Evans-Wentz, W. Y. (Walter Yeeling), 1878-1965.
Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, born February 2, 1878 in Trenton, New Jersey, attended Stanford University where he received his B.A. and his M.A. Evans-Wentz travelled extensively in Mexico, Europe, and the Far East. He spent several years in Tibet where he became a Buddhist monk. He was a pioneer in the field of Tibetan Buddhism and authored several books on the subject.From the finding aid for W. Y. (Walter Yeeling)Evans-Wentz Buddhism and eastern religions collection, ca.1600-1922 (Stanford University. Libraries. Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives.)
Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz helped to develop western understanding of Oriental religions, especially Tibetan Buddhism. He was born February 2, 1878 in Trenton, New Jersey where he spent his childhood, completing elementary school in June, 1892. After less than two years of high school, Wantz decided to become a journalist. He dropped out of high school and enrolled in commercial courses at business colleges in Jacksonville, Florida and Trenton, New Jersey. Working his way across the United States in various newspaper offices, he followed his family, who had recently settled in La Mesa, California, westward. Having decided that he was not well-suited to journalism, he arrived in Palo Alto in the academic year 1901-1902, hoping to gain admittance to the newly-established Stanford University.
Since Wentz had not completed high school, he was forced to make up deficiencies through special studies under various tutors. In May 1902 he passed an exam in English composition at Stanford, thus enabling him to submit an application for admittance to the University as a special student. Despite this initial handicap, Wentz graduated with his class in autumn 1906 (the graduation ceremonies having been postponed due to the severe earthquake that had demolished many of Stanford's buildings in April); he was elected Phi Beta Kappa. While at Stanford, Wentz wrote many poems, several extolling California in general and Stanford in particular, that were published, as were a couple of essays, in the Sequoia, a student literary publication. As a Stanford undergraduate, Wentz strongly believed that mankind had a great potentiality for spiritual and moral goodness if educated men would actively work to alleviate the social ills. He was impressed with Mrs. Leland Stanford's dream that the University's Memorial Church would encourage the students' highest spiritual ideals without being involved in denominational squabbles. Having been raised a Uniterian in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wentz fit nicely into the religious ideals fostered at Stanford. In his senior year he helped found the Social Service Club, whose advisor was Chaplain Gardiner and whose first president was Wentz. Only a month after its founding, the members of the Social Service Club had their first opportunity for social action by helping the victims of the earthquake find food and shelter.
Wentz majored in English at Stanford and became interested in Celtic influences on English literature. His advisor, Professor Newcomer, encouraged Wentz to pursue this interest by working for a Master's degree during the academic year 1906-1907. Another professor had a great influence on Wentz's development: William James was a visiting professor at Stanford in the spring semester 1906, teaching an introductory course in Philosophy. From James, Wentz developed an interest in the study of religious experience and the philosophical idea of a panpsychic reality that permeates all of human existence. What was always a philosophical possibility for James became a religious probability for Wentz. After receiving his M.A. in June 1907, Wentz went to Europe. He earned the Docteur-es-Lettres in 1909 at the University of Rennes for literary work in the field of Celtic folk-lore. At this time Wentz affirmed his own part-Celtic ancestry by adding Evans to his name. A year later he earned the Bachelor of Science in Anthropology from Oxford University for work on the Celtic fairy-faith. Evans-Wentz's literary work on Celtic folklore, which was begun at Stanford and concluded in France, was combined with his anthropological study of Celtic religion and overlaid with a panpsychical theory to explain the data in his first book, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (London: Oxford University Press, 1911).
Between 1911 and 1917, Evans-Wentz traveled extensively through the Mediterranian countries, documenting the religious experiences of many peoples. He spent three years in Egypt, not only studying Islamic faith, but also examining some of the Coptic documents of the early Christian gnostic communities and some of the ancient Egyptian texts from Karnak.
His five-year sojourn in India, Sikkim, and Ceylon between 1917 and 1922 provided the material for his most important works. These years for the most part were not spent in the theoretical study of Tibetan Buddhism, but rather in living the religion he was studying, attempting to experience the life of the people on their own terms. He climbed mountains with pilgrims who were imploring the deities to cure them of their maladies, visited various ashrams, and became a Buddhist novice monk in Sikkim between 1920 and 1922. Despite his close proximity to the religious rituals of the Indian people, he always remained the carefully-trained anthropologist who evaluated his data in a scholarly manner, attempting to illuminate the Buddhist religious experience in lights of Western religious phenomena. In recognition of his contribution be scholarship the honorary degree of Doctor of Science in Comparative Religion was conferred by Oxford University in 1931. Thus, when Evans-Wentz first met Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup in Sikkim [UNK], he recognized the Lama as a Buddhist scholar whose piety and [UNK] were beyond question. Their brief relationship ([UNK] [UNK] died in 1922) proved to be mutually rewarding. At the time of their first encounter, the Lama was involved in translating several important Tibetan Buddhist texts into English. Evans-Wentz [UNK] his living dictionary and eventually edited these manuscripts so that they would be intelligible to the Western reader. These translations provided the material for Evans-Wentz's four most important books, Tibet's Great Yogi, Milarepa; The Tibetan Book of the Dead; Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines; and The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (first published in London by Oxford University Press in 1928, 1929, 1935, and 1954, respectively). Together these four books have gone through at least fifteen printings or editions and there are translations of some of these works in at least five foreign languages. The years between 1922 and Evans-Wentz's death (at 87) on July 17, 1965 were spent editing these four books and writing a fifth book, The Sacred Mountains of the Western World (unpublished). His consuming vocation was to improve understanding between the East and the West. He traveled frequently between Oxford University, the United States, and India. In order to continue his work he laft a large portion of his estate to Stanford University. The fund provides an annual lectureship in his name on topics in the field of Oriental religion, philosophy, and ethics.
Thomas V. Peterson and William A. Clebsch
August 1970From the finding aid for W. Y. (Walter Yeeling) Evans-Wentz Papers , 1894-1961 (Stanford University. Libraries. Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives.)