The first stop on our tour of the capital, Thimpu was the Memorial Chörten. It was with a sense of awe that we beheld the beauty of the sanctuary, clean and brightly painted, surrounded by beautifully clipped shrubs. This was a holy place, we were told. No photography was permitted inside. Carefully and respectfully, we removed our shoes and stepped up onto the icy cold floor of this holy of holies. Inside stood an unspeakable abomination.
Around a central pillar shaped like a lotus stem were clustered three or four layers of statues of a god mating in a standing position with his snarling, half-naked consort. Four heads, fanged and bug-eyed and ferocious, adorned the deity's trunk, while from his numerous hands sprouted weapons and esoteric symbols, and around the couple hung necklaces of heads, skulls, and snakes. The overall impression was that the generative powers of the universe were fueled by an insensate savagery.
At the base of the pillar roamed smaller images of grotesque human-animal hybrids: monstrosities with the loins and limbs of men and the heads and/or bodies of horses, dogs, or chickens. Demons? Not at all, relied our guide. The only demons in the diorama were the pathetic, human-like forms crushed under the main god's four feet. These creatures were actually minor deities, their hideous aspect designed to scare away demons. "It is important," he added, "to familiarise yourself with their appearance, so that you won't be frightened by them when you reach the other side." Scarcely concealing a shudder, I prayed that neither in life nor death would I ever met anything so ghastly. They reminded me of the devils painted by Hieronymus Bosch.
Later, at the Painting School we were shown a traditional circular depiction of the cycle of reincarnation: the earth with its sorrows, and the many layers of hells and heavens. However, one thing puzzled me. This circular universe was held in the grip of some pop-eyed, humanoid monster, whose curved fangs protruded over the edge. I asked the guide about it.
That is the fierce aspect of the Lord Buddha," he replied. It figured.
Why am I telling you this? It is not in order to disparage somebody else's religion - though I would strongly discourage anybody from getting involved - but as a background to an investigation into the interface between psychology and psychic phenomena. Anyone interested in the latter must be prepared to understand abnormal psychology. Many experiences people imagine are paranormal are simply the manifestation of an altered state of consciousness. On the other hand, there is more than a little evidence that altered states of consciousness can precipitate paranormal phenomena, not always in the manner the practitioner expects. And nowhere does the issue come to a head more than when deliberate attempts are made to induce such altered states.
In an environment where the whole physical world is believed to be ultimately an illusion, the need to separate fact from imagination is paramount. Fortunately, Madam David-Néel was one of those explorer-anthropologists who immerse themselves in their subject, yet attempt to maintain objectivity. She studied and practised the mental exercises of her subjects, but she made a clear distinction between what she heard and what she saw. She heard about levitation, but did not see it. (And the Dalai Lama has recently denied that it is practised.) She witnessed tumo, the art of raising the temperature of the extremities by mind power alone - a useful skill in such a cold climate - and learned how to do it herself, decades before it was scientifically established. (And, at this point, I might add that almost all these feats involve focusing the mind, and keeping out distractions. It occurred to me that this might be a better way to get to sleep than counting sheep. I haven't perfected it yet, but it seems to work.)
And she was taught about the tulpa ('tool-pa'): a mind-generated phantom, a made-to-order visual hallucination, a sort of walking, talking figment of the imagination, produced either voluntarily or involuntarily. She therefore decided to try it herself. And, in order not to be influenced by the paintings and statues of the local deities, she chose to produce a tulpa of something she knew knew could be nothing but a figment of her imagination: a short, fat, jovial monk. It took a few months of mental concentration and ritual to create the hallucination, but after that, the monk's form became fixed. He became a permanent guest in her tent, and when they broke camp, he went with them.
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.Gradually, the phantom monk changed, becoming leaner, mocking, and troublesome. She had lost control of the figment of her imagination, just as other people who deliberately call forth a secondary personality from their subconscious - say, by automatic writing or 'channeling' - eventually lose control of it. It required six months of hard struggle to kill off her mind creature.
Of course, all this is readily explicable as a dissociative personality phenomenon. Producing a visual hallucination in such a manner is rather unusual, but nobody familiar with abnormal psychology will be amazed. What is astonishing, however, is this: although the phantom was normally visible only to herself (of course!), once a herdsman who entered her tent to bring her some butter saw it, and mistook it for a live lama.
Not only that, but the whole reason she did the exercise in the first place, is that she had seen other people's tulpas. On two occasions, a lama situated right in front of her, and witnessed by more than one person, vanished right in front of her eyes. On one of those occasion, it happened while she was speaking with him. It was said that the lama had sent his tulpa in place of himself. Another time, she was awaiting the return from leave of her servant, Wangdu, when she saw him in a dream, wearing a foreign sun hat he had never worn before. The next morning, both she and another servant watched him walk slowly up the slope, dressed exactly as in her dream, and then vanished in plain sight. Later that same day, Wangdu arrived in the flesh, dressed exactly as she had seen him, and it was established beyond all doubt that he had been far away when, unknown to himself, his tulpa had appeared.
Finally, she was visited by a man who was a fervid worshipper and painter of the wrathful deities. (Why would a person worship a wrathful deity if there were a kindly one available?) And behind him, she saw the nebulous shape of one of those terrible beings. He took a few steps towards her.
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.In several of my earlier posts I have suggested that apparitions - "ghosts", if you like - are psychic manifestations, albeit produced by some external, and disembodied, intelligence. So now we have the situation whereby intense mental concentration can, by itself, produce an apparition visible to others. And if Madame David-Néel had not had the foresight to induce a tulpa of something known to have no objective existence, one would be tempted to assume that the wrathful deity she observed really existed. As for the servant and the lama, well, who knows what we might think?
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 woman whom Dr Melvin Morse declined to name went a lot farther than Tibet, but nevertheless somewhere we are all destined to go: the Other Side. To be precise, as a child (I suspect, an early teenager) she had a reaction to antibiotics and went into anaphylactic shock, and came close to dying. She had a near death experience, in which - as is commonly the case - she came out of her body, passed through the tunnel to a paradise of light, and into the presence of a light she took for God. But when she was brought back, something - or rather, someone - came back with her: a ministering angel who called herself Sarah.
Now, quite possibly we all have one. But this woman could see hers.
This near-death experience occurred twenty years ago. Yet, remarkably, Sarah has never left this woman's side. During periods of stress, Sarah reappears to provide solace and advice.It was that experience which made her consult Dr Morse. (Melvin Morse with Paul Perry, Closer to the Light. Learning from the near-death experiences of children. 1991, pp 151-2 of the 1992 Bantam edition).
The woman and Sarah have had in-depth discussions about several earthly problems, including marital strife, job difficulties, the travails of raising children. When she needs her, Sarah is always there. All this woman needs to do is sit alone in a quiet place and ask for her presence.
Until recently my patient thought that Sarah was invisible. Then a remarkable thing happened. She was having extraordinary problems with her teenage son, who was failing school, staying out late at night, and being generally rebellious in the worst of teenage traditions. Waiting up for him to return from a night on the town, my patient sat in her darkened family room and "called up" Sarah.
For the next half hour, the woman and her guardian angel had a heart-to-heart talk about the difficulties of raising teenage boys. Little did my patient know that her son had come home and had witnessed half of their discussion, watching the angel and his mother talk as he peeked around a corner.
In the morning, he confronted her with what he had seen. "Mom," he said. "Who was that woman you were talking to last night? She seemed real nice."
So, what are we to make of Sarah? Can anything we have discussed previously be of assistance? If no third party had been a witness, I would have no hesitation in labelling her a secondary personality of the woman, an example of dissociation. Even then, it would be remarkable. I once met a saintly lady with the appropriate name of Miss Toogood, whose conscience really was a "still, small voice" inside her head. And, of course, we are aware of Socrates' daemon: an internal voice which served as an externalisation of his conscience and prudence. But, as far as I know, he never actually saw it. Without the influence of drugs or sleep deprivation, visual hallucinations are very rare, even among the genuinely psychotic.
But how was it that her son saw the apparition? Is this a case whereby his mother's unconscious secondary personality turned into a psychic manifestation? Was Sarah a tulpa? If so, it would be quite remarkable. Tulpas don't just happen; they are only the result of intense concentration and mental exercises.
Or are we barking up the wrong tree? Did Sarah have an objective reality? After all, the woman did meet her on the other side. This brings us back to the neverending debate as to whether near death experiences are objective or subjective. What we do know, however, is that they tend to be variations on a theme, whereas hallucinations produced by any other means are as variable and idiosyncratic as dreams. When large numbers of totally unrelated people have similar experiences, and these experiences are not part of the group culture, it seems to me that the onus of proof lies with those who say they are purely subjective.
According to Dr Morse's researches, the near death experiences of children are essentially the same as those of adults, despite the cultural naivety of the former. He also mentions that many of them have reported beings who are blond or "all white" escorting them on the other side. And on the adjoining page, he told the story of a couple who were taking care of the wife's dying grandmother in their home. Not wishing their nine-year-old daughter to be too upset, they discouraged her from visiting the sick room. But one day she was drawn to that room, and came out with a puzzled expression, and said, matter-of-factly: "Mommy, there are two grandmothers. I saw two grannies in the room. First I talked to granny and then a lighted lady named Beth came and talked to me and granny. Then they left together."
Mother and daughter returned to the sick room. The old lady was dead!
Only later did they tell the little girl that the deceased's mother had been called Beth.