Liberation through seeing: Screening The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Paul B. Donnelly

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number239
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2018


  • Buddhism and film
  • Death and Buddhism
  • Enter the void
  • Jacob’s ladder
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • Tibetan Buddhism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Religious studies


Dive into the research topics of 'Liberation through seeing: Screening The Tibetan Book of the Dead'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this