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Alvin Schwartz and his tulpa: "An Unlikely Prophet" an unexpected and imaginative autobiography

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BOOK REVIEW: An Unlikely Prophet: A Metaphysical Memoir by the Legendary Writer of Superman and Batman by Alvin Schwartz (Destiny Books) 2006/1997

It was 20 years ago when the Superman and Batman comics script writer Alvin Schwartz published his remarkable “autobiography” An Unlikely Prophet, which is unusual that while there are elements of his life noted in these 200-plus pages, but the focus of the book is about a remarkable experience Schwartz had in 1994 – 17 years before his death in 2011.

What was that experience? Well, for Schwartz it was as bizarre as it was enlightening – and involves a subject that has been getting increased attention of late, oddly enough.

In any event, as he writes in the first chapter, Schwartz was at home, in upstate New York, and a mysterious “Mr. Thongden,” from New York City, called him out of the blue, asking Schwartz if he wrote the Superman comics many years earlier. He confirmed that he was the guy and Thongden insisted on meeting Schwartz at his home.

And he did – arriving by bicycle, of all things – a “tall, ungainly man with a face mostly hidden in the hood of a long, loosely buttoned raglan garment … (with) a narrow, flat face of a man nearly seven feet tall and who looked distinctly Oriental.”

As it turns out, he is from Tibet, the mysterious, Himalayan country that China invaded and claimed for its own in 1950.

I am not crazy, sir,” Thongden insists. “Like the Superman you describe in your lecture, I am an idea become real. And you are the only one I have encountered in years who seems capable of grasping such a possibility.”

This was due to a lecture that Schwartz had given a few years earlier, titled “The Real Secret of Superman’s Identity” where Schwartz told the audience that “Superman acquired a kind of reality that controlled his writers and editors without their realizing it.”

Indeed, during the period between the early 1940’s to the mid-1950’s, Schwartz and other DC Comics co-workers were in “denial” that they were “being directed” to put out stories regarding Superman’s “destinies” in the stories.

And when he says this, Schwartz is quick to note that working with such a “powerful” creation, one has to make sure his superpowers are applied appropriately, that they “fit his nature.” And it was that very issue that led Schwartz to leave DC, after his bosses tried to get him involved in a storyline involving Superman transferring his powers to Daily Planet reporter and love interest Lois Lane.

Such a storyline involved something against Superman’s nature, Schwartz writes.

And so when Mr. Thongden gets some butter tea (a treat in Tibet), he gets right to the point, telling Schwartz that his Superman (not the cartoon character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) is a “living Superman” having been (unwittingly, for Schwartz) created by the writer in the form of what Thongden, from his native Tibet, calls a tulpa – “a living human created by pure thought.

As this 2016 web article notes, tulpa, in Tibetan, is translated as “emanation,” “apparition” or “magical illusion.” As I noted in my 2016 review of Alexandra David-Neel’s 1929 book Magic and Mystery in Tibet, the creation of a tulpa, came from Tibetan Buddhist monks using the experience as a “spiritual discipline” mastered during “intense meditation.”

As I wrote in my review of David-Neel’s remarkable book: “Probably the most remarkable chapter addresses the creation of thoughtforms and phantasms known as tulpas. These entities are created through intense concentration and certain rites by those who have “reached a high mental and spiritual degree of enlightenment” and one familiar with the “psychic forces at work in the process.”

David-Neel said the process of creating tulpas is “fraught with danger” and that she did an experiment where she created a “a most insignificant character: a monk, short and fat, of an innocent and jolly type.”

It took a few months for the Frenchwoman to create her tulpa. He soon materialized like a real person, yet was still a bit of a puppet to David-Neel. Visitors took the tulpa – which went from a rotund appearance to a more lean, malicious look - for a real lama.

It would take David-Neel “six months of hard struggle” to rid herself of this tulpa.”

I must admit that I only came across Schwartz’s book (which is supposedly found in the memoir/metaphysical sections of more broadminded bookstores) after the subject of the tulpa was addressed in the recently-aired, 18-part Twin Peaks: The Return on Showtime.

A writer I admire, Nick Redfern, in a 2013 article at Mysterious Universe headlined “A creature of the mind,” also wrote of tulpas and Alexandra David-Neel’s somewhat harrowing experience. He concluded that “creating a tulpa is a matter that should never, under any circumstances whatsoever, be entered into lightly or without the benefit of a high degree of careful forethought.”

We would agree, after reading about David-Neel and other experiences – and to a certain degree the Thongden creation here in Schwartz’s book.

And just yesterday I happened upon the September/October 2017 issue of Atlantis Rising magazine. In an article headlined "The Thought-Form Factor," writer Brendan D. Murphy writes that a "thought, then, is a kind of living creature: the thought-force, or torsion/scalar energy is the 'soul',' while the plasmoidal elemental essence (particles) comprises the 'body' of the thought. Such thought-forms are sometime referred to as artificial elementals, temporary mental constructs." A tulpa, essentially. Adds Murphy: "The variety of possible thought-forms is essentially infinite, being limited only by the imaginations of the unvierse's sentient inhabitants."

As an aside, fans of Twin Peaks already know that the key character, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper uses the “Tibetan method” of investigation, which includes the use of dreams, intuition and deductive exercises while investigating certain cases.

And in Part XIV of The Return, Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) and Agent Tamara Preston (Chrysta Bell) discuss the first ever “Blue Rose” case investigated by the FBI (a sort of “X-File.”)

When Rosenfield tells Preston about that case, from 1975 in Olympia, Washington, he says that a woman in a motel room had shot another woman – both appear to be the same woman – and that the dying woman was, as noted in Tibetan Buddhist mysticism – a tulpa, which Preston correctly points out to Rosenfield.

In fact, other tulpas are "manufactured" in Twin Peaks' "Red Room," including Agent Cooper doppelganger "Dougie Jones," not from simple "thought," but created from a "gold ball," a bit of Agent Cooper's hair and "electricity." Others in the show turn out to be tulpas ... 

But back to our book …

Schwartz is confused, not familiar with Tibetan mysticism or tulpas or that he had manufactured a Superman tulpa without realizing it. But Thongden, a friendly enough guy, for not being completely human, wanted to help Schwartz understand that the much-loved Superman was real, due to Schwartz’s earlier emphasis on the superhero having a “life” in a way. Apparently, this was enough for Superman to be imagined and conjured.

Thongden goes on to say that tulpas are more common than we realize, suggesting – shockingly – that Alexander Hamilton (who had uncertain beginnings), a Founding Father of the U.S. and our first Treasury Secretary (he’s on the $10 bill and has his own Broadway musical!) was a tulpa! And that his 1804 duel with Aaron Burr, in which Hamilton was killed, “provided him with a simple way out” because he knew he was “fading away.”


But does Schwartz’s wife Kay believe his story? Not initially. She is not given to fantasy, the way her comic-book writing husband is. But this will change later in the book.

In any event, from here we get to know more about Schwartz’s early years as a novelist and living near famous artist Jackson Pollock and his wife and when the Schwartz’s and Pollocks were discussing the artistic method of creation, Pollock admitted that he doesn’t overthink his methods, he just “lets it happen” and, amazingly, what appears on the canvas is what is supposed to appear. Pollock offers a demonstration to Schwartz and his wife in his barn studio …

I began to realize that the paint did not seem to obey the law of gravity,” writes an astounded Schwartz. “It poured in impossible directions, never just straight down but splaying outward or sideways as though some other force were directing it.”

Pollock, like Schwartz, seemed to be creative vessels for some other unseen power that found energy in the creative process. I will admit, myself, to going back and re-reading some of my own articles and not remembering writing them, although I know I wrote them.

And so Schwartz allows Thongden to sort of impact his life at this stage. He goes to New York, to Thongden’s apartment, and spends time with him there, learning about how Thongden came to be – via an Englishman and Tibetan scholar named Dr. Everett Nelson, a man who had worked with the famous American author and translator of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, spiritualist and Theosophist W.Y. Evans-Wentz.

And while I have found little on this “Dr. Nelson,” Schwartz says that Nelson “thought” Thongden into being while studying in Tibet in the 1940’s and that Thongden’s arrival at Schwartz’s house took place a week after Nelson’s death. We learn how he became this thought in Nelson's mind - a gestation period - and slowly materialized at the Tibetan monastery. Before becoming a fully-realized humanlike tulpa.

Why did he come? Because Thongden was always “connected” to Nelson and with Nelson now dead, he is “connecting” with Schwartz. When Schwartz is in Thongden's apartment, the tulpa makes sure to have "surroundings" that put Schwartz in "a susceptible state." 

But perhaps Schwartz was "susceptible" all along, not realizing that things happening in the real world, in the early 1940's, for instance, were manifesting in his own thoughts and through the creative process of writing Superman storylines. He shares an incredible story of how he was coming up with a new Superman plotline involving a "Professor Duste" and how Schwartz was being influenced by cultural discussions on physics - as in a BBC science show he happened to watch, which gave him some incredible ideas - and how his planned plotline of Superman having supraphysical abilities - being able to survive being in a cyclotron, or "atom smasher" and emerging unscathed - was thwarted by the FBI, because, as he found out later, it too-closely mirrored what was secretly taking place at Los Alamos, New Mexico with the Manhattan Project and its building of the first-ever atomic bomb. 

"Had I foreseen, during my plunge into the universal, something of what was to come? I don't know. Appartently I did see something I wasn't supposed to see. The Manhattan Project was going full blast at that time. So before that sequence with Professor Duste could appear, the FBI stepped in and censored that segment of the newspaper scripton national security grounds."

So Schwartz and Thongden proceed in their mutually-beneficial "relationship," which does lead to a meeting with the Superman tulpa and some strange synchronicities that really strike the reader as baffling and improbable. But then, I am reading An Unlikely Prophet to begin with, fascinated with the notion of tulpas and the power of the mind - something that science has only begun scratching the surface of.

In conclusion, An Unlikely Prophet is a fun read. One full of wonder and mystery and, at its heart, love. Clearly Alvin Schwartz was a gifted storyteller and, whether or not these events really did happen, there is a lot there that makes you think. And now you know what can happen when you do a lot of thinking!

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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