Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Tulpas and Hinduism

We have seen evidence so far from two completely independent sources (quantum physics and dreams), both of which would lead us to question the existence of physical matter. The following evidence is from a third source, much more ancient than quantum physics and more specialized than the consideration of dreams. This evidence is the experience of tulpas.

The Hindu concept of the tulpa can probably best be explained by the following story. It comes from a source which I can, unfortunately, no longer recall, but which was presented in that source as a true account. It concerned a writer and two photographers who worked for Time/Life in Chicago, and it happened sometime near the late 1950s.

This Time/Life team, a writer, a still photographer and a movie photographer, had been sent on assignment to India to do a story on the Indian rope trick. This is the trick that involves someone shimmying up a rope which is somehow suspended in mid-air. So the team went to India and found it not too difficult to locate people doing the trick, but they wanted to find a particularly good example of the trick. They wanted to find someone doing the trick far away from buildings and trees so they could be sure that the rope wasn't suspended in some way from a tree or wire or skyhook of some sort. So they eventually found a person doing the trick out in a very open area, not too far from a town, and near a roadway so that people could stop and watch, much like people might stop and watch a street musician on their way to and from errands.

In any case, what the Time/Life team saw was a little wizened old man sitting in an open space in the lotus posture with his eyes closed. A young boy was sitting beside him, and a length of rope was coiled in front of them much like you might see on a sailboat deck. There were a few people standing around the area hoping to see a show. After a few moments one end of the rope suddenly and mysteriously began slowly to wend its way skyward, completely unattached to anything, until it was hanging straight up and down in the air, its top clearly visible up there, and its bottom end suspended maybe a foot off the ground.

The two photographers were pretty excited about this, of course, and began shooting film left and right, of the rope, of the little man and boy, and of the people looking up at the rope, nudging each other and pointing excitedly, etc. Then the little man stood up, shimmied up to the top of the rope and poof! just disappeared up there into nothingness. The young boy then stood up, he also shimmied up to the top of the rope, and poof! he disappeared too.

The photographers were definitely getting all this on film. They shot the man and boy shimmying up the rope and then disappearing, they shot the rope still hanging there, and they shot film of all the bystanders pointing up, eyes bugged out in amazement, ooohing and aaahing, and exclaiming to each other about what they had just seen.

Then the boy, to everyone's surprise, suddenly reappeared at the top of the rope, shimmied down the rope, and sat back down where he'd been sitting before. Then the little man reappeared too, shimmied down the rope, sat back down again in the lotus posture and closed his eyes. Then slowly the rope descended and re-coiled itself neatly in front of the man and boy.

Everyone was clearly impressed, especially the writer and photographers who had never seen anything remotely like this back in Chicago. After everything was over and people began to slowly wander away leaving the man and boy and rope where they originally were, the Time/Life team hurried back to their hotel room and put the story together. The photographers packaged up their film to mail back to Chicago and the writer wrote down everything he had seen. They then mailed off their materials to the Chicago office.

Back in Chicago, the editors were clearly impressed with the story. They laid out the whole story for the next issue of Life magazine, leaving room for the photo displays. When the photos came back from the developing lab, what they all showed was a little man sitting in the lotus posture with his eyes closed, a young boy sitting next to him, and a coil of rope on the ground in front of them. The man and the boy never moved or changed position in any of the photos, nor did the rope, but the bystanders moved a lot. They were looking up toward the sky with excited expressions on their faces, they were pointing up toward something, they were seen exclaiming to each other and nudging each other, and in general were clearly very much excited about what they were seeing. All the bystanders had obviously seen exactly what the Time/Life team had also seen and had written about, but the camera recorded none of what they saw.

So what was going on here? What kind of experience was it that these people had just had? How would we explain what had just occurred to everyone at that gathering?

Probably the best explanatory hypothesis that we could come up with in the West is: group hypnosis. We could perhaps say that the onlookers had been hypnotized by the little man and had been induced to see a group hallucination. But this explanatory hypothesis doesn't really work very well for at least two reasons: a) the little man didn't ever do any hypnotizing, didn't utter any hypnotic phrases (or any phrases at all), and didn't give any hypnotic suggestions or commands. Furthermore, b) the onlookers showed no evidence of ever being in any sort of hypnotic trance during any part of the proceedings. No hypnotic induction and no evidence of anything even resembling a trance. So the concept of group hypnosis will probably not work very well as an explanation, even though that explanatory hypothesis is probably the best one that we in the West could come up with.

Hinduism, on the other hand, has a very simple and elegant explanation for what happened to those people. Hinduism says simply that they all experienced a tulpa.

So what is a tulpa? The concept of a tulpa can probably best be explained by the following little thought-exercise:

Try closing your eyes and, with your mind's eye, try to visualize the following pastoral meadow scene. In other words, you'll not just "think about" this scene, but will try to actually see it in your mind. You'll try to see a pleasant green grassy meadow on a warm sunny afternoon in early summer. You see a few white and yellow meadow flowers amongst all the lush grass. You're sitting in the grass under a big leafy shade tree, and you can feel the soft coolness of the grass under you. You hear some birds singing and you see the clear blue sky with only a few white billowy clouds in it. You smell the fresh sweetness of the grass and flowers and hear a small brook off in the distance. With your eyes closed, and concentrating, you try now to visualize that whole scene.

It does take a certain amount of concentration and focus to be able to truly visualize a scene like that. Some people are able to do that kind of visualization fairly well, but it takes concentration and practice. Let's call this the first level of visualization.

The second level of visualization would be if you could see that same scene just as clearly, but this time instead of doing it with your eyes closed, you do it with your eyes open. That means you have to simultaneously not see, hear and feel the things that are actually there in the room with you, and you do see, hear and feel the whole meadow scene. To accomplish this with your eyes open would take a great deal of focus, concentration and practice, and most people are not really able to accomplish it very well.

The third level of visualization would be if you could concentrate so fully, and see, hear and feel that whole meadow scene so clearly and in such rich and precise detail that other people around you could see it too. This would mean that you could visualize something so clearly that what you were visualizing would actually become an experienced reality for other people. And that is what a tulpa is.

A tulpa, in Hinduism, is considered one of the siddhis, or spiritual powers, that people accidentally develop when they are deeply immersing themselves in intense, long-term spiritual practice. Hindus believe that these siddhis (powers) are real, but that they should be ignored and not played with. Siddhis can be dangerous in that they are tempting and can distract the spiritual seeker away from what he or she should be devoting their attention to, namely the development of the spiritual life. But some seekers (like perhaps this particular wizened little man) do sometimes let themselves get distracted by one siddhi or another, and eventually can thus lose their spiritual focus.

In any case, that's what a tulpa is. It is a reality made up only of thought-stuff, not physical stuff, though it may feel as if it has all the substantiality of physical stuff. In this way a tulpa is much like a dream: it is created out of thought-stuff but appears and feels as if it were made of physical stuff.

And, according to the Hindu tradition, the entire physical universe is a kind of tulpa. It is real, but it has only the kind of reality that a dream has. According to Hinduism, this universe-tulpa is created for us by Brahman, who is the true substantial Ground of the universe. (Or another way to say the same thing, the universe-tulpa is created by Atman, our truest, deepest real Self, that Self which is the same Self as all the apparent separate selves, and is itself ultimately identical with Brahman.)

So, according to this tradition, are physical material things real? Yes they are real, but they are only as real as things in a dream are real. That is, the physical world is indeed the substrate of all our experience, but it is a substrate made up only of thought-stuff.

These ideas should probably remind you of the physicist Sir James Jeans and his comment that the more we learn about the nature of the physical universe the more it looks like a great thought. And it may also remind you of Plato's story of the cave. We human beings, says Plato, are as if we are living in a cave. We are watching mere shadows on a wall and we believe them to be real. Little do we know that there is actually a world much more real and substantial than the mere shadow lands we believe to be real.