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If you read or watch a story featuring a tulpa—a paranormal entity created by the thoughts of an individual or a collective—you’ll probably find a mention of its origins in Tibet. But, as scholars of religion Natasha L. Mikles and Joseph P. Laycock write, the reality is more complicated.

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Mikles and Laycock write that tulpas became part of modern paranormal lore after journalist and UFO enthusiast John Keel mentioned them in his 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies. He wrote that novelist Walter Gibson’s house had been haunted by a figure resembling Gibson’s character The Shadow, explaining that “the Tibetans believe that advanced human minds can manipulate these invisible energies into visible forms called tulpas, or thought projections.” Keel speculated that reports of ghosts or aliens that resembled pop-cultural depictions might actually be tulpas, created by people’s thoughts about them.

Eventually, the idea was picked up in pop culture. An episode of Supernatural, for example, featured a spirit that turned out to be a tulpa created through the power of teenagers sharing haunted house stories on a website. A character explains what happened by describing Tibetan monks creating a creature through meditation practice.

“That was twenty monks,” he says. “Imagine what ten thousand web surfers can do.”

In real life, some people used similar arguments to suggest that Slender Man, created as a spooky image by Eric Knudsen for the website Something Awful in 2009, had attained corporal form through the mental power of masses of people.

Yet, Mikles and Laycock write, the idea of a creature that can be created inadvertently by an individual or group and can rebel dangerously bears little resemblance to anything found in Tibetan tradition. The closest match is the tulku, an advanced Buddhist practitioner who manifests in human form to teach others.

The person responsible for introducing the “tulpa” to the world seems to be European traveler and Theosophist Alexandra David-Néel, who discussed it in her 1929 book Magic and Mystery in Tibet—a book influenced by Tibetan translator Kazi Dawa Samdup, who was himself reportedly a scholar of mystical traditions. David-Néel described tulpas as phantoms created by magicians and claimed that she herself had made one while in Tibet using “prescribed concentration of thought and other rites.”

In fact, Mikles and Laycock argue, tulpas as David-Néel described them are most similar to “thought forms” described by theosophist writer Annie Besant—entities that could take physical form for good or evil, depending on the intent of the creator. However, the authors argue that it would be a mistake to call tulpas a western creation misattributed to Tibetans. They argue that they seem to have emerged from a two-way cultural exchange between Theosophists like David-Néel and Tibetans like Samdup, the translator. In fact, Samdup used the term “thought-form” in his 1927 translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

“Thus the tulpa may truly be a creature built from collective imagination,” Mikles and Laycock write, “Not only of multiple individuals, but multiple cultures exchanging ideas and terms.”

Teaching Tips

Incorporating Primary Sources:

Expanding the discussion of Spiritualism:

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Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, Vol. 19, No. 1 (August 2015), pp. 87–97
University of California Press
American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 78, No. 2 (June 1976), pp. 403–404
Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
Man, Vol. 29 (February 1929), p. 40
Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland