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Tulpa is a concept in mysticism and the paranormal of a being or object which is created through spiritual or mental powers. It was adapted by 20th century theosophists from Tibetan sprul-pa (Tibetan: སྤྲུལ་པ་, Wylie: sprulpa) which means "emanation" or "manifestation". Modern practitioners use the term to refer to a type of willed imaginary friend which practitioners consider to be sentient and relatively autonomous.
One early Buddhist text, the Samaññaphala Sutta, lists the ability to create a “mind-made body” (manomāyakāya) as one of the "fruits of the contemplative life".:117 Commentarial texts such as the Patisambhidamagga and the Visuddhimagga state that this mind-made body is how Gautama Buddha and arhats are able to travel into heavenly realms using the continuum of the mindstream (citta-santāna) and it is also used to explain the multiplication miracle of the Buddha as illustrated in the Divyavadana, in which the Buddha multiplied his emanation body ("nirmita") into countless other bodies which filled the sky. A Buddha or other realized being is able to project many such "nirmitas" simultaneously in an infinite variety of forms in different realms simultaneously.:125–134
The Indian Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu (fl. 4th to 5th century CE) defined nirmita as a siddhi or psychic power (Pali: iddhi, Skt: ṛddhi) developed through Buddhist discipline, concentrated discipline (samadhi) and wisdom in his seminal work on Buddhist philosophy, the Abhidharmakośa. Asanga's Bodhisattvabhūmi defines nirmāṇa as a magical illusion and "basically, something without a material basis".:130 The Madhyamaka school of philosophy sees all reality as empty of essence; all reality is seen as a form of nirmita or magical illusion.:158
Emanation bodies—nirmanakaya, sprulsku, sprul-pa and so on—are connected to trikaya, the Buddhist doctrine of the three bodies of the Buddha. They are usually emanation bodies of celestial beings, though "unrealized beings" such as humans may have their own emanation bodies or even be emanation bodies. For example, the 14th Dalai Lama is considered by some followers to be an emanation-reincarnation or tulku of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The 14th Dalai Lama mentioned in a public statement that his successor might appear via emanation while the current Dalai Lama is still alive.
20th century theosophists adapted the concepts of "emanation body"—nirmita, tulku, sprul-pa and others—into the concepts of "tulpa" and "thoughtform". The term “thoughtform” is used as early as 1927 in Evans-Wentz' translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. John Myrdhin Reynolds in a note to his English translation of the life story of Garab Dorje defines a tulpa as “an emanation or a manifestation.”
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Belgian-French explorer, spiritualist, and Buddhist Alexandra David-Néel claimed to have observed these mystical practices in 20th century Tibet. She reported tulpas are "magic formations generated by a powerful concentration of thought.":331 David-Néel wrote that "an accomplished Bodhisattva is capable of effecting ten kinds of magic creations. The power of producing magic formations, tulkus or less lasting and materialized tulpas, does not, however, belong exclusively to such mystic exalted beings. Any human, divine or demoniac being may be possessed of it. The only difference comes from the degree of power, and this depends on the strength of the concentration and the quality of the mind itself.":115
David-Néel wrote of the tulpa's ability to develop a mind of its own: "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.":283 David-Néel claimed to have created a tulpa in the image of a jolly Friar Tuck-like monk which later developed a life of its own and had to be destroyed. David-Néel raised the possibility that her experience was illusory: "I may have created my own hallucination", though she reports that others could see the thoughtforms that have been created.:176
The Western occult understanding of the concept of "thoughtform" is believed by some to have originated as an interpretation of the Tibetan concept of "tulpa". The concept is related to the Western philosophy and practice of magic.[page needed] Occultist William Walker Atkinson in his book The Human Aura described thought-forms as simple ethereal objects emanating from the auras surrounding people, generating from their thoughts and feelings. He further elaborated in Clairvoyance and Occult Powers how experienced practitioners of the occult can produce thoughtforms from their auras that serve as astral projections which may or may not look like the person who is projecting them, or as illusions that can only be seen by those with "awakened astral senses". The theosophist Annie Besant, in her book Thought-forms, divides them into three classes: forms in the shape of the person who creates them, forms that resemble objects or people and may become "ensouled" by "nature spirits" or by the dead, and forms that represent "inherent qualities" from the astral or mental planes, such as emotions.
Tulpas in modern Western society
The concept of tulpa was popularized and secularized in the Western world through fiction, gaining popularity on television in the late 1990s and 2000s. In 2009, anonymous posters on the discussion board 4chan started experimenting with creating tulpas, and the community gained popularity through the emergence of the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fandom. The fans attempted to use meditation and lucid dreaming techniques to create imaginary friends. Surveys by Veissière explored this community's demographic, social, and psychological profiles. These individuals, calling themselves "tulpamancers", treat the tulpas as a "real or somewhat-real person". The number of active participants in these online communities is in the low hundreds, and few meetings in person have taken place. They belong to "primarily urban, middle class, Euro-American adolescent and young adult demographics" and they "cite loneliness and social anxiety as an incentive to pick up the practice." 93.7% of respondents expressed that their involvement with the creation of tulpas has "made their condition better", and led to new unusual sensory experiences. Some practitioners have sexual and romantic interactions with their tulpas, though the practice is controversial and trending towards taboo. One survey found that 8.5% support a metaphysical explanation of tulpas, 76.5% support a neurological or psychological explanation, and 14% "other" explanations.
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