Originally published as "The Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism" in 1885 (W.H. Allen & Co., Ltd., London), this classic, and somewhat controversial, book has gone through several title changes, including the very accurate "Tibetan Buddhism: With Its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology," when it was reprinted by Dover Publications in 1972 (the edition reviewed here). I have also reviewed one of the more recent printings, under the original title, and these two reviews are largely, but not completely, duplicates.
The book was in its time a landmark in English-language writings on Tibet, and it still retains some value for its rich visual documentation, in the form of photographs and line drawings. There are some remarkably clear descriptions of shrines and temples, costumes and ritual practices, objects and images. Given the massive destruction of Tibetan religious sites in China as well as Tibet, much of what he recorded will never be seen again. The Dover edition has made a storehouse of raw information available for thirty years, during which interest in, and information about, traditional Tibetan religion has been steadily growing.
Unfortunately, Waddell all too frequently confides in the reader his distaste for the religion he is describing, and his contempt for its functionaries. I gave up on the book for this reason when I first tried to read it. Some Amazon reviewers (of this and other editions) seem to think that Waddell must have known what he was talking about, and some of them accept his characterizations at face value, which is a pity.
The author's attitude may be in part a matter of self-defense. It seems that Waddell got access to some of his information by becoming the owner/patron of a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Peking, and probably felt that he had to make clear to his pious readers back home in England that he was not really a wicked idolater. Some of his expressions of disdain seem to reflect real misunderstandings: having failed to grasp that the word "lama" means "teacher of religion," not "monk," he is scandalized to discover the occasional married lama. (This response probably relates to intra-Christian issues as well -- see below.)
Then, too, there is the idealized image of Theraveda Buddhism from Ceylon, which had introduced itself to Europeans as the true, pure, original, non-superstitious Buddhism, not to be confused with those self-styled Buddhisms found elsewhere. With that vision as the standard of purity, the versions found in northern Asia would automatically seem defective, and Waddell takes it for granted.
Finally, Waddell, apparently writing for a solidly "anti-Papist" readership, sometimes seems unable to distinguish the images and rituals of Mahayana Buddhism, in its various forms, from parallel practices in Catholicism, and is glad to condemn both.
Worth reading today? Well, the book is still cited, with diffidence, by scholars far more sympathetic to the subject, and far better informed about it, for its extraordinary amount of factual documentation. For a novice in Tibetan studies, I would suggest starting with a solid introduction, like Snellgrove and Richardson's "Cultural History of Tibet," and those looking for further information might continue with a responsible modern study, such as Giuseppe Tucci's "The Religions of Tibet." You could probably turn to Waddell for details after reading either one.
This book contains lots of facts about the origins of Tibetan Buddhism and also practices which the leaders of various sects have adopted to suit their own taste. The language is rather dry, though.