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1929 (pre): Alexandra David-Neel and the Tulpas of Tibet

In 1929, an European woman who had traveled extensively in Tibet inadvertently added a new word to the lexicon of the paranormal... 'tulpa.'

Alexandra David-Neels
Alexandra David-Neel [Larger version here]

        That woman was Alexandra David-Neel [1868-1969]; she had spent years studying Tibetan religion and mysticism, and had begun to write books to both explain the ideas behind these systems, as well as to share her own personal adventures of traveling in a distant land. In 1929 she published Mystiques et Magiciens du Thibet [in French; it was soon released in English as Magic and Mysticism in Tibet]. Among other things, this book told of David-Neel's own encounters with a Tibetan spiritual phenomena named 'sprul pa' which she chose to write as 'tulpa'... I suspect to render the word more phonetically correct to what it would sound like in Tibetan rather than English.

        A tulpa, as David-Neel explained it, is a sort of illusion created by spiritual energy; it can look like anything, and can be mistaken for real. In extreme cases, these illusions can be solid and, if of a living being, can take on a life of their own and possibly outlive their creator. Tulpas are created either by a spiritual entity or by a human who can properly envision the object they wish to represent as if it was real to begin with. In Tibet, it was believed that various spirits and deities used tulpas to create manifestations of themselves for people to interact with; it was also believed that some very well trained Lamas (holy people) could also create these illusions with varying degrees of skill. Past that, even common people could occasionally create a tulpa inadvertently when they focused on a thought too much. To help explain how this worked, David-Neel offered up four examples from her own experience.

Where's Wangdu?

        A young Tibetan man named Wangdu in David-Neel's service was given a three-week leave to visit his family. On his return he was to purchase food and supplies, hire porters, and then lead the caravan back to David-Neel's camp... but after two months with no word from him, David-Neel was under the impression he just wasn't coming back.

        Then one night, David-Neel dreamed about the young man arriving back wearing a foreign sun hat that he had never owned before. The morning after the dream, one of David-Neel's servants came to tell her that Wangdu had returned and was just down the hill. Sure enough, she recognized him as he slowly walked up the path that wound back and forth on the slope, climbing up from the valley below. And, sure enough, he was wearing the hat she saw him wearing in her dream.

        David-Neel made note that Wangdu had no caravan or luggage with him, and the servant guessed that he'd simply walked ahead of the caravan and that they should soon be seen as well. Two other men working for David-Neel also saw Wangdu as he climbed up the slope. Then the young man passed behind a lonely chorten [a small sacred structure]... and did not reappear. The chorten was about seven feet tall, and was mostly a three foot by three foot square at the base, with a pointed top on it. It was solid concrete, and there was nowhere on the barren landscape for a person to hide other than behind it, so everyone assumed that Wangdu had sat down next to it for a short rest... but after a long enough period of time had passed, David-Neel sent two servants to find him as she watched through binoculars. Wangdu was not there. He wasn't anywhere.

        A little before dusk that same day Wangdu returned again, this time for real. He was walking with the expected caravan and wearing the new hat seen both in the dream and in his earlier appearance. David-Neel immediately questioned Wangdu and the porters, before they had a chance to talk to anyone else; it was clear from the answers they gave that the entire party had started the day too far away for any of them to have reached the camp earlier than dusk, and Wangdu had stayed with the caravan the entire way. This was further verified later by asking at the various stops along the way to the camp to determine when they arrived and left each; and Wangdu stayed with the caravan the whole way. David-Neel concluded that both her dream and the vision of Wangdu she'd shared with three other observers had the same origin... they were unintentional tulpas created by Wangdu, perhaps because he was worried about how late he was with the supplies.

A Divine Visit

        David-Neel was visited one day by a painter she knew, a man who specialized in images of wrathful deities with whom he was fascinated. On this particular day, as he approached her, she could see that he was closely followed by the somewhat nebulous figure of one of these frightful deities. Not understanding why she looked startled, the painter stepped towards her to ask what was the matter... the figure did not follow him, but stayed in place where it had first been seen. David-Neel says she pushed past the painter and reached out to touch the strange figure. I quote: "I felt as if touching a soft object whose substance gave way under the slight push, and the vision vanished."

        When questioned, the painter admitted to performing rituals to try and summon the deity, prior to producing a painting of the being. That very day he had spent the whole morning on the painting... so it seemed that either the deity heard him and manifested a misty tulpa, or that the man's own obsession with the figure created a spiritual double that was following him.

Rimpoche's Annoying Habit

        David-Neel had befriended a Lama called Rimpoche, and it was not unusual for him to show up at her camp to chat. One day David-Neel's cook asked for some provisions that were stored in her tent, so they both walked towards her tent to get the provisions. The two of them saw that Lama Rimpoche was sitting in a folding chair at David-Neel's camp table, near her tent; and the cook, therefore, said he would retrieve the provisions later for he should make tea for the visiting Lama first.

        As the cook headed back to the kitchen, David-Neel walked over to greet Lama Rimpoche, looking at him as she approached... but just a few steps from the tent, a strange thing occurred. David-Neel described it as if "a flimsy veil of mist seemed to open before it [the tent], like a curtain that is slowly pulled aside." And Lama Rimpoche was gone. Instantly.

        When the cook came shortly after with the tea, David-Neel told him that the Lama had only come to pass on a quick message. She didn't want to explain what had happened, as she was worried it would frighten the cook. Later, David-Neel was able to mention this incident to Lama Rimpoche himself during a real visit. The Lama offered a laugh, but no explanations. In fact, he pulled much the same trick on her on a different occasion, completely vanishing from view when they were talking in the middle of a wide bare track of land with nowhere to hide. David-Neel's implied take on this is that in both cases she was visited by a tulpa of Lama Rimpoche, a useful thing for him if he himself could not travel to where she was.

A Personal Touch

         Having seen tulpas and learned, theoretically, how they were made, David-Neel decided to try to create one herself; and so she isolated herself and performed the various rituals and techniques she had learned. As the object of her experiment, she decided to envision a short, fat monk, an innocent and jolly type of person.

        The initial part of her experiment took a few months, and consisted of her creating a living image in her mind of the jolly monk, complete to every detail. She practiced imagining this monk as constantly doing things around her that a real person would be expected to do and, over time, her idea of him became both fixed and life-like. This monk was essentially a 'guest' that shared the apartment she was staying in while performing this stage of the test.

        At this point, David-Neel ended her seclusion and gathered her servants and tents to resume her tour of the country. To her perception, the illusion of the monk persisted and he appeared to include himself in the group as they traveled, often seen by her performing actions that would be natural to travelers. David-Neel no longer needed to actively think about the monk for him to be seen and take action now; and, stranger still, she could now occasionally feel the monk... his robe sometimes rubbed past her, and on one occasion she thought she felt his hand on her shoulder.

        A little more alarmingly, as the illusion started to act on its own and become more than just visual, the features she had initially envisioned for the monk also started to change. He became leaner and meaner looking; and he started to be "more troublesome and bold." David-Neel was losing control of her imagined monk.

       One day, a herdsman brought a present of butter to David-Neel... and saw the tulpa in her tent. He just thought she had a Lama visiting. This incident appears to be the turning point for David-Neel; the out-of-control tulpa was starting to be real to other people... so she realized she needed to end the experiment. The effort to dissolve the tulpa -- to end her own built up belief in its existence -- took six months to fully accomplish.

Tulpas and the Paranormal

         The idea that human thought might be able to create visible and/or tangible forms had been theorized previous to David-Neel's 1929 mention of the tulpas of Tibet. In Europe and the United States in the late 1800's it had been suggested by several people that such an effect -- referred to as a "thought form" -- might be an explanation of how ghosts manifested themselves and how people could be seen in two places at once. Most of this theorizing took place in either writings associated with the Societies for Psychical Research (in Britain and the United States), or in various Theosophical literatures; and, in both cases, didn't really grab the imagination of the general public.

        David-Neel's account of the phenomena most certainly did grab public attention though, partially because stories of mystic Tibet were generally popular at the time she published her book and partially because of the rising interest in various magazines devoted to weird, mystical, and paranormal "true" stories. So David-Neel's tulpas -- and especially the account of the tulpa she claimed to have created herself -- became the primary example of what a 'thoughtform' was from then on... but the trade-off was that the phenomena itself was now largely presented only in context of the creation of a tangible living being from thought, with all other possible connected phenomena generally ignored.

        A number of people have since put forward the belief that if a single person can create a tulpa, then a collective belief in a being shared by a large group of people could create a sort of collective tulpa. This collective tulpa idea has then been proposed as the base phenomena behind a wide variety of strange occurrences, from visions of holy figures to uncatchable monsters like Bigfoot or Nessie. Unfortunately, given the rigorous nature of the creation of an individual's tulpa as described by David-Neel, it seems unlikely that a collective set of beliefs would be precise enough for a long enough period of time to create a functional critter... so, as a theory, it's a huge stretch, especially since no one has proven tulpas exist yet.

        Still, if tulpas do exist they have the potential for pointing to a mechanism which could allow spirits to manifest, and for living beings to create a wide variety of paranormal phenomena. But how, exactly, to test and prove such an idea?