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'Department of Truth' #9: what the hell *IS* a tulpa, anyway?
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‘Department of Truth’ #9: what the hell *IS* a tulpa, anyway?

Has popular usage changed the meaning of a very specific word?

Issue #9 of James Tynion IV and Martin Simmonds’ conspiracy theory horror comic, The Department of Truth, finally uses the word “tulpa” to describe the impossible things that are brought to life through belief. It’s a term that’s become a staple of internet discussion on topics as wide ranging as My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and the Waukesha, Wisconsin Slender Man stabbing. A whole Reddit community dedicated to helping so-called tulpa-mancers develop, maintain, and eventually destroy their tulpas has close to 37,000 members.

Those interested in creating tulpas often claim the term has its roots in Tibetan culture, citing the pioneering work of explorer Alexandra David-Neel. In her 1929 Magic and Mystery in Tibet, David-Neel spoke of “Tibetan occultists” producing beings that would gain form and independent life. She even described making her own tulpa of a fat, jolly monk who eventually turned dark and sinister, causing her to banish him.

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Department of Truth tulpa explanation

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As a scholar of Tibetan religious culture who’s lived among and talked with various Tibetan communities for the past decade, I never once heard an individual — Buddhist or otherwise — claim to have produced a tulpa. In fact, the term owes much more of its existence to advanced philosophical ideas about the ontology of buddhas and other divine figures than it does to any occult practice.

“Tulpa” is a nominalized form of the Tibetan verb sprul, roughly pronounce “trül.” Sprul means to emanate or to manifest, so a “sprul – pa” is someone who has emanated or manifested. It shares linguistic roots with the work trülku (sprul sku), which is the Tibetan word for a reincarnated title-holder like the Dalai Lama or Panchen Lama. Someone might sprul pa mdzad, literally “make a manifestation” or “make a display.” On the surface, this looks to be similar to the understanding of “tulpa” common to our culture today — a creature produced or manifested at will based upon the strength of the individual’s concentration.

However, this simplistic translation obscures more than it reveals, as there’s significant cultural knowledge not being taken into account. The verb sprul is always associated with the compassionate work of an enlightened being like a buddha coming into the world. In a recent publication of the Tibetan Buddhist scriptural canon, sprul-pa appears seven times, and in each instance it represents a spiritual being taking human form to serve as a spiritual teacher. In the esoteric canon of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, sprul-pa appears more frequently, but also with a similar context of an enlightened being taken human form to save those suffering.

In contemporary English, the term “tulpa” has been used by some when discussing things like Slender Man or Mothman—beings initially made up, but brought into existence via the collective power of thought. This concept is not found in Tibetan uses of the word. Tibetan language is unique in that verbs have intention built into them. Simply put, active verb constructions (“I broke the cup”) and passive verb constructions (“The cup broke”) use different, but related verbs.

Sprul is an active verb—someone is actively producing a manifestation. This intention is especially important in the small handful of sprul-related cases outside of an enlightened being manifesting in the human world. There, sprul refers to the illusion produced by a performer or a magician: something manifested with the specific intent to deceive or shock, but which will eventually be revealed as a forgery. These Tibetan understandings of sprul-pa are a far cry from the use of the term “tulpa” by contemporary aficionados.

So where did our modern understanding of “tulpa” come from, then? With the investigative help of my academic colleague Joseph Laycock, I argue that our modern understanding of “tulpa” owes much more to western occult thought and the theosophical tradition than it does to Tibetans. In the 1891 issue of the theosophical journal Lucifer, astrologer Walter Gorn Old related a story of absent-mindedly pouring beer into the wrong container at a dinner party. Rather than pass this humorous mistake off as a small mishap, a guest proposed that he must have created a “thought-form” of a beer jug over the incorrect container, confusing him and allowing the accident to occur.

The idea of “thought-forms” became further developed in later theosophical writings by social activist Annie Besant. She argued that ideas had physical existence and could attract matter to themselves, eventually becoming a thought-form visible to everyone. In an 1895 essay entitled “Karma,” Besant went so far as to say that such matter could even take on sentience through the incorporation of Elementals that provided a “soul” to the thought-form. These discussions happened years before David-Neel entered Tibet, and spread widely in European occult circles. Occultists like Dion Fortune and Bertram Keightley further developed the idea, even hypothesizing that the souls inhabiting thought-form creatures were spirits of the dead, or emotions taking physical form.

Still, to simply write tulpas off as another example of the modern misunderstanding of Tibetan culture would be a mistake. European thinkers certainly became very interested in Tibetan culture and thought, but it’s important to remember that Tibetans became intrigued by European thought, as well.

'Department of Truth' #9: what the hell *IS* a tulpa, anyway?

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The word “tulpa” appears in William Evans-Wentz’s 1954 translation of The Tibetan Book of Great Liberation, where he builds on David-Neel’s discussion of the term and makes a distinction between “tulkus” and “tulpas” — one being the aforementioned example of the Dalai Lama, and the other the sinister creation of a magician taking physical form. Both David-Neel and Evans-Wentz relied on the translation assistance of Kazi Dawa Samdup, who was educated in north Indian schools run by the British colonial government, and had an abiding interest in western Occultism.

Perhaps Kazi Dawa Samdup creatively conceptualized the Tibetan term “sprul-pa” as the theosophical term “thought-form” and, in the process, guided his European partners toward novel understandings of Tibetan Buddhist beliefs. While it may be impossible to know if this is, indeed, what happened, the case of the word “tulpa” remains an important instance of cross-cultural communication, miscommunication, and creative re-imaginings.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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