Alexandra David-Neél was a Franco-Belgian singer, explorer, author and Tibetan Mystic who became a Tantric Lama. She was the first westerner to visit the forbidden city of Lhasa in the year 1916. Long before Heinrich Harrar spent his 7 years in Tibet making nice with the Dalai Lama, Alexandra had been there, done that, and why her life has never been immortalized on film remains a mystery that only the Hollywood patriarchy can answer. She wrote over 30 books covering the subjects of Buddhism, Tibetan Tantra and Esotericism and that’s just for starters.She was also a much accomplished and sought after translator, being fluent in French, English, Sanskrit and Tibetan. Sadly, only two of her books are still in print today: “My Journey To Lhasa” and “Magic and Mystery in Tibet”. Alexandra lived to the age of 101 and to this day remains the most authoritative source for Tibetan Tantric Buddhism.
Alexandra was born in Paris, October 24, 1868 to an anarchist father who nearly escaped execution by firing squad after the failed revolt of the Paris Commune and a mother who was a deeply religious, conservative heiress. This social incompatibility led to many arguments between the parents during Alexandra’s formative years. No doubt this created a pattern in her life of wanting to runaway from conflict and instilled a desire to find balance through travel. Her earliest attempt to runaway was at the 5, she only got as far as the local park before the Gendarmes found her and promptly returned her home. This was the first of many attempts to runaway until she reached adulthood and was able to claim her inheritance; allowing her to satisfy her wanderlust. I myself being a product of a dysfunctional upbringing, related to many of her situations, which made her story to be particularly compelling on a very personal level.
Throughout her childhood and adolescence, she would find the opportunities to escape her bourgeois surroundings in search of adventure: While vacationing with her parents Belgium, she ran away to the Netherlands, was found and returned home. Later that same year, she embarked on a bicycle trip from Paris to Spain, “forgetting” to tell her parents, naturally. But perhaps her most ambitious and successful attempt to fly the coup was at age 17, when she boarded a train from Brussels to Switzerland, hiked across the Alps where she wound up in Lake Maggiore, on the Italian side of the Alps. This last escapade was certainly a primer for her future adventures in the Himalayas. As she loved to say about herself: “I learned to run before I could walk”.
When she turned 21, she moved out on her own and set herself up in Paris, where she enrolled in the Paris Conservatory of Music while at the same time began to study esoteric traditions with the well known mystic of her times, Madame Blavatsky. She also discovered Paris’ venerable museum to Asian art and culture: Le Musée Guimet; which still exists today. It was here that she fed her hunger for exotic cultures, traditions and converted to Buddhism. Right around this time Alexandra received her inheritance and she flew the coup once again, this time to India. She traveled through India, studying Sanskrit, visiting temples until she ran out of money and returned to Paris.
Upon her return to Paris, she sadly discovered that her desire to share the experiences of her visit was met with antipathy. Since women did not do those things and studies of other cultures were done from an observers point of view. Not as Alexandra had done, as a participant. Needing to find gainful employment, she fell back on her earlier training in voice to pursue a career as an opera singer. As a singer she achieved a fairly acceptable amount of success, traveling the world and finally landing a permanent residency at the Saigon Opera. She even found the time to compose an Opera herself! She continued traveling the world and while performing a gig in Tunisia, she met the man who was to become her husband and would be the facilitator of some of her greatest adventures. Philippe Neel was a civil engineer who worked for the government of France and like Alexandra was extensively well traveled as a result of his job. Together they had an unconventional marriage by the norms of the times. It could be called an “open marriage” but open only in the sense it was Philippe’s support of her travels that facilitated some of Alexandra’s greatest adventures. But let’s not confuse Philippe for a pushover, because underneath all the generosity was an ulterior motive: Philippe also had a mistress and dispatching his wife off to yet another globe trotting mission kept her out of the way. All evidence suggests that Alexandra was ok with this and chose to look the other way.
The Ultimate Late Bloomer:
On August 9, 1911, with her husband’s blessing, Alexandra returned to India. She told her husband she would return in a few months. She would be gone for 14 years. But during all this time Philippe was supportive both emotionally and financially. The letter between them prove this. Even though there was little physical connection between them, their correspondence reveals a strong intellectual connection and more importantly, a heart connection.
Upon arriving in India she travelled north to the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim where she was a guest of Maharaja. Here she met the Dalai Lama, whose only advice for her was “Learn Tibetan!” and a great Buddhist mystic named Lachen Gomshen Rinpoche (more about him later). In one of the monasteries she met a teenager named Lama Yuphur Yongden who would become her lifelong companion and whom she would eventually adopt as her son. The proximity of Sikkim to the Tibetan border sparked Alexandra’s desire to visit the forbidden city of Lhasa, which was closed to Westerners. But with no success; she did cross the border illegally a few times but was turned away.
During her mentorship with Gomshen, she lived in an anchorite cave. Essentially as a hermit, practicing yoga, Tibetan Tantra and the study of Buddhist Scriptures. So accomplished did she become in her studies that she was awarded the title of “Lamani” (female Lama) and “Kadoma” a reincarnated female spirit. As a result of this she was allowed to wear the sacred red and white vestments of a Lama as depicted in the pictures here.
On July 18, 1916, she once again attempted to illegally enter Tibet, hoping to make it to Lhasa. She did manage to visit a few important monasteries and struck up a friendship with the Panchan Lama and his mother. She was given an honorary Doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism by the Panchan Lama, who wanted her to stay on as his guest. But Alexandra refused, wanting to return to Sikkim. This was to prove to be a great error on her part. Once she returned to Sikkim, she learned that her actions had sparked the ire of the British Colonial Authorities. Remember ant this point in time, Sikkim, India and the rest of the kingdoms of the subcontinent were under British colonial rule and travel to Tibet was forbidden. So consequently poor Alexandra was kicked out of the country.
This began Alexandra’s Iliad through the countries of Asia. Since WW1 was raging throughout Europe, it was too dangerous to go back. Instead she headed east, visiting China, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia with the faithful Yongden at her side. Determined to return to Lhasa, she and Yongden devised a plan where they would attempt to enter Tibet by traveling from Mongolia, via the northern deserts through the shared border of China and Tibet. In order to make her entrance with as little fanfare as possible (it’s obvious by now that Alexandra had a flare for the obvious) she darkened her skin with soot, dressed in rags and passed herself off as Yongden’s mother. A foreshadowing of things to come. This time her journey was a success, by now it was 1924 Alexandra had now been wandering the face of the earth for almost 14 years. Even though she had achieved a personal Nirvana, Alexandra felt the need to return home. So she packed up and returned to France with her companion Yongden in tow and returned to France
Inner Iliad/Outer Odyssey:
Upon her arrival in France, Alexandra discovered that she had attained something of a celebrity status in France, due to her writings, translations of Buddhists manuscripts and reports of her adventures in popular magazines. She wound up settling down in the village of Digne-les-Bains in the region of Provence. She earned a reputation as a Buddhist scholar of record. The accounts of her adventures were published in many of the major newspapers and magazines of the day. It was here that she wrote her book “Magic and Mystery of Tibet”. She worked on expanding the property and by all accounts created the first Tibetan Tantric temple in the western hemisphere.
During this period of her life from 1925 to 1937 that she began what I like to call her “Inner Odyssey”. Alexandra had clocked in more travel miles than most of her contemporaries an amazing feat for anyone back then, in particular a woman. The origins of her wanderlust began as a way of escaping from her dysfunctional past. As she progressed on her outer journey to forbidden lands, she also began a journey of inner exploration in a quest to find balance. Through the study of ancient and sacred texts, she was able to shed her outer shell to realize to achieve a personal nirvana and become a “Lamani”.
In her book, “Magic and Mystery in Tibet” she recounts many unexplainable phenomena which may appear to be inconceivable to the average Westerner. Some of which are explained here:
Tummo: The ability to control the temperature of your body. This technique came in handy for Alexandra and her companions as they hiked through the Himalayas. Since they often traveled by foot or by horse and on a shoe string budget, learning to control your body’s temperature for personal warmth or to start a campfire would become a mainstay survival technique throughout her travels.
Tulpa: This is not to be confused with the western concept of an Egregore or a Golem. A Tulpa is the creation of a physical being through one’s own thought process. In order to survive under dangerous conditions while trekking through the Himalayas, Alexandra recalls creating Tulpas to serve as her guides and to endeavor protection. Apparently none of these emanations survived for more than a few days according to her.
Bardo Thödel: A death and rebirth ritual in which the Lamas have the ability to die, and in doing so their spirits would leave their physical body and then return at will. This was accomplished by the insertion of a thin bamboo reed or straw into the fontanelle of the skull. This straw or reed would serve as a conduit for Spirit to exit and enter the body, once the magical words had been uttered. These magical words (which I will not disclose here) were also uttered when a Lama would be midwifing a transition of a human from this existence to the next Bardo. In other words, serving as a guide for them at the time of death.
Flying Yogis/Levitating Yogis: In her book “Magic and Mystery in Tibet”, she describes seeing yogis with the ability to levitate or even fly through the air to get from point A to point B. There has been much speculation about this phenomena in particular especially since many Indian Fakirs have been discredited when it was discovered that they were creating the illusion of levitation by relying on a specially rigged chair disguised with cloaks. But what Alexandra describes in her book is nothing of the sort; She witnessed grown men flying across open fields with out any visible means of support.
To the average westerner, these anecdotes may border on the delusional or ridiculous. And yes they sometimes they are a bit difficult to believe. But keep in mind of the environment and culture that produced these assertions: They were produced in the rarified air of Himalayan Kingdoms that are free of are western distractions such as internet, cell phones, televisions, traffic, unhealthy foods. These “modern conveniences” that are more of an addiction than a convenience. There the mind is free of distractions and free to manifest at will. To paraphrase Alexandra: Our thoughts manifest our reality, and the mind that is free of distractions can manifest anything. So there is no doubt in my mind that she used these techniques not only to expand her knowledge of to also heal from her fractured past, make herself whole and to impart healing to others.
Her Relevance Today’s World:
So again, to the Western mind these recollections would seem improbable, but I am here too say that one needs to take themselves out our linear Occidental mindset and learn how to appreciate how these techniques can be applied to our own urban enlightenment. The Tantric Yogis may have had the capacity to fly through the air but they would probably shrink in horror at the thought of us climbing into a big metal bird that flies through the sky. We may laugh at yogis inserting straws into their skulls in order to experience life and rebirth, but how about her modern medical traditions that keep people alive through organ transplants or defibrillation when in some cases the patient may be way past their time to transition?
Our society today is fractured, some say way beyond repair. But I refuse to subscribe to that opinion. Because if these teaching that have existed for thousands of years before our current western traditions, then they will still continue to flourish long after our ministries have been reduced to dust. Today there are advanced thinkers who would have mediation taught in schools not as any part of a religious agenda but as a way of calming a child’s hyperactive mind. As a former art instructor, I can confirm that teaching some simple breath works prior to art class can open a student’s mind so that they can experience a great creative awakening.So imagine, if we can plant a small seed of awareness, what amazing children we will create. Alexandra would have been proud. In fact there are many Tantric techniques that couples can practice in order to bring an enlightened child into this world. But this will be the topic of another blog later on.
Le Troisième Etape:
In 1937 Alexandra was now 69 years old, most people would be entering the third stage of their life, but not Alexandra; She had spent a good 12 years in Digne-les-Bagnes, making improvements on her home, expanding a portion of the structure to which she named the “Samtem Dzong” or “Fortress of Meditation”. The purpose of this structure was for the teaching of mediation making it the first Lamaist Temple in the west and it would later become part of her museum.
At this point in her life she was ready to return to her beloved Tibet and to travel through China in order to study Taoism which is the Chinese form of Tantra. This time she decided to take the Trans Siberian Express so she could enter Tibet through the Northern route. But as the fates would have it, for the second time in her life, she was caught once again in the midst of a worldwide conflict: The war between China and Japan. This event was to be a precursor to World War II and it’s ironic to think that Alexandra who many considered to be a warrior for peace, was now compelled to witness the horrible atrocities that were committed by both sides. But always wanting to make herself useful, she actually worked as a medic and a healer for both sides of the conflict.
Finally in 1938, after a year of navigating the conflicts of WW2, she was able to at last enter Tibet, where she visited monasteries, studied sacred scriptures and settled down in the village of Kangdin for what was to become five years retreat of solitary meditation. It was at the end of these five years when she learned that her husband had passed away. It was now 1946, she had been wandering through China and Tibet for 9 years. It was time to return to France in order to tend to the estate of her deceased husband. So she left Tibet via India this time, departing on a new invention called the jet plane which flew her back to Paris.
Now back in France, Alexandra settled her husband’s affairs. She stayed in at Digne-le-Bains where the accolades began to pour in as a result her accomplishments. The French government named her a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. She was awarded the Gold Medal by Geographical Society of France. There were streets and schools named after her. Alexandra David-Neel became the foremost authority on Tibetan Tantric Buddhism.
But fate was to give Alexandra one final cruel blow, in 1955 Yongden, her beloved travel companion and now adopted son, died suddenly of kidney failure. The years of hardship traveling under impossible conditions took its toll on his fragile body. Alexandra was heartbroken, but after cremating his remains, vowed that they would once again return to Tibet. She was now 87 years old. Even though her body was showing signs of wear and tear, there were many who said she looked younger due to her lifestyle of yoga and meditation. She continued writing, translating, teaching and became known as the “Wise Lady of Digne”. Buddhist scholars from all over the world made the pilgrimage to her house in Provence to sit at her feet and drink from her well of wisdom.
Finally, at the age of 100, she felt the need to return to Tibet and so went about filing the papers to obtain her travel visa. On September 8, 1969, she transitioned to the next Bardo a month shy of her 101st birthday and just as her travel visa was approved by the Chinese government. Her body was cremated and her ashes, along with those of Yongden, were taken by her followers to Varanasi India so they could be thrown into the Ganges River.
I would like to think that her ashes traveled the Shakti trajectory of the Ganges to the Himalayas, where her Spirit roams the sacred mountain passes as the Lamani, Kadoma, Flying Sky Dakini, always everywhere and nowhere.
Learn French! A final interview with Alexandra for French TV shortly before her death.
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