W.Y. Evans-Wentz

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Evans-Wentz, W(alter) Y(eeling) (1878-1965)

American scholar who became an authority on fairy lore and the mysticism of Tibet and India. Evans-Wentz was born February 2, 1878, in Trenton, New Jersey. Later he moved to La Mesa, California, where he lived with his family for several years. He studied at Stanford University, California (B.A. English, 1906; M.A., 1907). He traveled to Britain, where he stud-ied social anthropology at Oxford University under Sir John Rhys, professor of Celtic.

Two other scholars had an important influence on him: William James, whose lectures on psychology Evans-Wentz had attended at Stanford and who had early encouraged his studies in fairy lore; and Andrew Lang, authority on folklore and psychical research, who was one of Evan-Wentz's examiners at Oxford University when he presented his thesis on fairy lore. From this thesis, supported by fieldwork in Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and Brittany, grew his major work, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911). After further expeditions in Brittany, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and Cornwall, he was awarded a D.S. at Oxford University in 1910.

His research into common traditions of fairy faith led to more detailed study of pagan and Christian religious beliefs and practices, and then to comparative religion. In 1917 he traveled in India, studying the mysticism and religious practices he believed were once closely connected in both East and West. In one account of those travels, he writes:

"I have spent more than five years in such research, wandering from the palm-wreathed shores of Ceylon, and thence through the wonderland of the Hindus, to the glacier-clad heights of the Himalayan Ranges, seeking out the Wise Men of the East. Sometimes I lived among city dwellers, sometimes in jungle and mountain solitudes among yogis, sometimes in monasteries with monks, sometimes I went on pilgrimages."

These travels took him throughout India and to Tibet, where he lived as a Buddhist monk and spent three years with Tibetan Lama Kazi Dawa-Sandup until the lama died in March 1922. As a result of these researches, Evans-Wentz published several important texts on Tibetan mysticism, including The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1927).

In 1931 Oxford University conferred upon him the degree of D.S. in comparative religion, a rare honor, because at that time he was one of only six persons, and the first American, to receive that degree.

A year later he attended meetings of the Self-Realization Fellowship in San Diego, California, under Paramahansa Yogananda, a famous yogi whom he had met in India. During his travels, Evans-Wentz had also met Sri Yitkeshwar Giri, a guru of Yogananda, in Puri, Orissa. In 1935 he visited the ashram of the famous Sri Ramana Maharishi at Tiruvannamalai in southern India. He also maintained close contact with Buddhist organizations and was welcome in many different religious groups; he hoped to unite East and West in mutual understanding and religious insight.

Toward the end of his life, he retired to San Diego, California, for 23 years. He was drawn to the Self-Realization Fellowship, which had a colony at Encinitas. In 1946 he wrote a warm tribute to Paramahansa Yogananda as a foreword to the yogi's Autobiography of a Yogi. At the Self-Realization Fellowship, Evans-Wentz worked with a secretary on his final book, Sacred Mountains of the World, which he completed before his death, in his 88th year, on July 17, 1965.

In his will he made generous bequests to various religious organizations. He also left 2,000 acres of land near Tecate to the state of California to be used as an experimental reforestation and recreational area; this estate included Coochama, a mountain sacred to Native Americans. He also assigned mineral rights in his property (some 5,000 acres) to Stanford University to establish a professorship in Oriental philosophy, religion, and ethics. Some of his Oriental manuscripts were left to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, England; others he gave to Stanford.

At his cremation service on July 21, 1965, there was a reading in English from his own edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, invoking the Perfect Enlightenment of Pure Reality.


Evans-Wentz, W. Y. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. 1911. Reprint, New York: Lemma, 1973.

. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. 1927. Reprint, London: Oxford University Press, 1957.

. The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.

. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines; or, Seven Books of Wisdom of the Great Path. 2d ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.

. Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa. 2d ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

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Evans-Wentz, Walter Yeeling (1878–1965). Pioneer in revealing and interpreting Tibetan Buddhist philosophy to the West. In 1919 in Gangtok, Evans-Wentz met the Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup (former teacher of Alexandra David-Neel who wrote Magic and Mystery in Tibet, 1965) and together they began translating the Tibetan Book of the Dead, 1927, a totally unknown manuscript which Evans-Wentz had picked up in a Darjeeling bazaar. Other books haphazardly followed: Tibet's Great Yogi, Milarepa, (1928); Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, (1935); Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, (1954) (pt. 2 of which he considered his most important work), and Cuchama and Sacred Mountains, (1981) (posthumously).