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!

Seriously Dodgy Street Tattooing in Chengdu

Update: August 20, 2012

Fig 1 - Making a selection.

This is a short post for those who fear that tattooing has been permanently co-opted by urban hipsters and sorority girls. A post for those who long for the days when getting a tattoo was a right of passage involving risking your life (or at least your health) by venturing into the darker corners of town. Fear not old-school aficionados: life-threatening tattooing still exists in the back alleys of your favorite Chinese city.

Near Chengdu’s north railway station, there is an epic wholesale market where everything from pantyhose to endangered animal parts is available on the street. Near the gate, several people had laid large sheets of flash on the ground (see fig 1). Passersby could then select their new tattoo from among these images. But where was the work itself being done? Fortunately, a courageous young Chinese man had decided on getting a rather ornate tattoo on his hand, and so I asked if I could tag along and take some pictures.

Fig 2 - Yes, this man is getting a tattoo in a dingy alley.

I had assumed that we would be lead off to an apartment studio somewhere, but instead we simply turned the corner into a small alley, and everyone squatted down in the muck (see fig 2). Not exactly a sterile environment. To his credit, the tattooist (I can’t quite bring myself to call him a tattoo artist) did use a new, disposable needle. But the machine and tubes that he used looked like they had not been cleaned in years.[1] The tattooist insisted several times that everything was “very clean”. Most definitely not true. About this time I realized the crazy foreigner taking pictures (that would be me) had drawn a bit of a crowd. Time to go. So I took one more picture of the tattoo, with the outline completed (see fig 3) and got the hell out of dodge. It’s also worth noting that this was this man’s first tattoo, and he decided to get it on his hand. In traditional western tattooing, the hands and face have always been pretty much off limits, as those are the only parts of your body you can’t cover up with clothes. In addition to the various communicable diseases this guy probably got, he’s also going to be stuck with a horrible tattoo, in full view of everyone, for the rest of his life. So if that sounds like your cup of tea, or if you’re just nostalgic for old-school back-alley scab-vending, now you know where to go.

Fig 3 - The completed outline. The box behind him contains the tattooist's supplies. His own personal disease transmission kit.

For the record, not all the tattooing being done in Chengdu is grim. In fact, I’ve seen some surprisingly good work being done, and if I can find the time, I’ll post about that as well.

UPDATE:

ick
For those of you wondering if you really can catch some kind of horrible disease from dirty street tattooing, check out the picture at right.

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[1]A tattoo machine consists of needles moving in and out of a tube – kind of like a mechanical pencil. It doesn’t do much good to have clean needles if your tubes are nasty. In this case he was also getting his ink directly from the bottle, mixing this guy’s blood in with the rest of the ink and getting the whole thing set for the next customer.

The Comics Connection III: The Green Lama (and I don’t mean Milarepa)

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A while back I wrote a couple of posts about how Batman and Dr Strange both received their training among the magical monks of Tibet. Once they each returned stateside, however, their Tibet connections become a footnote; a quaint piece of backstory, but not much more. Not so for The Green Lama, who not only studied in Tibet, but who wraps his whole identity around the place. When he gets in trouble, he chants Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ, and the power of that mantra resonates with a monastery in Tibet and transforms him into a unstoppable crime-fighting force (image 1). Needless to say, this is a fairly unprecedented use of the mantra of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion (click here for some previous posts featuring authentic uses of the maṇi). On the upside, they did get the Tibetan spelling of the mantra right, which is no small feat for 1945 (see the center panel in image 1). Besides his unconventional use of the maṇi, he has a Tibetan servant named Tsarong who calls him 'tulku' and he even works the term 'lama' into his crime-fighting name. Surely this must be the most Tibet-centric superhero ever.

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Ok, so he’s wrapped himself in all this Tibetan imagery. But what about all the violence? When he first returns to the US after ten years in Tibet, The Green Lama wants to teach Americans to meditate. He is barely off the ship, however, before he witnesses a murder and becomes convinced that Americans are not ready to meditate. So instead he becomes a superhero, punching out bad guys’ lights left and right. this may not accord with our notions of peaceful Buddhists, but I can’t help feel it resonates with some of the ideas surrounding Tibetan protector deities, or the legends about figures such as Gesar. So maybe we’re not so far off here…. I have no idea what kind of research The Green Lama’s writers did, but it would be really neat to know if these resonances were intentional, or purely coincidence.

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Other than its Tibet connection, perhaps the most striking thing about this comic series is the explicit anti-racism stance it takes. The Green Lama was published from 1944-1946, and in one issue, The Green Lama picks up a racist soldier and carries him to Nazi Germany, where he sees the impact of racism and learns the error of his ways. In another issue, The Green Lama travels to Texas in order to expose and shame an anti-semite. To be fair, the writers of this comic clearly supported the war effort, and their characterization of German and, particularly, Japanese soldiers is anything but sympathetic. Still, arguing against racism so strongly seems pretty remarkable for this time. If anyone reading this has studied pop culture of this period, please feel free to add your two cents in the comments box below. I’d be really curious to know how common this was.

So there you have it: the most Tibet-centric comic superhero of all time. As always, we can see the same old stereotypes of Tibet as a land of mysterious enchantments and power, and, as always, the hero is a caucasian male and actual Tibetans are relegated to minor roles. Still, the fact that a comic like this could appear in the forties, and assume that young readers would already be familiar with terms like ‘lama’ and ‘tulku’ speaks to a pretty remarkable level of knowledge and interest in Tibet at the time.

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If you want to read more about The Green Lama, the entire run is contained in the following two books:

  • The Complete Green Lama: Featuring the Art of Mac Raboy. Vol. 1. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Archives, 2008.
  • The Complete Green Lama: Featuring the Art of Mac Raboy. Vol. 2. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Archives, 2008.
  • Ewoks Speak Tibetan!

    For years, people have told me that the Ewoks, the furry creatures from George Lucas’ film, Return of the Jedi, spoke Tibetan. I have even passed along this piece of gossip to others, quietly chuckling about Tibetan’s little moment in the spotlight. So you can imagine my joy when I came across the following article confirming the story. The article is from the September 1983 issue of Tibetan Review magazine, which I stumbled across while doing wholly unrelated research (Really, I was. I promise). There is no byline, so we can just attribute it to the editors of Tibetan Review. It is a short article, so I will present it here in full. And remember, this is from 1983, the same year the movie was released.

    Ewoks, the furry teddy bear like creatures featured in the blockbuster film Return of the Jedi, speak a curious language in which many Tibetan words and sentences are clearly distinguishable. This is a fact which even Producer George Lucas may not be aware of. When the film was released in the United States, reporters asked people working for Lucas whether the Ewok language is nonsense. They were told. “No, it is not. It is Tibetan run backwards!”

    Much of what the Ewoks spoke could very well be nonsense or even Tibetan spoken backwards. However, the rest are definitely Tibetan spoken by real Tibetans. Among words the Ewoks are heard employing are Tibetan for “Hurry! Let’s move,” “No, it’s not him. It’s the one over there,” “There is lots of money here! There is lots of money here!” (in a scene where no money of any kind is in sight!), and a brief prayer.

    Tibetan film buffs in Delhi and Dharamsala, who have seen the film on video, suggest the following solution to the mystery: Steven Spielberg, friend of Lucas, shot a small sequence of his film Raiders of the Lost Ark in Nepal. When there on location, he may have recorded various stray voices in the bazaars of Kathmandu (which would explain the above references to money) for possible use in future. So when friend Lucas was looking for exotic sounds to attribute to his furry creatures, Spielberg made his tapes available. Q.E.D. Next problem, please.

    Great to hear that Tibetans can actually understand what the Ewoks are saying, but somehow I don’t think Lucas used Steven Spielberg’s Kathmandu street recordings. Fortunately, we have Wikipedia. The ‘Languages in Star Wars‘ entry provides several possible solutions to where the Tibetan comes from, and even indicates that the incomprehensible bits may not be Tibetan at all, but Kalmyk. Those interested in a more academic approach should check out Maria S. Calkowski’s article, “Is there Authoritative Voice in Ewok Talk: Postmodernism, Fieldwork and the Recovery of Unintended Meanings,” which can be found in the journal Culture, vol XI, 1991, pages 53-64, freely available on Google Books.

    The Comics Connection II: Dr Strange Goes to Tibet (and Greenwich Village too)

    When I wrote about Batman’s tögal practice (click here for that post), several people wrote to tell me about Dr Strange, a Marvel Comics character from the sixties who also studied esoteric practices in Tibet. So I ordered it up through inter-library loan and waited. For a while. Finally, a copy of The Essential Doctor Strange arrived, having come all the way from Fairbanks, Alaska. This is, I think, the farthest distance from which I’ve ever received an inter-library loan book. Now that the book has arrived, however, I must confess to being a little disappointed. The plots are, well, a little strange, even by comic book standards. But no matter, Dr Strange has studied in Tibet, and that makes him interesting to me.

    Dr Strange is a master of black magic, but he uses the dark arts to protect mankind, warding off villains such as Baron Mordo and Nightmare (a character who bears a striking resemblance to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman). He learned these skills studying at the feet of The Ancient One, at a hermitage deep in the mountains of Tibet. If it weren’t for the repeated references to Tibet, however, it would be impossible to tell where these classes take place. Neither the setting nor the practices these figures engage in bear any resemblance to anything you might actually find in Tibet. Even the mystic writing in Dr Strange’s books is just some odd circles. At least when The Green Lama chants his mantras, the artists take the trouble to get the script right (I’ll be posting about the Green Lama just as soon as inter-library loan gets the book to me). For Stan Lee, Doctor Strange’s main author, Tibet seems to be nothing more than an exotic location in which an American hero can learn about black magic. Not much new here.

    But Tibet is not the only place mentioned repeatedly in the Dr Strange comics. The other is Greenwich Village, New York City. This is where Dr Strange himself resides (at least, when he’s not traveling through other dimensions in a ethereal body). Dr Strange’s house also bears a certain resemblance to The Ancient One’s Tibetan hermitage, particularly in its odd spider web windows. The implication seems to be that Greenwich Village is the new Tibet, home of oddball mystics and the occult. Dr Strange was first published in 1963, and at that time Greenwich Village must have seemed remote and exotic to many Americans. It had beatniks, Bob Dylan and LSD. What better place to imagine as the American abode for the mysteries of Tibet?

    The Comics Connection I: Batman does Tögal!

    As we know, Batman is a man of many talents. Among his lesser know skills is a mastery of esoteric Tibetan meditation practices. Yes, Batman does tögal. His mastery of this technique is revealed in the R.I.P. series of comics, where he uses tögal to experience death, overcoming his last shred of fear. Pretty neat. For those of you who are unfamiliar with tögal (tib: ཐོད་རྒལ།), it is a Dzokchen practice where a practitioner allows their pure nature to shine forth in the form of luminous Buddha images. Rather than being intentionally visualized, these forms appear spontaneously to a practitioner’s visual consciousness. Last time I checked (and I’m hardly an expert on this), tögal is not usually presented as a rehearsal for dying.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we dismiss the Dark Knight as an impostor, we should take a look at how he describes the practice he’s doing. In Robin 175, we learn that the tögal ritual Batman performs (and it is consistently called a ritual, rather than a practice, but let’s not get hung up on semantics) involves staying shut in a Nepali cave for forty-nine days. The goal, we are told, is to simulate death and rebirth. This does not give us much to go on, even though tögal can be performed in a sealed and darkened room, and forty-nine days is the traditional length for the period between death and re-birth.

    For more detail, we need to turn to the opening pages of Batman 681. Here we find Bruce Wayne relaying his tögal experiences to a monk. “As I lay in the darkness,” he says, “I began to experience vivid hallucinations of the past and present, even the future. But then I came to the end of even that. I found myself in a place that’s not a place.” “In tögal,” the monk replies, “the initiate learns what the dead know. The self is peeled back to its black, radiant core.”

    Now we’ve got something to compare with traditional understandings of tögal. First off, we have visions. Check. So far so good. Then the visions stop. In traditional tögal, the final stage of the practice is when all of the visions collapse back in on themselves. Again, check. Finally, we learn that the point of the practice is to reveal the radiant core of the self. In traditional presentations, it is a person’s pure, radiant nature that is the source of tögal’s visionary experiences. So actually, we’re not too far off here. I don’t think many tögal practitioners would describe this radiant core as black, but then again this monk has just tried to murder Batman, so perhaps he was only referring to himself. Again then, check. If Bruce only stopped here, we could say that he actually does a halfway decent job of sticking to themes found in real-world tögal.

    Instead, however, Bruce brings things back to death. A few pages later, he reveals to the monk why he undertook the tögal ritual, “I wanted to taste the flavor of death. I wanted to know that I had experienced every eventuality.” Again, we’re back to the idea that tögal somehow simulates the death and re-birth process. Now, to be fair, texts such as the Bardo Tödröl (popularly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a text which hails from the same practice tradition that gives us tögal) claim that after death, one experiences spontaneous visions of Buddhist deities. Further, these visions are projections of an individual’s radiant core, just as in tögal. So it might not be too far fetched to see tögal as something of a rehearsal for the events that occur during the death process.

    Traditionally, however, tögal is not usually presented in this way. Instead, it is a practice for revealing the pure, radiant nature of everything someone experiences, with death being just one experience among many. This may not seem like much of a shift, but it goes to the heart of the practice. Tögal is a practice concerned with experiencing primordial purity in the present moment, rather than a means to prepare for a future event. For an accomplished practitioner of tögal, the death process should be just as radiant and pure as every other moment of their life. So, no, Batman doesn’t quite have his heart in the right place when he undertakes this practice.

    Still, we have to give DC Comics’ writers some credit here. Despite not quite getting the overall intent of the practice, they came pretty close on lots of the details. Others they missed, such as the ‘Tibetan’ monastery that looks strikingly Japanese, or the cave that looks more like depictions of Jesus’ sepulcher than any Tibetan retreat cave I’ve ever seen. Clearly, however, someone on their staff was into researching obscure Tibetan practices, and we should applaud them for not just making things up, even if the final product is a little off.

    Thanks to David Germano for bringing Batman’s tögal mastery to my attention.