Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Reading Notes – Magic and Mystery in Tibet

In this post I present a review of Alexandra David-Néel’s book Magic and Mystery in Tibet focussing on her description of tulpas. This book was originally written in French and published in 1929. The first English translation was published in 1931. It is in this book that the notion of “tulpa” was brought into the Western world. Several more recent authors have alluded to the possibility that UFOs, aliens, and Men in Black are tulpas. Unfortunately, their allusions are almost always just that, allusions; and in many occasions without even giving the original source. So, I decided to see for myself what it is all about.

The full notice is: David-Néel, Alexandra. (1973) [1929]. Magic and Mystery in Tibet. Baltimore: Penguin.

The author

Alexandra David-Néel was a French explorer, linguist and both an expert and a practitioner of Buddhism. She studied in France at the Sorbonne Tibetan languages and Asian religions and philosophies, as well as Sanskrit. She spent 14 years in Tibet and India, where she studied in depth Buddhism and Tibetan culture. Her work was recognized by the Geographical Society of Paris, and she received the French Légion d’honneur. She died in 1969.

Tibetan philosophy

In her 1965 preface, a few years before her death, she sums up quite well the essence of Tibetan Buddhism: “All of these seekers after miracles would perhaps be most surprised to hear me say that the Tibetans do not believe in miracles, that is to say, in supernatural happenings. They consider the extraordinary facts which astonish us to be the work of natural energies which come into action in exceptional circumstances, or through the skill of someone who knows how to release them, or sometimes, through the agency of an individual who unknowingly contains within himself the elements apt to move certain material or mental mechanisms which produce extraordinary phenomena.” (pp. vii-viii). One can readily see the striking similarities between the Tibetans’ worldview and modern parapsychology.

Furthermore, one of the emerging issues in parapsychology is that the notion that psi becomes what we believe (at the deep unconscious level). David-Néel also states that “The Tibetans also tend to believe that everything which one imagines can be realized. They claim that if the imagined facts corresponded to no external reality, one could not conceive of their images”. (p. vii). In other words, the imaginary and reality are two faces of the same coin. This, too, is congruent with the phenomenological approach, as discussed in previous posts. There is, however, one substantial difference with modern parapsychology. Contrary to mainstream parapsychology, for the Tibetan “it is possible for these individuals [practicing magic] to obtain, in certain cases, the aid of beings whose nature is other than human” (p. vii). For David-Néel, this notion of intervening non-human entities is not different than the belief in prayer and offerings to saint patrons, commonly found in Western countries. More on this below.

Tulpa, Tibetan tradition, parapsychology and UFOs

Although her book has 320 pages, the notion of tulpa is only discussed in about half a dozen pages. Here is what she wrote about tulpas, quoting a sacred Tibetan text: “by the power generated in a state of perfect concentration of mind he[who attained the high degree of spiritual perfection] may, at one and the same time, show a phantom (tulpa) of himself in thousands millions of worlds. He may create not only human forms, but any forms he chooses, even of inanimated objects such as hills, enclosures, houses, forests, roads, bridges, etc. He may produce atmospheric phenomena as well as the thirst-quenching beverage of immortality”. (p. 121). As one can see, considering UFOs and “aliens” as tulpas would not be in contradiction with the Tibetan tradition, as other large manufactured objects (e.g. roads and bridges) and atmospheric phenomena are included in the definition.

An important nuance she adds is that “the power of producing magic formations, tulkus or less lasting and materialized tulpas, does not, however, belong exclusively to such mystic exalted beings. Any human, divine or demoniac being may be possessed of it. The only difference comes from the degree of power, and this depends on the strength of the concentration and the quality of the mind itself.” (p. 121). Clearly, the intensity of the phenomenon, according to her understanding of the Tibetan tradition, is variable but linked to the intensity of the source. If UFOs are tulpas occurring in non-Buddhist societies, then maybe it is not highly trained individuals producing them, but many untrained ones sharing the same dream.

In a different section of the book she adds some more details. “Phantoms, as Tibetans describe them, and those that I have myself seen do not resemble the apparitions which are said to occur during spiritualist seances. In Tibet, the witnesses of these phenomena have not been especially invited to endeavour to produce them, or to meet a medium known for producing them. Consequently, their minds are not prepared and intent on seeing apparitions. There is no table upon which the company lay their hands nor any medium in trance, nor a dark closet in which the latter is shut up. Darkness is not required, sun and open air do not keep away the phantoms. [...] in other cases, apparently the author of the phenomenon generates it unconsciously, and is not even in the least aware of the apparition being seen by others (p. 308). Linking this quote about the unexpectedness and the unconscious generation of tulpa with her other comments, it becomes clear that the notion that a UFO could be an outcome of the collective unconscious is not contradicting the Tibetan tradition.

In spite of the belief in non-human entities in Tibet, as stated above, it is interesting to note that for those who mastered meditation techniques to a very high degree, “the creation of a phantom Yidam as we have seen it described in the previous chapter, has two different objects. The higher one consists in teaching the disciples that there are no gods or demons other than those which his mind creates. The second aim, less enlightened, is to provide oneself with a powerful means of protection.” (p. 312). It interesting to see, once again, the parallel with parapsychology which tries to show by experiment that psi is a natural phenomenon, that poltergeists are no spirit but creations of a conflicted unconscious mind. As well, as the remote-viewing programme shows psi can be used for military ends as well (the programme was first developed to see if state secrets of the United States could be stolen by the Soviet psychic programme and how could they be protected).

Tulpa, poltergeists and hauntings

Another interesting comparison can be done with poltergeist phenomena. She wrote that creating tulpas “is fraught with danger for ever one who has not reached a high mental and spiritual degree of enlightenment and is not fully aware of the nature of the psychic forces at work in the process. Once a tulpa is endowed with enough vitality to be capable of playing the part of a real being, it tends to free itself from its maker’s control. [...] Sometimes the phantom becomes a rebellious son and one hears of uncanny struggles that have taken place between magicians and their creatures, the former being severly hurt or even killed by the latter” (p. 313). Poltergeists, although not created voluntarily, can also evolve into something quite violent.

Another interesting component is that according to Tibetan tradition, the tulpa can have a life of its own independent of its creator. This is an interesting issue that helps us to understand how poltergeist on one hand, and hauntings and UFOs on the other hand, could be different expressions of the same dynamics. She wrote that “Tibetan magicians also relate cases in which the tulpa is sent to fulfill a mission, but does not come back and pursues its peregrinations as a half-conscious, dangerously mischievous puppet. The same thing, it is said, may happen when the maker of the tulpa dies before having dissolved it. Yet, as a rule, the phantom either disappears suddenly at the death of the magician or gradually vanishes like a body that perishes for want of food. On the other hand, some tulpas are expressly intended to survive their creator and are specially formed for that purpose. These may be considered as veritable tulkus and, in fact, the demarcation between tulpas and tulkus is far from being clearly drawn. (pp. 313-314). Tulkus, are essentially a superior form of tulpas, with longer lasting life.

Alexandra David-Néel is mostly famous for having created her own tulpa. That story, however extraordinary it may be, constitute only two pages of the entire book. She wrote that she “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.” (p. 314). Here again, a number of parallel with parapsychological research can be made. For instance, poltergeists and hauntings tend to develop gradually to become possibly out of control (Houran & Lange 2001). Poltergeist events occur while the focus person is busy doing or thinking about something else (Roll 2004).

David-Néel had troubles with her tulpa over time. “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 ‘day-nightmare’ [...] so I decided to dissolve the phantom. I succeeded, but only after six months of hard struggle. My mind-creature was tenacious of life.” (p. 315). It is also interesting to see that poltergeists are best handled by family therapy and/or by psychotherapy (Lucadou & Zahradnik, 2004). Refocusing deep parts of the mind into a more healthy alignment appears to be the common remedy to both the tulpas of Tibetan tradition and the RSPKs of parapsychology.

A last parallel can be found in the interpretation of events. As David-Néel wrote, “the interesting point is that in these cases of materialization, others see the thought-forms that have been created. Tibetans disagree in their explanations of such phenomena; some think a material form is really brought into being, others consider the apparition as a mere case of suggestion, the creator’s thought impressing others and causing them to see what he himself sees.” (p. 315). In parapsychology, there is the same debate about whether macro psi effects such as haunting and UFOs are either PK materialization (e.g., Budden 1995) or hallucinations shared through ESP means (e.g., Schwartz 1983).

Tibetan tradition and parasociology

Although her explanation of what tulpas are is quite short, it is interesting to note the parallels between the Tibetan tradition and the results of research in parapsychology. It is no proof, of course, but the fact that two completely different approaches arrive at very similar conclusions is considered in science as an important indicator of validity.

As well, I find her description useful as it provides some arguments for a key hypothesis that parasociology will have to explore empirically. Parapsychologists tend to consider that whoever observes a psi event should be considered as a “psi subject” (i.e., that they are part of making the phenomenon occurring). This is coming from the individualistic bias of their psychology background. Furthermore, one can think of the parapsychologists who discover a psi effect through a detailed statistical analysis that remained unknown up to that point. Does it make them psi subjects too? Not. This “special status” granted to themselves is coming from their positivist bias, also learned in psychology.

This is issue of psi subject is highly problematic also because in the case of UFOs and hauntings, oftentimes those who observe appear to be more passive than active, if one looks into their life in depth (like Schwartz did) no particular signs can be found of major unconscious conflicts. If they may have some role in the event in being able to perceive it through psi abilities, and in giving it a particular coloration, they do not appear to be the source of it. The Tibetan approach allows for both a separate creator (conscious or unconscious) and observer, while keeping the phenomenon clearly within the realm of human affairs. This is an important point because if the collective unconscious is producing macro psi effects like UFOs, then obviously the observer cannot be the central source of the phenomenon.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

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