Travels in the Netherworld
Buddhist Popular Narratives of Death and the Afterlife in Tibet
Oxford University Press 2008
Today on “New Books in Buddhist Studies” we’ll be going to hell and back with Bryan Cuevas in a discussion of his new book Travels in the Netherworld: Buddhist Popular Narratives of Death and the Afterlife in Tibet(Oxford University Press, 2008). Common in Tibetan Buddhism is the story of the delok, a person who has died, traveled to the afterlife, and returned to the land of living with some message or moral to share. Delok come from all walks of life–laypersons, lamas, and monks–all figure in these stories. And what they share is a detailed and personal account of their deaths, their journeys to various Buddhist hells and suffering beings they encounter there, and a meeting with the Lord of Death, Yama, who judges their karmic action. Invariably, Yama tells the delok that she or he should return to the living and be a more compassionate, generous, and devoted Buddhist. These morality tales tell us much about religious belief and practice in pre-modern Tibet. But Prof. Cuevas’ important work also has much to say about the limitations of the term “popular” itself. By cutting across both monastic and lay communities, this literature reveals much about common Buddhist understandings of the cosmos both inside and outside the monastery walls.