was practicing yoga. Samdup on the other hand was appointed as a lecturer at the University of Calcutta, in the same year, and died in Calcutta three years later, long before the book could be finally published. [8]

Eventually, The Tibetan Book of the Dead was published by Oxford University Press, in 1927. It was to become a principal text westerners referred to for Tibetan Buddhism.[2] Evans-Wentz credited himself only as the compiler and editor of these volumes. The actual translation of the texts was performed by Tibetan Buddhists, primarily Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup. Evans-Wentz's interpretations and organization of this Tibetan material is hermeneutically controversial, being influenced by preconceptions he brought to the subject from theosophy and other metaphysical schools.[9]

This book was followed by Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa (1928), also based on Samdup's translations. He was a practitioner of the religions he studied. He became Dawa-Samdup's "disciple" (E-W's term), wore robes and ate a simple vegetarian diet.[10] In 1935, he met Ramana Maharshi, and went to Darjeeling, where he employed three translators, Sikkimese of Tibetan decent, to translated another text, which was published as Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (1935).[11]

He meant to settle permanently in India, but returned to the U.S. when World War II compelled him to do so. The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation came out in 1954, and much later, Cuchama and Sacred Mountains.

Thus his works on Tibetan Buddhism became his lasting legacy to Tibetology as today, he is best known for these four texts translated from the Tibetan.[12][2]

Later years and death

Evans-Wentz remained a Theosophist for the rest of his life, wrote articles for Theosophical publication. [11] He passed his final 23 years living in Keystone Hotel in San Diego, [11][13] and provided financial support to the Maha Bodhi Society, Self-Realization Fellowship, and the Theosophical Society.

Evans-Wentz spent his last months at Yogananda's Self-Realization Fellowship in Encinitas, California [11] and died in July, 1965. His Tibetan Book of the Dead was read at his funeral.[14]


The Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University has hosted The Evans-Wentz Lectureship in Asian Philosophy, Religion, and Ethics since 1969, funded by a bequest from Evans-Wentz.[15]

Partial bibliography

  • The Tibetan book of the dead; or, The after-death experiences on the Bardo plane, according to Lāma Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English rendering, with foreword by Sir John Woodroffe, London, Oxford University Press, H. Milford, 1927.
  • Tibetan Yoga And Secret Doctrines; or, Seven books of wisdom of the great path, according to the late Lāma Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English rendering; arranged and edited with introductions and annotations to serve as a commentary, London, Oxford University Press, H. Milford, 1935.
  • Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa: a biography from the Tibetan ; being the Jetsün-Kahbum or biographical history of Jetsün-Milarepa according to the late Lāma Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English rendering (2d ed.), edited with introd. and annotations by W. Y. Evans-Wentz, London, New York : Oxford University Press, 1951.
  • The Tibetan book of the Great liberation; or, The method of realizing nirvana through knowing the mind, preceded by an epitome of Padma-Sambhava’s biography and followed by Guru Phadampa Sangay’s teachings. According to English renderings by Sardar Bahädur S. W. Laden La and by the Lāmas Karma Sumdhon Paul, Lobzang Mingyur Dorje, and Kazi Dawa-Samdup. Introductions, annotations, and editing by W. Y. Evans-Wentz. With psychological commentary by C. G. Jung. London, New York, Oxford University Press, 1954.

See also



  • At Bodleian Library, Oxford: Archives Hub: Papers of W. Y. Evans-Wentz
  • McGuire, William (2003) "Jung, Evans-Wentz and various other gurus", in: Journal of Analytical Psychology; 48 (4), 433–445. 10.1111/1465-5922.00406
  • Sutin, Lawrence (2006) All is Change: the two-thousand-year journey of Buddhism to the West Little, Brown and Co. ISBN 0-316-74156-6
  • In the Online Archive of California: Guide to the Walter Y. Evans-Wentz Collection SC0821

External links

  • Stanford University Libraries

W.Y.Evans-Wentz papers (English) are also housed at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, see http://archiveshub.ac.uk/features/wyew.html

Evans-Wentz's Tibetan manuscripts are in the Bodleian Oriental Special Collections of manuscripts, see the Tibetan catalogue http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/95715/JESD-Tibetan-mss-catalogue-optimized.pdf which is searchable (search for "Evans-Wentz").

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