David-Neel, Alexandra (1868–1969) French explorer, occultist, and Tibetan scholar. Alexandra David-Neel led an exotic life and was the first Western woman to enter Llasa, the forbidden capital of Tibet. She spent 14 years in Tibet and became one of the first Westerners to learn Tibetan secrets of Magic and mysticism. Her knowledge influenced the magical practices of other Western occultists, such as FRANZ BARDON. David-Neel loved adventure and said that the surest Elixir is not an alchemical formula but travel and intellectual activity. Life David-Neel claimed to be descended from Genghis Khan on her mother’s side. She was born Louise Eugenie Alexandrine Marie David on October 24, 1868, in Paris. Her father, Louis David, was a Huguenot activist and friend of novelist Victor Hugo. At age five, she moved to Brussels with her parents. From early childhood, David-Neel was odd and sickly, preferring solitude to the company of friends. She suffered from depression. She had a talent for music and singing. She longed to go off by herself to travel and explore distant lands—an unusual interest for women of her era. At age 15 she read a journal published by the Supreme Gnosis, an occult society in London, and became fascinated by occultism. Five years later, she was sent to London to study for a year; she boarded at the Supreme Gnosis quarters. David-Neel reveled in the occult activities and lectures of the Theosophical Society, rosicrucianism, and spiritualism. Upon completion of her studies in London 1889, she went to Paris to attend the Sorbonne. She lived with Theosophists in the Latin Quarter. She became interested in Buddhism and wrote articles on religion and occultism for various intellectual journals. Around the end of 1890 or early 1891, she was severely depressed and decided to commit suicide by shooting herself with her handgun. She changed her mind, deciding that suicide was a coward’s way out that would incur bad karma in her next incarnation. In 1891 David-Neel inherited money from a godmother, which enabled her to travel to India and Ceylon. She joined the cult of Sri Ananda Sarawati, where she was introduced to hashish. She reportedly smoked it only once, and for the remainder of her life she considered drugs useless for occult work. Travel consumed her inheritance, and David-Neel returned to Paris to work as a singer under the pseudonym Mademoiselle Myrial, after one of Hugo’s characters. In 1900, at age 32, she met Philip Neel, a bachelor and engineer seven years her senior. She became one of his many mistresses. David-Neel had resisted getting married because she did not want to lose her legal rights and be subjugated by a husband. Neel was persuasive, however, and the two were married in 1904 in Tunis. Two stormy years later, David-Neel left Neel and went to Belgium on the excuse of paying respects to a friend who had died. Her real reason probably was to avoid getting pregnant, for Neel was pressing her to have a child. David-Neel never returned to the marriage. They remained married but led separate lives. Neel supported her fi nancially during most of her years of travel. By 1904 David-Neel had gained recognition in occult circles in London and Paris for her articles and lectures on Buddhism. In 1911 she followed her husband’s suggestion to return to India to study Eastern languages. She met the mystic Sri Aurobindo in 1911 and was deeply impressed by him. In 1912 she met the man who opened the door to Tibet for her: Sidkeong Tulku, the Maharaj Kumar (Crown Prince) of Sikkim. He invited her to visit him in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, which lies at the border between India and Tibet. There she became romantically involved with the crown prince and became fascinated by Tibet. Sidkeong took her hiking through the mountains and introduced her to lamas of both the Red Hat (traditional) and Yellow Hat (reformed) branches of Tibetan Buddhism. Wherever she went, people treated her as an emanation of Queen Victoria, the Palden Llamo, or patron goddess of Tibet. On April 15, 1912, David-Neel had the first of her two audiences with the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, held in 70 David-Neel, Alexandra Kalimpong, India. He advised her to learn Tibetan. Shortly thereafter, she met a naljorpa, a wizard, who told her to enter Tibet and be initiated by a master. At the time, travel in Tibet was forbidden to foreigners, but the naljorpa told David-Neel she could do it by bypassing dangerous areas. Instead, she returned to Sikkim to resume her study of Sanskrit, believing that her destiny lay in writing a major comparative work on branches of Buddhism. Her circumstances changed radically in 1914, when the early death of Sidkeong cut off her access to royal courts and World War I prevented her return to her husband. David-Neel became a disciple of the Gomchen (Great Hermit) of Lachen, whom she had met in 1912 and who lived as a hermit 12,000 feet high in the Sikkim Himalayas at De-Chen in the Cave of Clear Light. David-Neel pledged complete obedience to him. They agreed to teach each other English and Tibetan. If she proved worthy, he would also teach her secret Tantric wisdom. She took up residence as a hermit in a cave one mile below his. One of her servants was Aphur Yongden, a 15-year-old boy who later became her adopted son and a lama. David-Neel and the Gomchem developed a telepathic rapport, considered the highest form of teaching but rarely attained because most pupils lacked the proper psychic development. She learned various psychic arts, such as tumo breathing, a technique that is used to raise body temperature during the severe winters and that prepares one for spiritual emancipation. During this time, David-Neel connected with a past life in which she was a nomad in central Asia. The Gomchen is most likely the one who initiated David-Neel into the “Short Path” of Tibetan mysticism. The traditional path is to enter monastic life. The Short Path is free of the bondage of discipline, and the initiate may undertake whatever experiments he or she desires for advancement. The Short Path is the preferred path of Tibetan sorcerers and magicians. The Gomchen gave her the name of “Lamp of Wisdom” and probably gave her permission to reveal certain knowledge to the West. In 1916 David-Neel secretly entered Tibet and settled in Shigatse in the monastery of the Panchen Lama, second in rank to the Dalai Lama. The British authorities found out, sacked her hermit’s cave below the Gomchem, and expelled her from Sikkim. All of her servants except Yongden, who had a British passport, deserted her. Determined to reenter Tibet, David-Neel and Yongden went to Japan and then China. They secretly penetrated Tibet in a dangerous journey. They traveled to Kumbum, a monastery that probably served as the model for the Shangri-La in James Hilton’s novel by the same name. There they spent two-and-a-half years, during which David-Neel translated rare Tibetan occult manuscripts into French and English and observed the magical and psychic feats of Tibetan adept s. In 1921 she, Yongden, and a new party of servants set out for Lhasa. She had no money and wore tattered clothing. She was beset by bandits but was never harmed, perhaps because Yongden passed her off as a sorceress and as the wife of a deceased sorcerer. She also masqueraded as a kamdora, a fairylike female spirit whose blessings are sought. This enabled her to obtain food from peasants wherever they went. The journey to Llasa took her three years through rough territory. They made their way through deep snow and slept in icy caves. In the last stage they traveled across the uncharted and treacherous Po country, whose wild inhabitants were rumored to be cannibals. David-Neel used tumo breathing to stay alive during the severe winters. She also used lung-gom, a type of entranced movement that lightens the body and enables rapid traveling—even flying—without food, water, or rest. According to lore, entranced lung-gom-pas cannot be disturbed, or the god within them will depart prematurely and cause their death. David-Neel also had a frightening time with a tulpa, or t hought -f orm, that she created, which went out of control. The party reached Lhasa in February 1924. David-Neel retained her disguise as a beggar, which prevented her from engaging in the intellectual life she desired. A year later she and Yongden were back in Paris, where she was lauded for her exploits. She lectured and began a demanding schedule of writing books and articles. In 1928 she bought a small villa outside of Digne in southern France and named it Samten Dzong, the “Fortress of Meditation.” In 1937 David-Neel and Yongden went to Peking, where they intended to get help in translating old manuscripts. They never reached the capital, because of the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, but they stayed in the country until 1945. Meanwhile, her husband Philip died in 1941. David-Neel and Yongden returned to France in 1946. With Philip gone, David-Neel publicly acknowledged participating in Tantric sexual rites. She also said she performed a mild version of the chod (“to cut up”) ritual, designed to stir up occult forces and liberate one from all attachments. In the chod, the participant sacrifices himself of herself to dismemberment and devouring by hungry ghouls or spirits, and then renounces the sacrifice as illusion because he or she is nothing and therefore has nothing to give. David-Neel probably continued to practice the chod during her later years in France. Yongden became an alcoholic and died of uremic poisoning in 1955. In 1958 David-Neel hired a secretary, Jeanne Denys, to look after her estate. But David-Neel’s bad temper caused Denys to despise her, and the secretary spent many years trying to debunk David-Neel’s work as fiction. In 1959 Denys was replaced by Marie-Madeleine Peyronnet, who looked after David-Neel until her death on September 6, 1969. True to her assertion that travel and intellectual activity constituted the elixir of longevity, David-Neel was nearly 101 when she died. Of all her adventures, she considered her stay in the hermit’s cave David-Neel, Alexandra 71 in the Sikkimese Himalayas to be the summit of her life’s dream. Most of David-Neel’s manuscripts and Tibetan artifacts went to museums or remained at Samten Dzong, which became a conference center and museum. Works David-Neel’s works include more than 30 titles and contain descriptions of Tibetan magical and religious practices, rituals, and ceremonies. Her best-known books are My Journey to Lhasa (1927), an account of her three-year journey; Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929), anecdotal accounts of magical and mystical practices; Initiations and Initiates of Tibet (1930), a more serious discussion of Tantric lore and mystical rites; and Buddhism: Its Doctrines and Its Methods (1936), a recapitulation of an earlier work on Buddhist doctrines.
FURTHER READING :
DAVID-NEEL, ALEXANDRA. Magic and Mystery in Tibet. 1929. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1971. ———. My Journey to Lhasa. 1927. Reprint, Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. Foster, Barbara, and Michael Foster. Forbidden Journey: The Life of Alexandra David-Neel. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.
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