Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz (February 2, 1878, Trenton, New Jersey – July 17, 1965, Encinitas, California) was an American anthropologist, folklorist and writer who pioneered the study of Tibetan Buddhism and its transmission to the Western world. He was best known for publishing the first English translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927. He also published other 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).
Born Walter Yeeling Wentz in Trenton, New Jersey in 1878. His father was a real estate agent of German descent, while his mother was Irish. He also had two brothers and two sisters.Originally his father was a Baptist Christian but he converted to spiritualism and theosophy.As a teenager, he read the works of Madame Blavatsky Isis unveiled and The Secret Doctrine in his father’s library, with which he became interested in Theosophical teachings and in the occult At the turn of the century he moved to San Diego, California to continue his father’s profession, but also to be close to Lomaland, the United States headquarters of the Theosophical Society, which he joined in 1901.
Evans-Wentz began studying at Stanford University at the age of 24 years. There he studied religion, philosophy and history, being strongly influenced by the talks given by William James and WB Yeats. He continued his studies until receiving the degree of Master of Arts (MA). He then studied Celtic mythology and folklore at Jesus College, University of Oxford. He traveled through Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, Armorica and the Isle of Man collecting stories about pixies, fairies and goblins, publishing his thesis on the Faith of the Fairies as a book entitled «The Fairy-Faith in Celtic countries »in 1911. During his stay in Oxford he added the Welsh surname of his mother» Evans «to his name, henceforth he would be known as Evans-Wentz.
During his stay in Oxford he met TE Lawrence, a British army officer who advised him to travel to the East.
From that moment, thanks to the profits that the rents of his properties in Florida granted him, he began to travel extensively, visiting Mexico, Europe and the Far East.
During the First World War he resided in Egypt. Then he took a boat from Port Said to Colombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). There he began to study the history, customs and religious traditions of that country, eventually collecting a large number of important Pali manuscripts, which he later donated to Stanford University. Then, in 1918, he traveled through India, including important religious sites to «seek wise men from the East.» He met important spiritual figures such as Yogananda, J. Krishnamurti, Paul Brunton, Ramana Maharshi, Sri Krishna Prem and Shunyata.He also visited the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Adyar, India, where he met Annie Besant and became friends with Swami Satyananda and Swami Shyamananda.
Finally, he arrived in Darjeeling in 1919. There he had his first experience with Tibetan religious texts when he bought the manuscript of Karmalingpa’s » Deep Doctrine of the Self-Liberation of the Mind «, Major Campbell, a British officer who had just returned from the Tibet.
Then he met Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup (1868-1922), an English teacher and director at the Maharaja boys’ school in Gangtok, Sikkim. Samdup had been part of the court of Thubten Gyatso, the thirteenth Dalai Lama, and had remained with him during his exile in India in 1910. However, what was most important to Evans-Wentz is that Samdup had worked as a translator with the French-Belgian explorer and writer Alexandra David-Néel, who had converted to Buddhism, and Sir John Woodroffe, reputed British Orientalist.
From there, and during the next two months, Evans-Wentz spent every morning, before the start time of classes, working with Samdup in the text. During this stage, they worked on the draft of what would later be the » Tibetan Book of the Dead .» But shortly after he went to Swami Satyananda’s ashram where he practiced yoga, while Samdup was appointed professor at the University of Calcutta that same year. Samdup died in Calcutta three years later, long before the book was published.
Finally, the » Tibetan Book of the Dead » was published in 1927 at Oxford University Press and became the main text to which Westerners referred to Tibetan Buddhism.
Evans-Wentz recognized himself only as a compiler and editor of the texts. This book was followed by » Tibet’s Great Yogi Milarepa » (The Great Yogi of Tibet Milarepa) in 1928, also based on the translations of Samdup.
He became a practitioner of Buddhism by becoming a disciple of Dawa-Samdup, wearing Buddhist devotional vestments and eating a vegetarian diet. In 1935, he met Ramana Maharshi.He then traveled to Darjeeling where he hired three Sikkimeses translators of Tibetan descent to translate another text that was published as «Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines» (Yoga and Secret Tibetan Doctrines) in 1935.
Although he intended to settle permanently in India, World War II forced him to return to the United States. There he published » The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation » (The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation) in 1954 and later » Cuchama and Sacred Mountains .»
In this way his works on Tibetan Buddhism became an enduring legacy for Tibetology to this day, being best known for the translated texts of Tibetan.
Evans-Wentz remained, also, as a practitioner of theosophy for the rest of his life. He spent his remaining 23 years living at the Keystone Hotel in San Diego, California supported financially by the Maha Bodhi Society, the Self-Realization Fellowship and the Theosophical Society.
Evans-Wentz spent his last months at the Self-Realization Fellowship in Encinitas, California and died in July 1965. The Tibetan Book of the Dead was read at his funeral.
The Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University has organized the Evans-Wentz Conferences on Asian Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (The Evans-Wentz Lectureship in Asian Philosophy, Religion, and Ethics) since 1969, founded on an inheritance from Evans himself. -Wentz.