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A Tale of Two Scriptures: The American Book of Mormon and the Tibetan Book of the Dead

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On Jan. 14, the New York Times published a piece entitled, "The Theological Differences Behind Evangelical Unease with Romney." According to the article, one of these differences is scriptural: Mormons revere several scriptures that (other) Christians reject. The most famous of these is The Book of Mormon. The doctrinal differences between the various Protestant denominations and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have been widely reported throughout the Republican primaries. But these differences do not derive simply from the contents of the Mormon's holy scripture. For many Christians, it is also a problem of time and space: The Book of Mormon is too modern in time and too close in space to be a Holy Scripture.

On the night of Sept. 21, 1823, Joseph Smith, not yet 18, received a visitation from the angel Moroni at the family's farmhouse south of Palmyra, N.Y. According to Mormon belief, Moroni had once been a mortal, a prophet and general of the Nephites, an Israelite tribe that had left Jerusalem and sailed to the Americas, 2,000 years before Columbus. Prior to his death, Moroni inscribed the Record of the Nephites on metal plates and buried them in a stone box on a hill in what is today Ontario County, N.Y. The angel told Smith where the plates could be found. Smith was eventually able to retrieve the stone box, as well as two crystals, called the Urim and Thummim, set into a pair of spectacles. He later described the plates as golden in color, six inches wide and eight inches long, about the thickness of a sheet of tin, bound together by three rings into a book about six inches thick. The angel Moroni instructed Smith to translate the plates, which Smith said were written in "Reformed Egyptian." His method was to put on the crystal spectacles and then place a stovepipe hat over this face. From the darkness, the text would appear in English, which he would read aloud for dictation. The book that Smith translated has come to be known as The Book of Mormon.

In the late 1300s, a young Tibetan named Karma Lingpa had a vision. Following the instructions he received, he unearthed a book from a mountain in Tibet. He said that a great Indian saint had buried the text there more than 500 years before. However, the text was not written in Tibetan, but in a secret script that only Karma Lingpa could decipher. It consisted largely of mortuary rituals, concerned especially with a period called the bardo or "intermediate state." According to Buddhist doctrine, between death in this life and rebirth in the next, there is a period that can last as long as 49 days. It is a time of both danger and opportunity, and special instructions are provided for avoiding a bad rebirth and finding freedom from all rebirth, instructions that are sometimes read to the corpse. The buried text that Karma Lingpa translated was thus called Liberation in the Intermediate State through Hearing. It changed in size and content in the centuries after his death, remaining a relatively minor collection of prayers and rituals for the dead, used especially by one of the four major sects of Tibetan Buddhism. Yet, by the 20th century, it was the most famous Buddhist book in the world.

We can blame it on colonialism. The British invaded Tibet in 1903 and demanded trade concessions that allowed British officers to travel between Tibet and their colony India. In 1919, a Major Campbell acquired a copy of Liberation in the Intermediate State through Hearing and took it to Darjeeling, where he sold it to a credulous American spiritualist named Walter Evans-Wentz. He was a spiritualist not in the modern sense of "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual," but because he believed in spirits. In the wake of the carnage of the First World War, there was a renewed interest in spiritualism, the belief that it is possible to contact the dead. Evans-Wentz took the Tibetan text, which he could not read, to the English teacher at the local boarding school for boys and asked him to translate it. His translation was good, but Evans-Wentz buried it under various prefaces, forewords, introductions, afterwords and footnotes filled with his own, often irrelevant, musings. Then he named it The Tibetan Book of the Dead, because it reminded him of The Egyptian Book of the Dead (the secrets of ancient Egypt were central to his particular form of spiritualism). Published by Oxford University Press in 1927, it would become an international best-seller, with its own reincarnations, one with an approving preface by Carl Jung, another as an LSD handbook by Timothy Leary, another as an audiobook read by Richard Gere, still another as a video narrated by Leonard Cohen.

There is likely a lesson here. A text unearthed in upstate New York less than 200 years ago becomes a source of inspiration for a community of believers, but the object of condemnation and scorn for their neighbors, who drive them out of Ohio and Illinois, and finally all the way to Utah. In America, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, sanctified by the sands of time and the lofty peaks of distant Tibet, has become a timeless spiritual classic; its rather dubious pedigree remains a tale untold. Yet The Book of Mormon, unearthed not so long ago from a more modest hill in upstate New York, is still an object of contempt in many Christian quarters in 2012.

It should not be surprising that what we know about the historical origins of a holy scripture differs in important ways from its creation myth. The further removed those origins are from the present, the thicker the patina of sanctity becomes. But assuming it were possible, just for a moment, to set aside the thorny question of divine inspiration, it is likely that the origins of all sacred texts would seem equally mundane.

Donald S. Lopez, Jr. is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. His most recent book is The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography published by Princeton University Press.