Some people seem to be destined to lodge themselves into history as particularly odd. Born in Paris in 1868 as Louise Eugénie Alexandrine Marie David, the remarkable woman who would go on to be called Alexandra David-Néel was from a very young age a bit different from her peers. As a young girl she would spend most of her time in museums and studying Eastern arts and religions while other kids played. She also had an intense interest in both travel and the occult, and by the age of 18 she had already travelled extensively on her own to such countries as the Netherlands, England, Switzerland and Spain, something that was almost unheard of for a young woman to do alone at the time. She would go on to join various secret societies, become involved with the Theosophical Society, and also became a rather vocal anarchist and feminist. Throughout her colorful life she would variously be an explorer, spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist, opera singer, and writer, but she is most known for her groundbreaking spiritual journeys to India and Tibet, explorations of forgotten, forbidden cities hidden away from the world, and her incredible revelations on mysticism, magic, and the thought forms known as tulpas.
In 1911, David-Néel seperated from her husband and moved to India, a place she had lived before to study Sanskrit and study with the Theosophical Society in Madras. This time was to be a bit more permanent, and during the coming years she would study Sanskrit and Tibetan, practice mystical arts, learn about Eastern philosophies, live in a cave for two years with a Buddhist monk, learn a form of esoteric meditation for generating body heat under extreme conditions, called the tumo, adopt a 14-year-old monk called Aphur Yongden, meet with the 13th Dalai Lama, and travel extensively to India, Tibet, China, Nepal, Korea, Mongolia and Japan. It was during a trip to Japan that she would get it into her head to embark on her most challenging and strangest journey yet.
David-Néel had long been fascinated with Lhasa, Tibet, a place that was at the time completely off-limits to foreigners, which had earned it the nickname The Forbidden City. To her it was a forbidden, unexplored land full of mysticism and magic, a place beyond our reality where monks wandered the mountains mastering esoteric practices and where she believed she would find some great meaning about the nature of the universe itself. The problem was, the city had long been completely closed off from the outside world, known only through fragments brought back by a handful of explorers who had claimed to have seen it. She herself may have never even bothered to try if it were not for a trip to Japan, during which time she met a monk who claimed to have entered the forbidden city by posing as a Chinese doctor. This planted the seed in her head for her own covert mission to attempt to enter the city and see the wondrous things she was sure she would find there.
In 1924, David-Néel put her plan into effect. She colored her face with charcoal, braided her hair and dyed it black, dressed in ragged yak skin clothing, and disguised herself as a beggar and a monk. With this done, her and Yongden managed to blend in with a large crowd of pilgrims coming to celebrate the Monlam Prayer Festival to enter the city. It must have been a tense time, hoping no one would recognize she was a foreigner, trying to hide the compass, pistol, and purse with money for a possible ransom under her tattered rags, and keeping her head down and refusing to talk with anyone. She at times doubted she would make it past the city walls, but in the end her and her companion would enter unimpeded, making her what is believed to be the first Western woman to have ever entered the Forbidden City. Over the coming months, she would explore this majestic place, as well as the surrounding Drepung, Sera, Ganden, and Samye monasteries, and through this time she would claim to have witnessed many wondrous things.
During her stay in and around Lhasa, David-Néel would describe witnessing various amazing things, such as telepathy, levitation, spells that could supposedly resurrect the dead, monks who could consciously control their bodily processes to an incredible degree, and many others, but perhaps the most bizarre claim she would make concerns a Tibetan spiritual phenomenon called sprul pa, which she would call “tulpa.” The basic idea is that the human mind, and sometimes the minds of spirits, were capable of projecting onto reality thought forms that others could see, and indeed “sprul pa” translates to “magic, illusory creations.” These tulpas, as David-Néel called them, were more or less willed into existence, and could range from mere insubstantial illusions, to actual solid entities that could interact with and affect their surroundings, and could on extreme occasions even take on a life and mind of their own. She would say of this:
Once the 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. This, say Tibetan occultists, happens nearly mechanically, just as the child, when his body is completed and able to live apart, leaves its mother's womb. 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 severely hurt or even killed by the latter. 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. Visualizing mental formations, either voluntarily or not, is a most mysterious process. What becomes of these creations? May it not be that like children born of our flesh, these children of our mind separate their lives from ours, escape our control, and play parts of their own?
The tulpa was usually willed into existence through practice and extreme concentration by powerful monks and magicians, but could also sometimes be created inadvertently by common people. It was said that the time it takes to create one of these creatures could be anything from a lengthy ritual, to nearly instantaneously, and they could appear in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Sometimes the tulpa took the shape of its creator, becoming a sort of doppelgänger, while on other occasions they took the form of a person the creator knew or even something they had seen in film, art, or fiction, but technically there seems to be no limit to what form these entities can take. The duration of these entities could range from fleeting to years or even decades, with powerful, independent tulpas claimed to even be able to outlive their creators.
David-Néel would claim to not only have learned of these entities, but to have actually had several bizarre experiences with them. One concerns a young Tibetan servant by the name of Wangdu, who she one day sent off to see his family. When the boy did not return for a month, she assumed that he had left her, and then one night she had a very peculiar dream. In this dream, Wangdu would appear at her place “clad in a somewhat unusual fashion.” The following morning, she was alerted by a servant that Wangdu had returned, and indeed when she went to look he was there and dressed exactly as he had appeared in the dream. The boy was walking alone up a hill, and David-Néel would write of what happened next in her 1929 book Mystiques et Magiciens du Tibet (Magic and Mystery in Tibet):
I remarked that he had no luggage with him and the servant who was next me answered: "Wangdu has walked ahead, the load-carriers must be following." We both continued to observe the man. He reached a small chörten, [stupa] walked behind it and did not reappear. The base of this chörten was a cube built in stone, less than three feet high, and from its needle-shaped top to the ground, the small monument was no more than seven feet high. There was no cavity in it. Moreover, the chörten was completely isolated: there were neither houses, nor trees, nor undulations, nor anything that could provide a hiding in the vicinity.
My servant and I believed that Wangdu was resting for a while under the shade of the chörten. But as time went by without his reappearing, I inspected the ground round the monument with my field-glasses, but discovered nobody. Very much puzzled I sent two of my servants to search for the boy. I followed their movements with the glasses but no trace was to be found of Wangdu nor of anybody else. That same day a little before dusk the young man appeared in the valley with his caravan. He wore the very same dress and the foreign sun hat which I had seen in my dream, and in the morning vision.
Without giving him or the load-carriers time to speak with my servants and hear about the phenomenon, I immediately questioned them. From their answers I learned that all of them had spent the previous night in a place too far distant from my dwelling for anyone to reach the latter in the morning. It was also clearly stated that Wangdu had continually walked with the party. During the following weeks I was able to verify the accuracy of the men's declarations by inquiring about the time of the caravan's departure, at the few last stages where the porters were changed. It was proved that they had all spoken the truth and had left the last stage together with Wangdu, as they said.
David-Néel believed that what she had seen was a tulpa that had taken the form of Wangdu, perhaps even projected by the boy himself. Another experience she had revolves around a painter who came to visit her one day, but he was apparently not alone. She would say of this bizarre encounter:
I noticed behind him the somewhat nebulous shape of one of the fantastic beings which often appeared in his paintings. I made a startled gesture and the astonished artist took a few steps towards me, asking what was the matter. I noticed that the phantom did not follow him, and quickly thrusting my visitor aside, I walked to the apparition with one arm stretched in front of me. My hand reached the foggy form. I felt as if touching a soft object whose substance gave way under the slight push, and the vision vanished. The painter confessed in answer to my questions that he had been performing a dubthab rite during the last few weeks, calling on the deity whose form I had dimly perceived, and that very day he had worked the whole morning on a painting of the same deity. In fact, the Tibetan's thoughts were entirely concentrated on the deity whose help he wished to secure for a rather mischievous undertaking. He himself had not seen the phantom.
A third experience she allegedly had while camping at a place called Punag ritöd in Kham, along with a lama friend of hers by the name of Rimpoche. One day she was in a hut with the cook when he asked her for some provisions. She took him outside to head towards her tent, where she said he could gather what he needed, but along the way something very strange happened, of which she would write:
We walked out and when nearing my tent, we both saw the hermit lama seated on a folding chair next my camp table. This did not surprise us because the lama often came to talk with me. The cook only said "Rimpoche is there, I must go and make tea for him at once, I will take the provisions later on." I replied: "All right. Make tea and bring it to us." The man turned back and I continued to walk straight toward the lama, looking at him all the time while he remained seated motionless.
When I was only a few steps from the tent, a flimsy veil of mist seemed to open before it, like a curtain that is pulled aside. And suddenly I did not see the lama any more. He had vanished. A little later, the cook came, bringing tea. He was surprised to see me alone. As I did not like to frighten him I said: "Rimpoche only wanted to give me a message. He had no time to stay to tea." I related the vision to the lama, but he only laughed at me without answering my questions. Yet, upon another occasion he repeated the phenomenon. He utterly disappeared as I was speaking with him in the middle of a wide bare track of land, without tent or houses or any kind of shelter in the vicinity.
These experiences would become the basis of her deciding to carry out her own experiment of trying to actually create her own tulpa. She started by choosing a form that would be unthreatening and easy to deal with, choosing to envision “a monk, short and fat, of an innocent and jolly type.” She then spent every day concentrating and envisioning that monk, until one day he appeared just as she had envisioned and she would say of her creation:
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. 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.
It seemed a wondrous thing, confirmation that the stories she had heard about these thought forms were real and based on fact. However, what was at first a miraculous discovery and proof of the strange mystical powers of the mind soon turned into a nightmare. David-Néel’s new creation not only lingered and followed her around, but it also began to develop a mind of its own. The tulpa began following her around at all hours, stalking her and playing pranks on her even as its visage changed from that of a jolly monk into something more sinister, and it came to the point that she felt it had to be banished away. She would write of the ordeal:
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 "daynightmare." Moreover, I was beginning to plan my journey to Lhasa and needed a quiet brain devoid of other preoccupations, so I decided to dissolve the phantom. I succeeded, but only after six months of hard struggle. My mind-creature was tenacious of life.
Throughout her time at the city and studying about these mystical entities, she was never able to come to her own clear conclusion as to what was actually happening or what mechanisms caused them to materialize, and indeed she claimed that the Tibetans themselves didn’t really fully understand it. There seemed to be all sorts of ideas as to what the tulpas ultimately were, ranging from that the mind was harnessing earth energies to that they were actually demons brought into our world through will or even mass hallucinations. No one could really agree, with the tulpas just being something that was accepted as part of their mystical landscape. She would say:
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. In spite of the clever efforts made by the Tibetans to find rational explanations for all prodigies, a number remain unexplained, perhaps because they are pure inventions, or perhaps for other reasons.
When David-Néel eventually returned to France, her amazing stories of this exotic, faraway land of magic and mystery were a big hit. She would be featured all over the news and would write 30 books on her experiences and other aspects of Tibetan life, including the popular Magic and Mystery in Tibet and My Journey to Lhasa, and although skeptics and critics had a tough time swallowing her stories of levitating monks, powers of the mind, and spectral thought-creatures, they were very well-received by the general public. Her writings would even influence the beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and various scholars of Eastern philosophy, including Alan Watts and Ram Dass. Whether her stories of magic and the supernatural were real or not, one thing that everyone agreed on was that she was a great explorer, a groundbreaking pioneer, and an important source of information on a mysterious world few outsiders had ever seen. Alexandra David-Néel died on 8 September 1969, at almost 101 years old, leaving behind a legacy that remains to this day. What did she experience out there and was any of it real at all? No matter what one may think, it is a very strange life filled with magic, the supernatural, and glimpses into worlds beyond our understanding, as well as a peek into a relatively dark and unknown corner of the paranormal.