He was known as a translator of important Tibetan texts, especially a 1927 edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was for many Westerners the first book on Tibetan Buddhism that they took seriously. But Walter Evans-Wentz didn't speak Tibetan and he never translated anything. “He didn't claim to be a translator in his books,” says Roger Corless, Professor of Religion at Duke University, “but he didn’t mind leaving the impression that he was.”
Evans-Wentz was a man of contradtions, an important world scholar who sometimes sounds like a small-town American crank. Like many figures who helped bring Buddhism to the West, Evans-Wentz didn't call himself a Buddhist, and seems to have stumbled almost accidentally across the texts he eventually published. With his naive sincerity, flowery rhetoric, lofty vision, messianic tone, he might be taken for a proto—New Age crank today. But he became a highly respected scholar. He even projected a vaguely British affect in his writings, signing his books “W.Y. Evans-Wentz, M.A., D.Litt; D.Sc. Jesus College, Oxford.” But Evans-Wentz spent comparatively little time at Oxford and grew up before the turn of the century in Trenton, New Jersey.
He was a dreamy, lonely youth, who liked to spend his afternoons lazing beside the Delaware River, sometimes (surprisingly, for a lifelong prude) without his clothes. It was on one of those afternoons that he had an “ecstatic-like vision.” He had been “haunted,” he later wrote, with the conviction that "this [was] not the first time that I [had] possessed a human body,” but now “there came flashing into my mind with such authority that I never thought of doubting it, a mind-picture of things past and to come....I knew from that night 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.”
Evans-Wentz did become a pilgrim, and travelled through Egypt, India, Sikkim, China, Japan. He was particularly mobile between the wars, when he did the work for which he is best known and which brought a new respect for Tibetan Buddhism to the West. Yet he spent the last 23 years of his life living out of a cramped room in a seedy hotel in San Diego, near a mountain called Cuchama, on the Mexican border, that he came to regard as his personal sacred space.
Evans-Wentz kept diaries throughout his life, and made extensive notes for an autobiography which served as sources for Ken Winkler’s brief 1982 biography, Pilgrim of the Clear Light. Evans-Wentz also made substantial reference to himself in his books, especially in the long introductions in which he supplied background material,. But there remains something essentially mysterious about the man. He wore his spiritual heart on his sleeve, but other parts he kept concealed.
He made scant reference to his family in those journals. He had two brothers and two sisters, but was a solitary and somewhat lonely child. His father was of German descent, a businessman who had a problem with alcohol. His mother was Irish, and may have inspired his early scholarly interests (his first book, written at Oxford, was called The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries).
Walter was raised a Baptist, but as he grew older, the family began to embrace the ideas of spiritualists and freethinkers. He had a particular interest in the occult, and was much taken with the work of Madame Blavatsky. It was because she claimed to have been inspired by lamas in Tibet that he first became interested in that country.
Indeed, much of Evans-Wentz’ work comes into focus in light of his interest in the Theosophists. He shared their visionary, exalted tone (“Over the bosom of the Earth-Mother, in pulsating vibrations, radiant and energizing, flows the perennial Stream of Life,” he wrote). He saw truth in all religions, but held a lifelong grudge against Christianity, which he regarded as small-minded and petty. One of his most cherished beliefs was in reincarnation--it is the single thread that runs through all his work—and he insisted that Gnostic Christians had believed in rebirth, couldn't understand why the mainstream faith had abandoned this doctrine.
Evans-Wentz had a fickle relationship to capitalism. The idea of an aescetic life attracted him, especially after he had visited the East, and he disliked any show of wealth or bourgeois comfort.. But he followed his father into the real estate business and was remarkably successful, making substantial sums in "quick sales, mortgages, and land transfers." He would continue to deal in real estate all his life, and apparently funded himself with the profits.
Evans-Wentz didn't get around to formal education until his mid-twenties. He had followed his father to San Diego, partly because he was interested in Loma Land, the American headquarters for the Theosophical Society, and enrolled in Stanford at the age of 24 as a “special entrant.” By the time he applied to Jesus College at Oxford in 1907, at the age of 29, he had earned both bachelors and masters degrees from Stanford. At Oxford he pursued his interest in “fairy faith,” travelling through Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany, and the Isle of Man collecting stories about pixies, fairies, and goblins.
He was especially taken with Celtic doctrines of rebirth.
By 1916, Evans-Wentz had an income from his investments of $1600, a princely sum in those days. He visited AE and Yeats in Ireland, two poets with an interest in his work and in theosophy, then began his wider travels, heading for Egypt where he remained for 29 months. Roger Corless speculates that it was Evans-Wentz' probable knowledge of E. Wallace Budge's translation of The Egyptian Book of the Dead, that has left us with the inaccurate title The Tibetan Book of the Dead. A more literal translation would be The Book of Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States.
From Egypt he moved on to Ceylon and then to India, where he mingled with the prominent Theosophist community. Until then, he had taken an occultist's interest in varieties of faith, not a practitioner's. But now he was in the land that had inspired Madame Blavatsky, and began to wander in the foothills of the Himalayas, encountering spiritual teachers about whom he would write in his books.
In Darjeeling, Evans-Wentz met Sardar Bahadur Laden La, a police officer and scholar who gave him a letter of introduction to the Headmaster of a Boys School in Gangtok, Sikkim, Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup. If it weren't for this man we might never have heard of Evans-Wentz. Kazi Dawa-Samdup had hoped early in life to be a hermit or monk, but as the eldest son had family responsibilities, and had become the lay disciple of a Bhutanese hermit, Guru Norbu. Seven years before meeting Evans Wentz, he had been a translator and teacher for Alexandra David-Neel, the first Western woman to enter Lhasa.