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Liberation through Seeing: Screening The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Department of Comparative Cultural Studies, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ 86011, USA
Religions 2018, 9(8), 239;
Received: 19 June 2018 / Revised: 19 July 2018 / Accepted: 30 July 2018 / Published: 7 August 2018
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Practicing Buddhism through Film)
PDF [53623 KB, uploaded 7 August 2018]


The text known in English as The Tibetan Book of the Dead is arguably the principle source for popular understandings of Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of death. First translated into English in 1927, subsequent translations have read it according to a number of interpretive frameworks. This paper examines two recent films that take The Tibetan Book of the Dead as their inspiration: Bruce Joel Rubin’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009). Neither of these films overtly claim to be depicting The Tibetan Book of the Dead, but the directors of both have acknowledged that the text was an influence on their films, and both are undeniably about the moment of death and what follows. The analysis begins with the question of how, and to what degree, each of the films departs from the meaning and purpose of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, before moving on to examine the reasons, both practical and ideological, for these changes. Buddhist writer Bruce Joel Rubin wrote a film that sought to depict the death experience from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, but ultimately audience expectation and studio pressure transformed the film into a story at odds with Tibetan Buddhism. Gaspar Noé wrote and directed a film that is based on a secular worldview, yet can be seen to be largely consistent with a Tibetan Buddhist reading. Finally, I consider if, and to what extent, these films function to express or cultivate an experiential engagement with Tibetan Buddhist truths and realization, concluding that Jacob’s Ladder does not, while Enter the Void largely succeeds, despite the intention of its creator. View Full-Text
Keywords: The Tibetan Book of the Dead; Tibetan Buddhism; Death and Buddhism; Buddhism and Film; Jacob’s Ladder; Enter the Void The Tibetan Book of the Dead; Tibetan Buddhism; Death and Buddhism; Buddhism and Film; Jacob’s Ladder; Enter the Void

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Donnelly, P.B. Liberation through Seeing: Screening The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Religions 2018, 9, 239.

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