French explorer and author Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969) led a remarkable life. A scholar of Buddhism and Eastern religions, David-Néel traveled into the hidden kingdom of Tibet in 1924 and is believed to be the first Western woman ever to visit the holy city of Lhasa, the center of Tibetan Buddhism. It was one of several impressive journeys she made during her lifetime, some of which she chronicled in the more than two dozen books she authored in her later years.
David-Néel claimed to have been plagued by wanderlust from her earliest memories. She was born Louise Eugénie Alexandrine Marie David in Saint-Mandé, a suburb of Paris, France, on October 24, 1868. Her father was a French journalist and teacher, and her mother was a native of Belgium, to which the family moved when David-Néel was six years old. Even back in Saint-Mandé, David-Néel said she was eager to explore further than the confines of her yard, and recalled years later that she made her first break for the street when she was just two years old. Later in her youth, she was distressed by the long, idle vacations her family took, which were common among the European middle classes of the era. “I cried bitter tears more than once, having the profound feeling that life was going by, that the days of my youth were going by, empty, without interest, without joy,” David-Néel wrote, according to a Web site devoted to her works, Alexandra-David-Neel.org. “I understood that I was wasting time that would never return, that I was losing hours that could have been beautiful.”
Bicycled Across Europe
At the age of 17, David-Néel boarded a Switzerlandbound train at the Brussels station, and managed to venture across the Saint Gotthard Pass in the Swiss Alps and made her way to Lake Maggiore in Italy, where her mother came to collect her. A year later, at the age of 18, she tied her possessions onto the handlebars of a bicycle and set off for Spain. On that trip she also made her way to London, where she became involved in a study group associated with the Theosophical Society of Madame Blavatsky (1831–1891). Blavatsky was a well-traveled Russian émigré interested in Eastern religions and the occult and whose Society and celebrity status served to arouse curiosity among Britons and other Europeans in non-Western belief systems.
When David-Néel turned 21 in 1889, she was considered an adult and able to live as she pleased. She moved to Paris, where she audited courses in Eastern religions at the Sorbonne University—women were not permitted as degree-earning students at the time—and spent hours devoted to the same subject at the reading room of the Guimet Museum of Asian art. Her desire to visit exotic lands was finally quenched in 1890, when she went to India after receiving an inheritance from her grandmother. She stayed until her funds ran out, and for the next few years earned a living by singing in a traveling opera company under the stage name Mademoiselle Myrial. The company visited many of France's far-flung colonies—likely the appeal of the job for David-Néel—including North Africa, where in Tunis, Algeria, she met Philippe Néel, a railroad engineer. They wed in 1904, but spent many years apart due to David-Néel's extended journeys. She also kept her maiden name but added her husband's and created a hyphenated name, a relatively rare practice at the time.
David-Néel began to gain some renown in France as an authority on Eastern religions, and earned money by giving lectures. In 1911, she returned to India, this time with the help of a grant from the French Ministry of Education, and studied Sanskrit in Benares, the Hindu holy city. On this trip she was introduced to the thirteenth Dalai Lama (1876–1933), born Thubten Gyatso, who had recently fled Tibet when Chinese troops invaded the neighboring mountain kingdom. For centuries the Dalai Lamas had been the heads of government in Tibet, and were considered to be the incarnation of the Buddhist god of compassion, Avalokiteśvara. Rarely constrained by the deference expected of her gender in either Western or Asian cultures, David-Néel was able to ask and receive answers to several questions on spiritual enlightenment from the Dalai Lama, which is believed to have made her the first white woman ever to address the leader of Tibetan Buddhism on such topics.
Lived in a Cave
David-Néel went on to the royal monastery in the nearby kingdom of Sikkim, where she met the crown prince, Sidkeong Tulku Namghyal, who would ascend to the throne of the tiny land that was wedged between Nepal and Tibet, in 1914. There were rumors the two were romantically involved. From 1914 to 1916, hoping to journey further on her quest for Buddhist enlightenment, David-Néel spent more than a year in a cave in Sikkim, though assigned helpers camped nearby and brought her one meal a day. One of them was a Sikkimese monk named Aphur Yongden, who would spend the remainder of his life at David-Néel's side as her traveling companion and later her adopted son.
In 1916, David-Néel and Yongden became trespassers when they crossed the border into Tibet. The country had been closed to foreigners for several decades by then, because its leaders feared the encroaching Russian and British empires and were wary of permitting the country to become part of the trade route to India, which would have destroyed its unique character. British colonial authorities, who had jurisdiction over Sikkim, learned of the transgression and deported her and Yongden. They were unable to return to Europe, however, because World War I had disrupted passenger-ship travel, and so they traveled to Japan instead. There they met Ekai Kawaguchi (1866–1945), a Buddhist monk of Japanese birth and some renown. He had visited Tibet's holy city of Lhasa back in 1901 after having disguised himself as a Chinese physician.
David-Néel decided they, too, would disguise themselves and venture into the forbidden city of Lhasa, which was populated largely by monks. She and Yongden began to make their way across China, a trip of some two thousand miles that was conducted partially on foot. For a time in the early 1920s they stayed at a famed monastery called Kum-Bum, considered the birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism, where she translated Tibetan sacred texts into French. During the winter of 1922–23, David-Néel and Yongden were discovered traveling in the Gobi Desert region near Tibet, and were expelled by authorities. They did, however, manage to arrive in Lhasa in 1924, this time via the southeast route along with a group of other Buddhist pilgrims. David-Néel had disguised herself as a Tibetan woman, with Yongden claiming to be her son, and she darkened her face each morning by rubbing her hand on the bottom on the only pot they had brought with them.
Book Captivated French Readers
David-Néel spent two months in Lhasa, and returned to France in the spring of 1925. The magazine articles she wrote about her journey became the book Voyage d'une Parisienne a Lhassa à Pied et en Mendiant de la Chine à l'Inde à Travers le Thibet, which caused a sensation when it was published in France in 1927 along with its English version, My Journey to Lhasa: The Personal Story of the Only White Woman Who Succeeded in Entering the Forbidden City. Reviewing it in the New York Times on June 12, 1927, Alma Luise Olson found it a fascinating, if a bit vague read, wishing that David-Néel might have provided more details on how Buddhist monks endured freezing cold conditions by raising their internal body temperature, for example, which the explorer claimed to have mastered. Despite these lack of details, Olson wrote that David-Néel's “journey reveals amazing and almost incredible powers of physical endurance …. In peasant homes she slept on the floors on greasy sackcloth and drank nauseating, evilsmelling broths from her bowl that she must later cleanse, native fashion, by licking with her tongue.” Though David-Néel claims to have visited the royal palace of Potala, she did not remove her disguise and renew her acquaintance with the Dalai Lama.
David-Néel was awarded the Gold Medal of the Geographical Society of France, and named a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. With the proceeds from her book's sales she bought a house in Digne-les-Bains, in the south of France, where Yongden lived with her. She was still married to Philippe Néel, and though they lived apart for some time he remained supportive, both financially and emotionally, until his death in 1941. Though she was nearing her seventieth birthday, David-Néel was far from retired, and spent several years writing more books on Tibet and Buddhism. In 1937, at the age of 69, she decided to return to the part of western China where the Kum-Bum monastery was located, in the remote Qinghai area, and she and Yongden journeyed across the Soviet Union to China. They were forced to remain in the country several years longer than planned, however, when World War II erupted.
Inspired Beat Poets
The titles of works written by David-Néel include Buddhism: Its Doctrines and Its Methods, published in the United States in 1939, and The Secret Oral Tradition in Tibetan Buddhist Sects, published by San Francisco's famed City Lights bookstore in 1964. City Lights played a vital role in the rise of the Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997). Ginsberg asserted that it was David-Néel's writings that deepened his interest in Buddhism and led him to formally convert to the religion, and the influential poet and counterculture figure in turn influenced a generation of young adults who, like David-Néel had been so many years before, deeply skeptical of the middle-class values and tenets of her parents' world.
David-Néel's long-time traveling partner Yongden was said to have drank heavily for many years, and died in 1955. David-Néel lived to a remarkable age of 100, dying in Digne-les-Bains just six weeks before her next birthday. In 1973, her ashes—along with Yongden's—were scattered on the waters of the Ganges River near Benares. Her house is now the Alexandra David-Néel Museum, open year round to visitors.
Geographical, July 2005.
New York Times, June 12, 1927.
World and I, September 2004.
“Biography,” Alexandra-David-Neel.org, http://www.alexandra-david-neel.org/anglais/biog2.htm (December 1, 2007).
David-Neel, Alexandra (1868-1969)
David-Neel, Alexandra (1868-1969)
French traveler, author, and Tibetan scholar. Born in the Paris suburb of Saint-Mandé on October 24, 1868, Alexandra David-Neel had a lonely childhood and spent much of her time reading about Eastern religions and philosophy. David-Neel was a practicing Buddhist and the first European woman to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa in Tibet. She spent 14 years in Tibet, living simply and studying Tibetan religion and occultism. Her two major books, translated into English as Magic and Mystery in Tibet and Initiations and Initiates in Tibet, are accounts of her first-hand observation of Tibetan occult and religious feats and have been frequently reprinted.
David-Neel received many honors for her books, including the gold medal of the Geographical Society of Paris, the French Legion of Honor, the Insigne of the Chinese Order of the Brilliant Star, and the silver medal of the Royal Belgian Geographical Society. She has also been the subject of several biographies since her death on September 8, 1969, in Pigne, France.
——. Initiations and Initiates in Tibet. London, 1932. Re-print, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1959.
——. My Journey to Lhasa. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927.
Foster, Barbara M., and Michael Foster. Forbidden Journey: The Life of Alexandra David-Neel. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.