"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, June 16, 2014

Alexandra David-Neel, Explorer and Self-Made Tibetan

"The attitude which these teachings advocate is one of a strong will to know all that is possible to know, never halt on the road to investigation which extends infinitely far before the feet of the explorer."
-Alexandra David-Neel, "The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects"

Some of history's most unusual people have come from the most ordinary, traditional backgrounds. One good example is Alexandra Marie David, who was born into a humble, bourgeois French family in 1868. The little girl was raised to have an uncomplicated, thoroughly anonymous existence. Instead, she became one of the most unconventional explorers in modern history.

Alexandra's childhood was desperately unhappy. Although she was devoted to her father, she had no love for her rigid, puritanical mother, and the two often quarreled. She detested her carefully restricted little world, and dreamed of a life full of travel and adventure. The minute she was old enough to fend for herself, she set out to make those dreams come true. While still a teenager, she fled home and family for the life of a wanderer. Alexandra's spiritual leanings were equally restless in nature. She became a member of Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society, the Freemasons, and various feminist and anarchist societies. Her greatest love, however, was Oriental culture.

Miss David became a highly successful opera singer, a career that took her around the world. However, even that soon proved too tame an existence for her liking. In 1903, she took up journalism. In 1904, she married a distant cousin, Philippe Neel. Although she was genuinely fond of her husband, it was a marriage of convenience, with the couple seeing very little of each other after the wedding. To be blunt, she married him in order to obtain funds for her obsession with travel. The new Mrs. Neel made no secret of the fact that she despised the institution of marriage and found sex repulsive. It is hard to say what Philippe got out of their relationship, but he seemed to have little complaint with their unorthodox union, and continued to support her until his death in 1941. While Mrs. Neel lived in London, occupying herself with writing and studying Eastern sacred literature, Mr. Neel continued his work as a railroad engineer in Tunisia.

Alexandra David-Neel had long dreamed of touring Asia. and in 1911 her husband provided her with the money to travel to India, where she impressed everyone with her deep knowledge and love of Buddhism. She even obtained two private audiences with the Dalai Lama--the first European woman to be granted this honor. During her stay, she gradually shed her Western identity. She became fluent in Tibetan, and began to think of herself as a native of that country.

It is a tribute to David-Neel's imposing erudition as an Orientalist that many Tibetans felt the same way about her. She was welcomed at many Tibetan monasteries that were normally off-limits to outsiders. At one of them, she met a young man named Aphur Yongden, who remained her constant attendant and aide until his death in 1955. She continued her travels throughout India, China, and Tibet, but she was still dissatisfied. She had yet to feel she was a true Tibetan. The only way she could do that, she decided, was to train for their priesthood, to experience all the rigorous mental and physical hardships required for their spiritual leaders.

She became the disciple of a Tibetan occult master--believed by many to be a wizard--Gomchen of Lachen. Beginning in 1914, David-Neel spent two solid years living in a cave adjoining his atop a high mountain, facing all the harshest elements while he schooled her in tantric Buddhism. Hers had always been an ascetic and ambitious nature, but this was certainly the ultimate test of her devotion to stoicism and self-discipline. She saw no reason why she should not accomplish such a feat. As she later wrote in her book "Magic and Mystery in Tibet": “All of these seekers after miracles would perhaps be most surprised to hear me say that the Tibetans do not believe in miracles, that is to say, in supernatural happenings. They consider the extraordinary facts which astonish us to be the work of natural energies which come into action in exceptional circumstances, or through the skill of someone who knows how to release them, or sometimes, through the agency of an individual who unknowingly contains within himself the elements apt to move certain material or mental mechanisms which produce extraordinary phenomena.”

She loved every minute of the experience. The holy men of Tibet were astonished by her accomplishment, and welcomed her as one of their own. Some of them thought she must be the reincarnation of a goddess. The British, who were currently occupying Tibet, were less pleased with her. They wanted no outsiders in the country, and this obstreperous more-Tibetan-than-the-Tibetans female was a most undesirable nuisance. At the height of the First World War, they threw her out. David-Neel shrugged and went on a tour of Japan and Korea. She went across China--then spiraling into civil war--crossed Mongolia and the Gobi desert, and eventually slipped back into Tibet.

David-Neel had her sights on the remote holy city of Lhasa, a place no white woman--and very very few white men--had ever seen. Just to get there meant a long, dangerous journey through China and over the Himalayas. She didn't think twice. Disguising herself as a Tibetan peasant woman, she and Yongden spent a year navigating bandits, blizzards, and mountain passes that went as high as 20,000 feet. On one occasion, all that saved the duo was David-Neel's incredible powers of concentration. After spending some twenty hours climbing a snow-covered mountain, they found their flint and steel were too wet to light a fire. Facing the immediate prospect of freezing to death, David-Neel used the ancient Tibetan practice known as "thumo reskiang"--raising one's internal temperature through the power of the mind--to warm the flint and steel sufficiently to start a fire. (She once wrote, "The Tibetans also tend to believe that everything which one imagines can be realized. They claim that if the imagined facts corresponded to no external reality, one could not conceive of their images...the power of producing magic formations, tulkus or less lasting and materialized tulpas, [essentially, conjured phantoms] 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." However, she added, "it is possible for these individuals to obtain, in certain cases, the aid of beings whose nature is other than human.")

In 1923, the fifty-five year old David-Neel finally arrived in Lhasa, still successfully disguised. After a stay of several months, the British finally caught on to her, and she and Yongden were again booted out of the country. The highly disgruntled David-Neel settled in France, where her book about this adventure, "My Journey to Lhasa," was published in 1927.

David-Neel lived in Europe for the next ten years, writing extensively about Eastern mysticism. In the 1930s, she returned to China and India, but was forced to flee in 1944 following the Japanese invasion. She finally returned to France, which remained her home until her death at the age of 101 in 1969. As she had requested, she was cremated and her ashes scattered in the Ganges River.

She died knowing the satisfaction of living a long and productive life. She had been given many honors, including membership in the French Legion of Honor and a Gold Medal from the Geographical Society of Paris. Even more importantly, her many books (most notably "Magic and Mystery in Tibet,") remain an invaluable source of information about central Asia and Tibetan Buddhism. She had a talent for making even the most esoteric concepts readily understandable to the uninitiated.  Her travels and experiences were unrivaled by any other Western woman of her time, and still serve as an inspiration for many people to this day.


  1. What an interesting life. I suppose one could do something similar these days, but forbidden countries and mysterious, unknown lands are few and far between now. There's less romance to surviving in a cave when you can use a telephone to call for food to be delivered.

  2. Wonderful post. There really is so much to tell about her life. Thanks for sharing my post and linking to yours. I enjoyed it.


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