On Tulpas, Tulpamancers and Alexandra David-Néel

Yesterday, Chris Bell’s Facebook feed alerted me to an article by Vice, describing the phenomena of ‘tulpas’ and the ‘tulpamancers’ who create and nurture them.  For those of you who may not be familiar (as I was not), tulpas are beings created in the imagination of the tulpamaner, but which acquire their own sentience.  According to Vice, tulpamancers spend some 200 to 500 hours in intense focus ‘forcing’ their tulpas to appear.  Once that happens, though, tulpamancers are convinced that their creations have independent mental lives of their own.  They can hold conversations with their host, dictate letters and even fall in love.

Really, there’s too much to describe. Go read the article, then come back.  You won’t regret it.

Alexandra David-Néel.  Image from Wikipedia.
Alexandra David-Néel in Tibetan dress. Image from Wikipedia.

I’m going to refrain from commenting on wether this is weird or not (Vice certainly thinks it is).  Instead I’m going to focus on the Tibet angle.  Because there’s a Tibet angle.  Again, according to the Vice article, creating tulpas is believed to be a Tibetan practice, brought back by Alexandra David-Néel and described in her 1929 book, Magic and Mystery in Tibet.  Vice quotes David-Néel, and while it fails to provide page numbers, it does provide a quote.  With that quote and the search function in Google Books, I can tell you that the relevant passages are on pages 313-315 of the 1971 Dover reprint.  I have to admit, I was kind of surprised to find that Vice had not misquoted her: David-Néel does, in fact, claim to have created a tulpa, described as a phantom that she created in her mind over several months of meditation, but which, once created, had a mind of its own.  While many contemporary tulpamancers seem to prefer anime characters, David-Néel’s tulpa was, in case you were wondering, a fat monk.

Needless to say, I have never heard of anything like this from any Tibetan.  The term is certainly Tibetan (སྤྲུལ་པ་).  And the term is closely related to the common idea of the tülku (སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་), that particular individuals are born as the emanations of deities or the reincarnation of previous masters.  To me, however, there is a pretty big difference between saying so-and-so is the reincarnation of such-and-such previous master, and conjuring independent entities out of thin air, who then proceed to live entirely within their creator’s minds.

So what to make of all of this?  David-Néel was a pioneer, and we should all be grateful for her work.  While the term tulpa certainly exists in Tibetan, and the practice does bear some resemblance to the theories that account for tülkus, I have never heard of a Tibetan creating, ex nihilo, a being with its own consciousness that only lives in the host’s mind.  My suspicion, as you have probably guessed by this point, is that this is yet another instance of western pop culture picking up a Tibetan idea and then running with it on their own, far beyond its original context.  (See also: Batman does Tögal).  Or maybe I’m just ignorant.  If so, let me know in the comments.  I’d be fascinated to see or hear of something like this in a traditional Tibetan context.

5 Replies to “On Tulpas, Tulpamancers and Alexandra David-Néel”

  1. I know that Natasha Mikles has done a fair amount of work on this- she has an article coming out in Nova Religio, and actually did a podcast discussing it as well.

  2. Perhaps an idea conjured up by her reading on Tibetan Buddhism’s diety visualisation practice? I have never read her books though, so I do not know if this facility for imagination might be respresented in other places in her writing.

  3. I dont mean to generalize but is it a phenomena of the new age spirituality without proper integration and grounding? I apologise if i dont know what i am talking about.

  4. I’ve read Magic and Mystery in Tibet, as well as other books by Alexandra David-Neel, and she mentions the phenomena of “tulpas” in many instances. What I find interesting is that, according to what she says in her book ‘Immortality and Reincarnation’ (page 87-88, 1997 edited by Inner Traditions) “tulpas figure in the biographies of lamas, contemplative hermits, and heroes such as Guesan de Ling, as well as historical personalities such as one of Tibet’s most glorious kings, Srong bstan Gampo.” And then she goes on quoting a passage from his biography: “Srong bstan Gampo thought that in order to assure the prosperity of Tibet it would be good to bring the statue of a god that would protect it there. He had been miraculously informed that such a statue existed in Ceylon on the edge of the sea. This statue represented Chenrezigs[…]The king was aware that he couldn’t undertake a long voyage and conduct a prolonged research himself. A tulpa would be more apt than he or any other man to triumph over the obstacles that such an enterprise would entail. Engendered by the strength of the king’s thought, a personage sprang out from between his eyebrows, at the spot where they meet on the bridge of the nose. This magic individual had the look of a Buddhist monk. He was named Akaramatishila, and under this name he led a very long and active career that has been narrated for us by Tibetan historians[…]”

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