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.

(Mis)using Buddhist Imagery in Advertising

Mavi jeans - in Tibetan
Mavi jeans – in Tibetan

A couple days ago I was out shopping for new jeans. As I was going through the selection at our local Nordstrom Rack, I came across this pair, made by Mavi. Yes, that’s Tibetan script decorating the back of a pair of jeans.  When I was in college, lots of t-shirts used Chinese characters for decoration (usually in really bad fonts).  Now I suppose its Tibetan’s turn in the spotlight: Tibetan tattoos are all over the place, I’ve seen Tibetan on t-shirts, and now it’s being used on the butt of a pair of jeans. All seemingly to little point: there’s certainly nothing ‘Tibetan’ about these jeans, and I doubt that most people would have any clue the script is Tibetan at all.  Certainly the designer, or whoever decided to turn the ཟ into an ‘m,’ had no idea what they were doing.  At least they used some decent calligraphy.

While it might not make the jeans any more ‘Tibetan,’ use of Tibetan script to decorate someone’s ass certainly has the power to offend. About ten years ago I attended a series of empowerments given by Trulshik Rinpoché in Kathmandu. I would carry my seating cushion back and forth from my apartment everyday in a canvas back from The New Tibet Book Store, which happened to have some Tibetan writing on it. In order to save time, I would just leave the cushion in the bag when I got to the empowerments, sitting on the whole thing. After a couple days, a monk who sat beside asked me to take the cushion out of the bag before I sat. The Tibetan script on the bag, he explained, was sacred (even though it did not say anything religious), and it was inappropriate to treat it disrespectfully by sitting on it. His remonstrance was quite kind, and I happily complied. I don’t have to think too hard to know what he would think if he saw these jeans.  I wonder if the Mavi marketing department thinks the aesthetic value of the Tibetan script is worth it?

Buddha Bowl - Enlightening Snacks
Buddha Bowl: Enlightening Snacks?

Nor are Mavi jeans the only such example of the potential mis-use of Tibetan or Buddhist imagery in advertising. While driving through Virginia this summer, Eliza and I found this bag of popcorn in a Wegman’s grocery store. According to their website, it “exemplifies the true meaning of simple snacking.” I think that’s supposed to sound Buddhist-y. Over at the Columbus Zoo, Buddha statues and prayer flags are used to decorate the dinosaur boat ride. I’m not sure what the connection here is; I guess the Buddhist imagery is supposed to give the ride an exotic flair.

Some of you may recall the Keds scandal from a few years back. Apparently, someone (not actually Keds, but sold under the Keds brand) produced a bunch of canvas Keds sneakers with images of the Buddha, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan flag. Presumably, said person did not know that in many parts of Asia, the feet are considered unclean. oops. The sacred imagery on shoes caused great consternation among many of my Tibetan friends. People were shocked. Angry letters were written to the folks at Keds. There was talk on Facebook of boycotting all Keds products. Two days after the story broke, Kristin Kohler Burrow, then the president of Keds, issued an apology, removing the offensive shoes from the websites and ‘sincerely apologizing for any discomfort.’ Keds clearly meant no disrespect. Nor do Mavi Jeans, LesserEvil (makes of Buddha Bowl popcorn), the Columbus Zoo or any of the other companies who have used Buddhist imagery to promote themselves. They simply had no idea that what they were doing could be considered offensive. As Robert Mayer pointed out during the Keds imbroglio, you can go to a western wear store online and see lots of pairs of cowboy boots with crosses on them (try here, here and here). Presumably there are lots of Christian cowboys out there that don’t find these offensive.

Dalai Lama Sneakers - image via Phayul
Dalai Lama Sneakers – image via Phayul

So here are my questions: What responsibility do companies have to make their products non-offensive? If no offense is meant, does that mean that none should be taken? Do we—academics, but also informed people in general—have a responsibility to alert companies when we feel their products might cause offense?

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this.  If you have opinions, please make use of the comments section below!

How Not to Tattoo a Tibetan Mantra

I recently saw a woman in a coffee shop with om mani padme hum tattooed on her ankle (for more on this mantra, see my previous post here). There was nothing wrong with the tattoo, per se, but the placement is questionable. In many places in Asia the ground is considered dirty and ritually unclean. (This is especially true in India and Southeast Asia, but also applies in Tibet and other Buddhist areas.) Respected objects, therefore, are rarely placed on the ground, or even on low tables. Shrines and sacred images are often the highest objects in a room. The same applies to body parts, where anything below the waist is generally considered unclean or polluting. Particularly feet. Which makes feet not the best place to tattoo sacred symbols like the maṇi.

Feet are not the only inappropriate places to tattoo a respected religious symbol such as the maṇi mantra. The maṇi is about compassion, not sex (despite what you may have heard about the meaning of ’jewel in the lotus').

Some years ago in Nepal, I remember listening to one young woman ask a lama for help writing out the Kālacakra mantra, which she wanted to get tattooed on her foot. The lama explained that while it was fine to tattoo the mantra, she should get it done on another part of the body, preferably above the waist. Similarly, while Thailand has a long tradition of Buddhist tattooing (often performed by monks), the legs and feet are usually reserved for non-religious tattoos.

Of course, if you live in the US or Western Europe, you may not care too much about what Indian or Tibetan Buddhists consider inappropriate. But if you’re tattooing a Buddhist symbol, it seems like you should at least take note of how it would be traditionally used. So before you go and get that beautiful Tibetan mantra tattooed, it might be worth doing a little research into which body parts are, or are not, appropriate.

Trash Collection at Yachen Gar

Fig. 1: Trash Truck at Yachen Gar, June 2010
I have recently moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where my wife Eliza has started at job teaching at Wofford College. One of the remarkable things about my new town is the trash collection: everyone uses the same trash can, and then a truck with a robotic arm comes by, picks up the can, and dumps the contents into the truck. No trash collectors involved, other than the person driving the truck.

Fig. 2: Houses at Yachen Gar
Other people may be more familiar with this type of trash collection, but I have only seen it in one other place: the late Khenpo A-khyuk‘s encampment at Yachen Gar, in remote Kham (see fig. 1). As those who have been to Tibet recently can attest, trash is a major issue. When Eliza and I visited Dzogchen Monastery in 2007, trash cans were overflowing, the hillsides were covered with refuse, and there was a huge pile of assorted garbage just outside the town. I get the impression that Tibetan culture simply has not yet figured out how to deal with all of the potato chip wrappers, beer bottles and cheap clothes that have accompanied it’s rapid introduction to modernity over the last few decades.

Fig. 3: Getting the Can on the Truck
Yachen Gar is a new religious center, about six hours away from Kardzé on in one direction and Pelyül in the other.[1] It has grown rapidly since its founding in 1980, and when I visited in June of 2010 there were several thousand residents. Each of these monks and nuns are responsible for their own housing and food, and the facility is composed almost entirely of homemade shacks (see fig. 2). Not the kind of place you would expect to find cutting edge trash collection. And yet there was this blue and white truck, making it’s way down the major streets, with two women putting the matching blue trash cans in position, and the truck doing the rest. Truly remarkable. This is not to say that the trash situation at Yachen Gar has been taken care of entirely (I watched one nun throw an old plastic washbasin in the river), but these trucks were a remarkable sight, and a sign that things are moving in the right direction.


Pitching in to build a colossal Mani Wall. Every one of those stones is inscribed, and the whole collection could easily cover a football field to a depth of several meters.
[1]Yachen Gar is one of the most remarkable religious institutions in Tibet today. Like Khenpo Jikmé Püntsok‘s more famous institute at Serta, it was founded by a charismatic tertön in the period just after Deng Xiaoping allowed religious practice. Since then it has grown to be one of the most active and vital teaching centers in the Tibetan world–both inside the PRC and among the exile communities. Sadly, the founder, Khenpo A-khyuk, passed away in July. This is a huge loss, not just for Yachen Gar, but for Tibetan Buddhism and the Nyingma tradition throughout Kham. It remains to be seen how this will affect Yachen Gar on a daily basis. I will be traveling through the region in the coming year, and will post whatever thoughts come to mind, though I will leave a thorough analysis of the coming transition to others. For more info on Khenpo A-khyuk and Yachen Gar, please read Antonio Terrone’s excellent article, “Householders and Monks: A Study of Treasure Revealers and their Role in Religious Revival in Contemporary Eastern Tibet.”, found in Buddhism Beyond the Monastery: Tantric Practices and their Performers in Tibet and the Himalayas, published in 2009 by Brill. You may have to use inter-library loan to get this, as Brill has priced it at a whopping $136.

How to Build a Monastery

Every monastery I visited this summer had some sort of construction project going on. While not all of these were epic in scope, it was hard to escape the idea that Kham is experiencing a boom in monastic construction. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, including new wealth among Tibetans, interest in Tibetan Buddhism among the Han Chinese, tourism revenues, and so forth. That analysis, however, I will leave for others. What I’m more interested in here is the style in which this construction is performed. Basically, I observed two major construction models, ‘traditional’ and ‘concrete’.

Paplung Monastery

Palpung Monastery serves as a great example of the former. Palpung sits on a promontory overlooking the Bei Chu river, a tributary of the Dri Chu. It is a beautiful location, overlooking a wooded valley, and below high, grassy slopes. Miraculously, the main temple hall seems to have survived the Cultural Revolution fairly intact, even though most of the religious artwork and other artifacts were destroyed or removed. When I visited in June, there were several buildings under construction, mostly houses for resident monks (like many traditional monasteries, monks at Palpung reside in their own homes, rather than in collective dormitories). In each instance, the buildings were being constructed using the standard timber construction seen all over the area (see photo 1). With the exception of an electric saw for shaping the beams, there were no modern construction methods in evidence. Importantly, the construction work did not negatively interfere with the life of the monastery, and no one I spoke with seemed bothered by the activity.  (For more on the architecture, art and conservation measures at Palpung, visit the Palpung Architecture Project)

Construction at Katok

This contrasts with Katok Monastery, which typifies the ‘concrete’ construction style. At Katok, there were no less than three major construction projects going on simultaneously. Each of these buildings required large numbers of dump trucks, concrete mixers and workers. While I’m sure that the results will be impressive, the current situation can only be described as chaotic and dirty. In his Footprint Tibet guidebook, Gyurme Dorje extols the serenity of Katok monastery, saying, “Anyone viewing the majestic setting of Katok’s red and white buildings which cover the peaceful mountain top can appreciate why the concept of ‘sacred outlook’ or ‘pure visionary perception of the landscape’ is so significant here.”[1]

Construction debris flowing down a hillside at Katok

While this may have been true in the past, Katok monastery’s peaceful mountaintop is currently dominated by construction noise.  An entire hillside has been turned black by detritus poured out by a continuous stream of dump-trucks (see photo 3). Arriving here after the peace of Palpung, the activity, dirt and noise was quite a shock. Furthermore, I was not the only one who objected to all the activity: several of the monks I spoke with also expressed distaste at what was going on, even questioning the need for the new buildings at all.  Looking at the black debris on the hillside, one monk commented, “Nothing will grow there again.”  Like many monasteries, Katok does not have a clear hierarchical structure with a single head. Instead, different lamas are each responsible for their own sections of the monastery. In the case of Katok, this seems to have lead to competing construction projects, with little regard for the overall impact on the monastery or its environment.  To be fair, timber construction has its own environmental problems.  All those trees have to come from somewhere, and even in pre-modern times, deforestation was a real issue in Kham.  Still, the difference between the construction and its attendant environmental issues at Palpung and Katok is striking, and I can’t help but feel like there must be a better way to do this.

Katok is not alone in choosing concrete over more traditional construction methods.  Almost every monastery I visited had some form of construction work going on, and most were employing concrete construction methods (Karndzé Nunnery is another notable exception. The new Chenrezik temple there was being built entirely with traditional stonework).  Of course, as a tourist, it is easy to praise the beauty of traditional construction and denigrate modern techniques. The monks who live in these monasteries, however, may appreciate the conveniences provided by modern construction (such as, say, basic plumbing). Nevertheless, it seems like something has been lost when an already significant monastery, like Katok, dedicates so much capital to a project, only to damage its own environment in the process.


[1]Dorje, Gyurme. Footprint Tibet. 3rd ed. Footprint, 2004, p 494.

Tibetan Tattoos

Be sure to read Tashi Mannox’s comments and website for insight into some uses of tattoos in Tibetan medicine.

I have often been surprised that Tibet does not have any significant tattoo traditions. (At least, I am not aware of any significant traditions, if anyone reading this knows of any, please enlighten me!) India, Tibet’s neighbor to the south, has a long-standing tradition of religious tattooing.[1] In the east, China has also practiced tattooing for millennia, both as an art form and as a criminal punishment.[2] More close in, many of the cultures that immediately border Tibet also have significant tattoo traditions, such as the female facial tattooing practiced by the Drung in NW Yunnan.[3] On the religious side, many Buddhist countries, such as Burma, Thailand and Japan, have very widespread traditions of religious, often protective tattooing.[4] Furthermore, Tibetans have developed a wide array of protective practices involving amulets, written mantras and images. Given Tibet’s proclivity towards such amulets, and given that the country is more or less surrounded by cultures with significant traditional tattooing practices, I find it very surprising that Tibet lacks (or seems to lack) a significant tattoo tradition of its own.

So during my recent trip to Kham, I thought I would look and ask around, and see what I could come up with. What I did not find was any evidence of the long-term, traditional, religious tattooing that I thought should be present. Instead, I found many people with small, homemade tattoos, all of whom claimed that the tattoos held no special meaning. It was a little disappointing. Nevertheless, I will here put down some notes about what I did find, in the hopes that it will spark a conversation, and others will be able to add details that I have missed!

Figure 1: A tattooed worker at the Dergé Printing House. Note the presence of vajras in the designs.

First off, there are lots of tattoos running around the parts of Kham I visited (Dergé, Pelyül and Karndzé counties, with a trip to Serta thrown in for good measure). Both men and women, monastic and lay had them. The images themselves were often, but by no means exclusively religious (such as in figure 1). ‘Om’ (ཨོཾ) and ‘A’ (ཨ) syllables were common, as were swastikas (in this context, these are traditional Tibetan religious symbols with no relation to WWII) as well as secular designs (such as in figure 2). I also saw a particularly badly rendered eagle (the person had clearly tried to imitate a western tattoo image, without much success), a dragon or two, and numerous other designs. I did not, however, see any large scale tattooing (except for one large, well executed dragon I saw on a Chinese laborer). Instead, the designs were always small, monochromatic, and clearly hand-poked.

Figure 2: A basic, but solidly rendered tattoo.

In fact, all of the people I asked claimed to have done their own tattoo work. In other words, I didn’t come across any evidence of professional tattooers. Instead, most people seem to have done the work themselves, with a cluster of needles and some ink. Furthermore, everyone I spoke to claimed to have performed the operation in their early teens. As they described it, they would simply perform the tattoo one evening, and show up with it at school the next day. As for the reasons behind their tattoos, no-one I spoke with claimed that their images had any meaning beyond looking good. In fact, everyone I spoke with seemed somewhat embarassed by my questioning. I got the impression that these tattoos were adolescent adventures, later regretted by their owners.

Perhaps the only exception to this description are the small tattooed dots that many people had on their foreheads. These dots were fairly ubiquitous, appearing on both men and women, monastic and lay. In fact, they were by far the most common, though not the only, female tattoos I encountered. When I asked about them, however, I was again told that people performed the opperations themselves, when they were young. One woman I spoke with claimed to have tattooed herself in this way when she was six years old. As for the reason behind the mark, I was again told only that it was for aesthetic, rather than religious or symbolic reasons. In fact, everyone I spoke with played down the importance of their forehead dots, as well as other tattoos.

Given how widespread and common these tattoos are, it seems reasonable to think that they may have some broader cultural importance. If so, however, I could not discover it during in my few weeks in Kham (during which time I was mostly working on other projects). Hopefully someone will take the time to properly study this phenomena!

Do you know something about Tibetan tattooing that I missed? Please let me know! You can e-mail me directly, or use the comment form below.


[1] Although Indian religious tattooing is obvious to anyone who has spent time in India, and although I know I have seen some dramatic images in National Geographic, I’m not aware of any modern scholarly work on Indian religious tattoos. Likewise, a search of Jstor and Google Scholar comes up empty. They must be out there, but I’m afraid I’m not inclined to take any more time trying to find them.

[2] For more details on traditional Chinese tattooing practices, see Ceresa, Marco. “Written on Skin and Flesh: The Pattern of Tattoo in China – Part One: Generalities.” In Studi in Onore di Lionello Lanciotti, edited by S.M. Carletti, M. Sacchetti, and P. Santanglo, 329-340. Napoli: Institute Universitario Orientale, 1996; Reed, Carrie E. Early Chinese Tattoo. Edited by Victor Mair. Sino-Platonic Papers 103. Philadelphia: Dept. of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Pennsylvania, 2000.

[3] See Stéphane Gros’ forthcoming work: “Le trésor des femmes. Le tatouage facial féminin chez les Drung du Yunnan (Chine)” in B. Baptandier (éd.), Le Corps Composite.

[4]For a good discussion of the practice in Thailand and Burma, see McCabe, Michael. Tattoos of Indochina: Magic, Devotion, & Protection. Schiffer Publishing, 2002. There are many books on Japanese tattooing, by many are long on pictures and short on text. Try: Buruma, Ian. Japanese Tattoo. Weatherhill, 1989; Kitamura, Takahiro, and Katie M. Kitamura. Tattoos of the Floating World: Ukiyo-E Motifs in Japanese Tattoo. KIT Publishers, 2003; McCabe, Michael. Japanese Tattooing Now!: Memory And Transition, Classic Horimono To The New One Point Style. Schiffer Publishing, 2004.

Claiming the Land

A Large mani on a hillside near Tau Prefecture. Click to Enlarge.

I’m now two weeks into my first trip to Tibet in three years. Many things are the same, but many are different. Last time I was in this region of Kham, I remember being struck by several huge mani mantras inscribed across entire hillsides, often in strategic locations above villages or near river confluences. In the intervening three years, these mantras have notably increased in both size and frequency. On the road from Dartsedo to Karndzé it seemed like every village had at least one of these epic endeavors. It is hard to escape the idea that the region’s Tibetans are making a strong statement about the identity of their land.

Of course, this is not the first time that Tibetans have used the construction of religious monuments to claim or alter the identity of their land. If we are to believe Tibetan historical accounts, the importation of Buddhism was only made possible by the construction of twelve temples by the sixth century king Songtsen Gampo. The construction of these temples suppressed a malevolent demoness who had been obstructing Buddhism. By building the temples, the king suppressed the opposing forces and established Tibet as a Buddhist nation.

Nor is such activity limited to the Tibetan Imperium. On a smaller scale, it remains common for local Tibetan communities to deal with malevolent spirits by erecting prayer flags or a small chörten. As with Songtsen Gampo’s temples, these constructions effectively overcome whatever was polluting or obstructing the area, restoring its proper Buddhist identity.

Three manis (one obscured by trees) not far from Bamé. Click to Enlarge.

It is not surprising, after the events of the last half century, that Tibetans here would feel a need to re-assert the Buddhist (and thereby Tibetan) nature of their land. Nor, I suppose, should it be surprising that the pace of that activity has increased since 2008 (in addition to the new hillside manis, I saw three large chörtens under construction between Dartsedo and Karndzé as well as numerous new prayer flag arrays and smaller chörtens). Nevertheless, these constructions, and the sentiments they represent, seem worth noting for those of us who try to keep our fingers on Tibet’s pulse.

[Added 7/8/2010]:

As I was leaving Kham, driving from Karndzé to Dartsedo, I noticed a monument I did not see on the way up.  It was laid out across a hillside and made out of white stones, just like the large mani mantras discussed above.  It was, however, written in Chinese and located directly below a large police station.  While I was unable to get a picture, and only had a few seconds to try and read it, I’m pretty confident the first phrase said something along the lines of ‘work hard for a good country’.  Apparently, at least some elements in the Chinese government have grasped the importance of marking the landscape in this way, and have decided to get in on the act!

Sorry about the poor photos, most were taken from moving vehicles!

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