Tulpa: Not What You Think

What’s the matter?
I have a headmate.
It might be a tulpa.

I’m sure everyone has seen the articles going around now about the “Tulpamancers.” The TLDR version is there is a group of people who are creating mental companions that reside inside their heads. They’re making personalities, entities that are separate from their consciousness, but also somewhat a part of it. If you’re familiar with plural/multiple parlance they’re creating headmates, though as far as I’m aware, and I totally admit I’m not looking into tulpamancers, no “tulpa” ever fronts, or takes control of a person.

Now I’m not here to criticise what they’re doing or their techniques. The articles talks about the emotional/mental benefit these people are getting from their mentally constructed companions, and as I generally say about magick, it’s about getting results and whether it benefits you. So a few people mentioned that their companion helped them through their depression, good for them, depression is horrible to deal with, and if it works then I’m glad for them.

While not the same I’ve used similar techniques to separate and control aspects of my personality, for those familiar with my Egoetia work, which at this moment I can’t remember if I’ve ever talked about on this blog. (And if I haven’t blogged about it, that just goes to show you should attend the classes and conventions where I yatter about this stuff) So again, not challenging techniques or results, I don’t know enough about them to make a well-founded evaluation, but there is something I can say:

It’s not a tulpa.

What is a tulpa? Well, that’s a kind of tricky question. Tulpa is a Tibetan term, and this is where the issues majorly comes from. You have a group of people misusing a term from a religious tradition in a way that really misrepresents and misunderstands what it actually means. Even aside from issues around cultural appropriation it just seems foolish and lazy to me. Tulpa (sprul pa སྤྲུལ་པ་) can be broken down into two pieces: tul, and pa. Pa is just a suffix that terms a verb into a person (agentive particle). So for instance I perform the ritual chöd, so I’m called a chödpa, and someone who transmits a lung (rlung རླུང, in this case meaning the “energy seed” of a text to simplify it) is a lungpa. Tul means basically created, incarnated, emanated. So it really just means an emanated person or emanation.

Now it gets a bit confusing because it linked with the term Tulku (sprul sku སྤྲུལ་སྐྱ), ku (sku) meaning body, so emanated body. This term gets used in relationship to a Tibetan Lama who is recognized as a reincarnation of a specific high lama, they are an “emanated body” of that lama. The reason this gets confusing is an older term for Tulku was tulpaku, the person who has emanated their body

Back to tulpa, so emanation, that could apply to these people and their creation right? Yeah, if you want to go by dictionary translation meaning rather than how a word is used and understood within the culture. A tulpa is something used all the time in Vajrayana Buddhism, though the word is almost never used. When performing a ritual where you’re calling a deity of some sort you create a damshig sempa (dam tshig sems dpa’ དམ་ཚིག་སེམས་དཔའ) meaning Commitment Being. It is basically a visualized form of the deity first. So if you’re calling on Chenrezig, before you actually call on him you visualize him in front of you, create him with your mind, create an energetic “shell” for him, that’s a damshig sempa. That is sometimes referred to as a tulpa but not often. Once this is created then you call on the yeshe sempa (ye shes sems dpa’ ཡེ་ཤེས་སེམས་དཔའ) meaning Wisdom Being, which refers to the “real” deity. First you make a shell, and then you call them into it.

I mentioned tulpa is a term rarely used though. In fact yesterday at lunch, knowing I’d be writing this article I asked my lama what a tulpa was. His response? “A what?” When I wrote it down he recognized the word from having read it, but never really heard it discussed. (It was my lama who told me the older form of tulku was tulpaku, which I confirmed at home with a dictionary) At home I grabbed my various books and texts. Some ritual texts, some academic, some glossaries. Do you know what word I wasn’t able to find? Tulpa. I have huge textbooks used for teaching University courses on Tibetan Buddhism that cover everything you can think of, no tulpa. I know where the word’s popularity comes from (and I’ll get to that in a minute) but I decided to check my non-Buddhist texts

It shows up in almost 30 texts I could find (note: I didn’t actually check too many, I just had a sense of where they’d be if anywhere). They’re all over the place; Kenneth Grant, Donald Tyson, in books on Ceremonial magick, and books on Wicca. What do they say about tulpa? They just say it means an energy construct or thought form.

So where do we get the term? Alexandra David-Neel’s classic book “With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.” In it she heard about the term, and stories about it, but it sounds like she’s confusing a few different things.

Nevertheless, allowing for a great deal of exaggeration and sensational addition, I could hardly deny the possibility of visualizing and animating a tulpa. Besides having had few opportunities of seeing thought-forms, my habitual incredulity led me to make experiments for myself, and my efforts were attended with some success. In order to avoid being influenced by the forms of the lamaist deities, which I saw daily around me in paintings and images, I chose for my experiment a most insignificant character: a monk, short and fat, of an innocent and jolly type.

I shut myself in tsams and proceeded to perform the prescribed concentration of thought and other rites. After a few months the phantom monk was formed. His form grew gradually fixed and life-like looking. He became a kind of guest, living in my apartment. I then broke my seclusion and started for a tour, with my servants and tents.

The monk included himself in the party. Though I lived in the open riding on horseback for miles each day, the illusion persisted. I saw the fat trapa, now and then it was not necessary for me to think of him to make him appear. The phantom performed various actions of the kind that are natural to travellers and that I had not commanded. For instance, he walked, stopped, looked around him. The illusion was mostly visual, but sometimes I felt as if a robe was lightly rubbing against me and once a hand seemed to touch my shoulder.

The features which I had imagined, when building my phantom, gradually underwent a change. The fat, chubby-cheeked fellow grew leaner, his face assumed a vaguely mocking, sly, malignant look. He became more troublesome and bold. In brief, he escaped my control.

Once, a herdsman who brought me a present of butter saw the tulpa in my tent and took it for a live lama.

I ought to have let the phenomenon follow its course, but the presence of that unwanted companion began to prove trying to my nerves; it turned into a “daynightmare.” Moreover, I was beginning to plan my journey to Lhasa and needed a quiet brain devoid of other preoccupations, so I decided to dissolve the phantom. I succeeded, but only after six months of hard struggle. My mind-creature was tenacious of life.

This is the origin of the tulpa as thoughtform in the Western sphere. In fact every reference to tulpa that you can find, traces back to this book, or is unsourced. Even the wiki article, while it includes other sources, everything that supports a tulpa as a construct traces back to this book. It also seems like a good source for at least some of the concern about thoughtforms gone wild. (Which really isn’t as sexy of a DVD as it sounds)

Now Alexandra David-Neel was an amazing woman. One of the first westerns to meet a Dalai Lama, a single female explorer who roamed Tibet (when it was illegal for foreigners to be there) and studied Buddhism with the lamas. While I don’t want to play a race card though, we have to understand that French explorer from a hundred years ago isn’t going to have the best understanding of Buddhism. So while her works are some of the most engaging and evocative accounts about Vajrayana, they also have a lot of issues, and the tulpa as a thoughtform is one of them.

Tulpas are an “energetic body” that you summon a deity into, they are not a thoughtform. You do not make a tulpa of just anything, in fact arguably you can’t, because it lacks the yeshe sempa. Visualized imaginations, and thoughtforms are something else altogether, tulpas are a very specific concept in a ritual process. They’re also, not even by extension something applicable to a personality that resides in your consciousness somewhere. So back to the tulpamancers, like I said, my issues with their technique and practice are none, but I do have problems with their terminology. We have words for things like that: constructs, egregores, thralls, thoughtforms, headmates. Hell English is a great language for building new words, or making up one. But don’t misapply a misapplication of a foreign word.


20 Responses to Tulpa: Not What You Think

  1. Brian says:

    I guess I don’t follow your reasoning. They shouldn’t use the word because it’s a Tibetan word with an understood meaning, but none of your books on Tibetan Buddhism use it and your lama doesn’t know what it means?

    • Kalagni says:

      I guess the thread got lost in multiple edits. It basically breaks down into the sections: They’re using the word wrong, here is what it actually means, and here is the route that led them to using it.

      It is a Tibetan word, it’s just an obscure one that means nothing like they think, or that most Western occultists think. The point about it not being in my books what to point out it’s not a common word, so that I could trace the history of how it’s been misused and those really only appears in Western texts and why they’re using an uncommon term not even something “mainstream” within the language of the practice. Same with my lama not recognizing it by me saying it, it’s such an obscure word he’s only ever read it, it’s never come up in conversation that he could think of.

  2. So glad you wrote this… I’m keeping a copy in my Evernote to pull out when required, and I’ll be citing it next time I talk about Slenderman.

    Trouble is, *the change has happened*. This misinterpreted, ill-translated and completely wrong meaning of Tulpa is now a term of art in Western magic, like it or not. Not that this is a reason to not bother checking the bona fides or understanding how the error occurred, not at all – but once a word acquires a certain level of cultural cachet, that’s pretty much it.

    There’s a parallel to certain slang appropriation of foreign words: e.g. in English working class London slang, ‘bint’ is a word meaning ‘young woman of loose morals’: the original meaning, simply the feminine of the Arabic ‘bin’ (i.e. ‘daughter of’) matters not a whit… unless you’re an Arab.

    Or, a closer-to-home example: ‘shaman’.

    • Kalagni says:

      While I’m not holding out hope, I do think that if there is an effort people can turn around the cultural cachet. I mean, it’s still misused, but I think in the last decade people have gotten a lot better in their uses of Voodoo and hoodoo for instance, because people kept clarifying those terms.

      Shaman is another one I do challenge people on though, and again, still really overused and misused, but there is more consciousness around the term, it’s cultural context, and that it is appropriative. I also battle people who misuse Reiki and Yoga heh. I like hopeless battles I guess.

  3. Ananael Qaa says:

    I’m thinking that the “tulpamancers” got the idea from the television show Supernatural, in which a tulpa was portrayed just as David-Neel’s book did. On the show, it was said to be a sort of ghost brought to life by the collective beliefs of others – essentially, a thoughtform.

    • Kalagni says:

      Probably, from what I’ve gathered they’re not really/generally occultists, so it makes sense. Though again, that chain of causality would go from Supernatural, to books from the 90s and so on, to David-Neel.

      • catvincent says:

        Part of it is also certainly derived from the Slenderman mythos’ use of the term.
        (I’ve had fun with how Supernatural appropriates magical symbols and basically buggers them up, most recently for spiralnature.com – but, some of those folk get good results, so…

        • Kalagni says:

          Like I said, nothing against what they’re doing or their methods, if it works and helps, more power to them…but don’t steal misunderstand foreign words people…

  4. MrBlack says:

    I also asked some close Tibetan buddies of mine about Tulpas as well after reading the Vice article, and they gave me a quizzical look – your post now explains why, lol.

    • Kalagni says:

      Hell, even if tulpa meant what these people thought it meant, they’d still probably give you a weird look when they hear what these folks are doing :-p

  5. Alex says:

    I really like this post, and think it’s wonderful. I just wish you had put in your sources! Like, what dictionaries you used etc. I’m a mod on a tumblr blog about Supernatural Safety, and we also like to help dispel myths, and your article about tulpas is great. Would you let us post your article, obviously sourced back to you and your blog? Our URL is the webste i used on this comment. Where are you practicing that you have access to lamas? It’s all so interesting!

    • Kalagni says:

      Well the majority of the information was from my lama and a variety of sources over the last decade. I just flipped through various dictionaries at home to verify. Though I do recommend http://www.thlib.org/reference/dictionaries/tibetan-dictionary/translate.php for an online dictionary. Not the best cause some content is user-submitted, which can be problematic, but accesses a variety of dictionaries to help the search.

      I would prefer you link to the original, rather than repost it, or do an excerpt, like the first two paragraphs, and link here.

      The majority of my training has actually been in Toronto, we have a large Tibetan population here, which has given me great access to wonderful teachers without having to travel to Asia heh.

  6. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg says:

    I believe I encountered the term through Robert Anton Wilson or John Keel, who are certainly widely read among devotees of the outré.

    • Kalagni says:

      I would suspect it’s in John Keel, just because I know a lot of RAW fans, and none of them mentioned tulpas connected to him, though I could be wrong. Either way good to know another potential source for it bleeding into the culture.

  7. […] term, and I’d like to correct the use of this term in the broader occult blogosphere, much as Kalagni over at Blue Flame Magick did with the term “tulpa” (if you think you know how this term works, think again and read Kalagni’s post).  It pays […]

  8. […] engage with them. I’ve never been able to predict it, and that intrigues me. For instance my post on tulpas is my fourth most popular post of all time, despite only being six months old. I never expected my […]

  9. […] tulpa magick: Please…stop now…you don’t know what you’re talking about. Maybe a reminder that tulpas are not what you think […]

  10. […] quickly corrects him that the Tulpa was a mistranslation of a different Tibetan concept and that Tulpas never existed traditionall… And that was a revelation to me, The X-Files taught me something this […]

  11. […] misgivings about David-Neel’s presentation of tulpa, explains in blog post entitled “Tulpa: Not What You Think” that “a tulpa is something used all the time in Vajrayana (i.e. Tibetan tantric) Buddhism, […]

  12. […] first “met” the author when he linked to my post on tulpas in his great piece (on another site) analyzing the role and change of the tulpa idea in Western […]

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