Today we celebrate the long life of a remarkable, and remarkably unsung, woman: Alexandra David-Néel.
Alexandra was a Belgian-French explorer, who travelled the world from Europe to China –usually alone, in a time where this was nearly unthinkable for a young woman. From her teens, she was fascinated by the religious experience – practicing fasting and other ascetic methods gleaned from her reading of histories of the saints, and joining many of the esoteric secret societies of her time, including the Theosphical Society. She was also a natural feminist and anarchist, and it was perhaps this combination which led her not to merely take the word of her books and teachers on the subject of mysticism, but to seek answers for herself. This search would take her to Nepal and Tibet, where she studied for many years (including under the Dalai Lama), eventually becoming one of the few women, and certainly the only white woman, to reach the rank of Lama.
She wrote extensively about her experiences, especially in the book Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929ce). It was in this book that she told a story which would influence Western occultism and modern mythology to this very day: a story of her creation of a Tulpa – a projected ’thought-form’ which takes on a life of its own.
Here is how she tells the tale:
I shut myself in tsams (meditative seclusion) 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 lifelike 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 tulpa; 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 living 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.
There is nothing strange in the fact that I may have created my own hallucination. The interesting point is that in these cases of materialisation, others see the thought-forms that have been created.
Although later scholars and practitioners would note that Tibetan Buddhist praxis does not actually use the concept of the Tulpa in this way, her version became part of the bedrock of Western occultism, especially in chaos magic. It also was absorbed into pop culture mythology, featuring in such wide ranging areas as the TV show ‘Supernatural’ and as part of the origin of that most modern of monsters, the internet-created entity called Slenderman.
Alexandra died in 1969 at the incredible age of 101, at the height of the movement which brought so much of the wisdom she loved to the West, at the end of a life truly fulfilled. Her spirit should be a beacon for us all.