Etymology: From the Tibetan word “sprul-pa” meaning “emanation” or “manifestation.” “Thought-Form” in English
In Buddhist mysticism, a Tulpa is a thought-form created by either spiritual or mental powers.
The term would later be adopted by Western Mysticism and thought in the 20th-century by Theosophists who would take the Tibetan words: nirmita, tulku, sprul-pa, along with others for the word “tulpa” meaning thoughtform. For Modern, Western practitioners of Theosophy, this thoughtform is seen as some sort of imaginary friend willed into existence that is sentient and capable of having its own free will.
What’s In A Name?
I should slow it down here, as there are several words in Tibetan mysticism and Buddhism that lead to the English use of the word “tulpa.” The main Tibetan word is sprul pa where the first part, “sprul” breaks down to mean “emanate” or “manifest” and the word “pa” is a function of Tibetan language that allows for a verb to be used as a noun. This is where, in English, the translation then becomes “Thoughtform.” Another similar word in Tibetan is “phrul” that not only means “manifestations” and “emanation,” but has several other meanings such as: magic, miracle, jugglery, trick, illusion, conjuring and even black art.
Still another Tibetan word that has been translated to mean “thoughtform” is the word “vilu” or “yid lus” and “yi dam” that are all words for tulpa. Further, there are several schools of mysticism, Asian shamanism, and Buddhism that have this concept found throughout China, the Himalayans, Bhutan, India, Mongolia, Nepal, Russia, Tibet and Tuva.
What the term Tulpa means in Buddhism obviously has differences with how Western mysticism approaches and sees the term.
Indian Buddhism –
In the Pali Samaññaphala Sutta, an early Buddhist text, the manomāyakāya or “mind-made body” ability is listed as a means to a full contemplative life. Other texts comment that this “mind-made body” is how the Gautama Buddha and arhats are able to travel up to the heavenly realms. This same ability is how the Buddha accomplished his multiplication miracle in the Divyavadana where he multiplied his nirmita or emanated form into a countless number of bodies filling the sky. This ability would be something that a Buddha or other enlightened beings would be able to accomplish as well.
As an aside, this sounds more like Astral Projection to me with the “mind-made body.” To be fair, the Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu, who lived in the 4th to 5th century CE does say that the nirmita is a siddhi or psychic power that Buddhists can master. Other Buddhist philosophers see the nirmita or nirmana as a magical illusion. The Madhyamaka philosophy sees all of reality as empty and that all reality is a form of nirmita or an illusion.
Tibetan Buddhism –
There are several terms, nirmanakaya, sprulsku, sprul-pa that all relate and connect to the word trikaya. This is the Buddhist doctrine of the three bodies of the Buddha. These are often the “emanation bodies” of celestial beings, though there are “unrealized beings” such as those humans create too that are known to exist.
The 14th Dalai Lama is believed by some followers to be an emanation-reincarnation (tulku) of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The 14th Dalai Lama has even said in a public statement that his successor might appear while he is still alive as an emanation.
In Theosophy, Annie Besant, in her 1901 book “Thought-Forms” has this term divided into three classes. The form in the shape of the person who created them, those forms resembling objects or people that can potentially gain a soul or spirit or even by the dead and lastly, the forms that represent an “inherent quality” from the astral or mental planes. This is something abstract like emotions and ideas.
In Western occult understanding, the term “thoughtform” is first used as early as 1927 in Evans-Wentz’s translation for the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Occultist William Walker Atkinson describes thought-forms in his book The Human Aura as simple ethereal objects created from people’s auras. Atkinson explains further in another book of his where thought-forms are astral projections that may or may not look like the person who created them. Or, thought forms are illusions that only those with awakened senses can see.
Alexandra David-Néel is a spiritualist who claims tulpas are capable of developing their own personality and being able to act on their own free will independent of their creator. David-Néel describes this process much like a baby developing in the womb and is later born, able to live outside.
David-Néel says she created her own tulpa in the image of a Friar Tuck like monk. This particular tulpa of David-Néel’s eventually had to be destroy when it became too malevolent. David-Néel notes that she may have created her own hallucination despite others claiming they could see the thoughtforms she created.
I can see how that makes sense, many writers mention how the story they’re working on and the characters they’ve created can seem to take on a life of their own.
With the later part of the 20th Century and early 21st century, the term Tulpa has become popularized as well as secularized with the Western media and mindset. This has mainly meant equating a Tulpa as a form of Imaginary Friend that is consciously willed into being or created.
With tropes used in media and literature, the two terms of Tulpa and Imaginary Friend tend to get used interchangeably. Some stories have the Tulpa or Imaginary Friend able to have a physical manifestation.
There are self-described tulpamancers who can be found on such websites such as Reddit or 4chan claiming to practice tulpamancy to create sentient, imaginary friends that live within their head.
Done correctly, from a psychological standpoint, I can see how this practice can be a tool to help build empathy and social skills such as sharing or more easily deal with anxiety. Though given the mention of 4Chan and Reddit, it does become very questionable some of the activities these Tulpamancers are engaging in and if they’re suffering from mental illness and seeing things.
One of the articles that I came across that leaned heavily into the Western Mysticism of Tulpa creation mentioned that the tulpas could be “poisonous.” The article leaned into pseudo-science with sound vibrations and creation. It points out that the problems with the subconscious mind. If a Tulpa were created unintentionally or incorrectly, it could become dangerous or “poisonous” with drawing on darker aspects from the psyche of the person that created it.
In Buddhist Mysticism, a Tulpa is able to eventually become separate and it’s own entity, whereas in Western Mysticism, there’s a tendency to see these Tulpa as not separate, that it will be some sort of servitor and controlled by its maker and dismissed later when no longer needed.
What happens when it becomes independent? What happens if what you thought was a Tulpa or Imaginary Friend turns out not to be?
Tulpa Effect – Cryptids & Spirits
There are several Cryptid encounters, Ghost stories and even sightings of Shadow People that may be connected to what’s called the Tulpa Effect. Where a collective belief has fueled the creation of such a being or entity with enough people believing, hearing the stories and thus, it leads to the creation of an entity, even if such a creation were unintentional.
There have been enough discussions with how the expectations of seeing a ghost can manifest and create one even if the local stories and history don’t properly support it. The most notorious of these would be the Slender Man stories circulating and people claiming encounters that it fizzled out in the true short lived internet media sensation and hype.
An episode of the classic Real Ghost Busters has a quick discussion about the creation of the ghosts of Sherlock Holmes and Watson due to the collective beliefs of many people thinking they had been real people and constantly writing letters to the fictional characters. Just even in the confines of a cartoon, it can be seen how much the concept of Tulpas, Thought-Forms and Imaginary Friends becoming real permeates pop-culture.
With mainstream media, there are many shows and literature where the concept of the Imaginary Friend or Tulpa being willed into existence has become a common trope. From shows such as X-Files, Foster’s Home of Imaginary Friends (even if they didn’t use the term tulpa) to even Puss in Boots Netflix series use these beings as part of the plot for a sentient being that’s created.
With Imaginary Friends, most don’t last beyond childhood and can seem to fade away whereas with Tulpas, those can grow in personality and experience to become their own being that can’t be controlled is often what is cited as the distinction between the two.
This leads to another concept idea held behind these tulpas that get created through a collective unconscious and belief. In Fortean Phenomena, this concept is called a “window area” where these are places of former religious importance that are now fallen out of use and abandoned. It follows then, that due to religious beliefs, a local deity or entity could have been created and with their former worshipers gone, they continue to find other ways to instill a belief, cause paranormal activity to try and perpetuate a belief in them, thus feeding and keeping themselves from fading away.
Anyone reading or watching Neil Gaiman’s American Gods knows this idea very well.
Changeling: The Dreaming
The creation of Tulpas and Imaginary Friends all sounds like fun and games. The entire discussion of Tulpas reminds me of the Changeling: The Dreaming role-playing game. Instead of the term Tulpa, the term Chimera is used to describe those entities, sentient or non-sentient that are created. That these Chimera are created intentionally or not from human thoughts and emotions or just even the collective unconscious of everyone believing in the same thing. Such entities or object could manifest a physical presence in the world for a short period and when exposed to banality, human doubt, or disbelief, they could be weakened or even destroyed.
On one hand, when you have so many people claiming the same thing or beliefs, there must be something to it?
The idea of the Tulpas and Imaginary Friends is definitely a concept to stay a little more critical of. Crossing over to Ghost Stories, there’s also enough discussion how the expectations of seeing a ghost can manifest and create one even if the local stories and history don’t properly support it.
Some people have aphantasia and lack the ability to see anything with their imagination or mind’s eye. Other people have an incredibly vivid imagination. Is there an entity there, real, imagined or created? Is it someone who has mental health issues such as schizophrenia? Is it just a good, strong healthy imagination with someone able to strongly visualize?
Plus, not everything encountered will be the result of a tulpa. But it should be part of the line of questioning process when doing the process of elimination. That when you remove the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.
This one can be hard to define.