Alexandra David-Néel

Alexandra David-Néel (1868 - 1969)
Alexandra David-Néel (1868 - 1969)

1. Alexandra David-Néel

Alexandra David-Néel (born Louise Eugenie Alexandrine Marie David; 24 October 1868 – 8 September 1969) was a Belgian–French explorer, spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist, opera singer, and writer.

She is most known for her 1924 visit to Lhasa, Tibet, when it was forbidden to foreigners.

David-Néel wrote over 30 books about Eastern religion, philosophy, and her travels, including Magic and Mystery in Tibet, which was published in 1929.

Her teachings influenced many writers and popularisers of Eastern philosophy and Buddhism in Europe and America.

2. Biography

Early life and background

In 1871, appalled by the execution of the last Communards in front of the Communards' Wall at the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris,

Louis David took his daughter of 2 years, Eugenie, future Alexandra, there to see and never forget, by this early encounter with the face of death, the ferocity of humans.

2 years later, the Davids emigrated to Belgium.

By the age of 15 Alexandra had already begun to study and had also obtained her first occult reading matter, an English journal produced by the Society of the Supreme Gnosis, sent to her by a woman called Elisabeth Morgan.

That summer her family spent the holidays in Ostend, but Alexandra ran away and reached the port of Vlissingen in the Netherlands to try and embark for England.

In London she found Mrs Morgan, who immediately persuaded her to return home. 

In 1885, when she was 17, Alexandra again left home, this time travelling alone by train from Brussels to Switzerland.

She then hiked alone over the Saint-Gotthard Pass through the Alps to the Italian lakes.

Her distraught mother had to travel to the shores of Lake Maggiore and retrieve her by then penniless daughter.

London & the Theosophical Society

At the age of 18, David-Néel had already visited England, Switzerland and Spain on her own, and she was studying in Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society.

In 1888 she went to study in London, and stayed cheaply and securely at the Society of Supreme Gnosis:

Here, Elisabeth Morgan introduced her to Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society, whose esoteric ideas had a significant influence on Alexandra.

Alexandra returned to Brussels the next year to carry on her studies of music and voice.

In Paris she also started to study Sanskrit and Tibetan languages.

In 1891, she received an inheritance from her godmother, which enabled her to travel for more than a year through Ceylon and India.

At Adyar, near Madras (Chennai), she joined the Theosophists under Annie Besant, and studied Sanskrit with them.

At the holy city of Vārāṇasī, on the Ganges, she studied Yoga with the great Swami Bhāskarānanda Saraswati (1833–1899), who lived the whole year in a rose garden.

She was fascinated by India and the Tibetan music she heard there, but was forced to return to Brussels when she ran out of money.

1895–1904: Opera singer

The following year she entered the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, and 3 years later won 1st prize for her soprano voice.

To help her parents who were experiencing setbacks, David-Néel, took the position of first singer at the Hanoi Opera House (Indochina, Vietnam now) during the seasons 1895–1896 and 1896–1897 under the name Alexandra Myrial.

She interpreted the role of the Violetta in La Traviata (by Verdi), then she sang in Les Noces de Jeannette (by Victor Massé), in Faust and in Mireille (by Gounod), Lakmé (by Léo Delibes), Carmen (by Bizet), and Thais (by Massenet).

From 1897 to 1900, she was living together with the pianist Jean Haustont in Paris, writing Lidia with him, a lyric tragedy in one act, for which Haustont composed the music and David-Néel the libretto.

She left to sing at the opera of Athens from November 1899 to January 1900.

Then, in July of the same year, she went to the opera of Tunis.

Soon after her arrival in the city, she met a distant cousin, Philippe Néel, chief engineer of the Tunisian railways and her future husband.

Since the summer of 1902, she gave up her singing career and assumed artistic direction of the casino of Tunis for a few months, while continuing her intellectual work

1904–1911: Marriage

On 4 August 1904, at age 36, she married Philippe Néel de Saint-Sauveur, whose lover she had been since 15 September 1900.

Their life together was sometimes turbulent but characterized by mutual respect.

It was interrupted by her departure, alone, for her 3rd trip to India (1911–1925) (the 2nd one was carried out for a singing tour) on 9 August 1911.

She did not want children, aware that motherhood was incompatible with her need of independence and her inclination to education.

She promised to return to Philippe in 19 months, but it was 14 years later, in May 1925, when they met again, separating after some days.

David-Néel had come back with her exploration partner, the young Lama Aphur Yongden, whom she would make her adopted son in 1929.

Legend has it that her husband was also her patron. The truth is probably quite different. She had, at her marriage, her own personal fortune.

3. 1911–1925: The Indo-Tibetan expedition

Arrival in Sikkim (1912)

Alexandra David-Néel travelled for the 2nd time to India to further her study of Buddhism.

In 1912, she arrived at the royal monastery of Sikkim, where she befriended Mahārāj Kumar (crown prince) Sidkeong Tulku Namgyal (1879- 1914), the eldest son of the sovereign (Chogyal) of this kingdom (which would become a state of India), and travelled in many Buddhist monasteries to improve her knowledge of Buddhism.

In 1914, she met young Aphur Yongden in one of these monasteries, 15 years old, whom she would later adopt as her son. Both decided to retire in a hermitage cavern at more than 4 000 meters above sea level in northern Sikkim.

Sidkeong, then the spiritual leader of Sikkim, was sent to the meeting with Alexandra David-Néel by his father, the Mahārāja of Sikkim, having been told about her arrival in April 1912 by the British resident at Gangtok.

On the occasion of this first encounter, their mutual understanding was immediate:

Sidkeong, eager for reformation, was listening to Alexandra David-Néel's advice, and before returning to his occupations, he left behind the Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup as a guide, interpreter and professor of Tibetan.

After that, Sidkeong confided in Alexandra David-Néel that his father wished for him to renounce the throne in favour of his half-brother.

Meeting with the 13th Dalai Lama in Kalimpong (1912)

Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup accompanied Alexandra David-Néel to Kalimpong, where she met with the 13th Dalai Lama in exile.

She received an audience on 15 April 1912, and met Ekai Kawaguchi in his waiting room, whom she would meet again in Japan.

The Dalai Lama welcomed her, accompanied by the inevitable interpreter, and he strongly advised her to learn Tibetan, an advice she followed.

She received his blessing, then the Dalai Lama engaged the dialogue, asking her how she had become a Buddhist:

David-Néel amused him by claiming to be the only Buddhist in Paris, and surprised him by telling him that the Gyatcher Rolpa (Lalitavistara Sūtra), a sacred Tibetan book, had been translated by Phillippe-Édouard Foucaux (1811-1894), a professor at the College de France.

She asked for many additional explanations that the Dalai Lama tried to provide, promising to answer all her questions in writing.

Stay at Lachen (1912–1916)

In late May, she went to Lachen in North Sikkim, where she met Lachen Gomchen Rinpoche, the superior (gomchen) of the town's monastery, with the improvised interpreter M. Owen, a reverend who replaced the absent Kazi Dawa Samdup.

In Lachen, she lived for several years close to one of the greatest Gomchens of whom she had the privilege to be taught, and above all, she was very close to the Tibetan border, which she crossed twice against all odds.

In her anchorite cave, she practiced Tibetan yoga:

She was sometimes in Tsam, that is to retreat for several days without seeing anyone, and she learned the technique of tummo, which mobilized her internal energy to produce heat.

As a result of this apprenticeship, her master, the Gomchen of Lachen, gave her the religious name of Yeshe Tome, "Lamp of Sages", which proved valuable to her because she was then known by Buddhist authorities everywhere she went in Asia.

While she was in company of Lachen Gomchen Rinpoche, Alexandra David-Néel encountered Sidkeong again on an inspection tour in Lachen on 29 May 1912.

These 3 personalities of Buddhism, thus reunited, reflected and worked together to reform and expand Buddhism, as the Gomchen would declare.

For David-Néel, Sidkeong organized a one-week expedition into the high areas of Sikkim, at 5 000 meters of altitude, which started on 1 July.

There was correspondence between Sidkeong and Alexandra David-Néel:

In a letter by Sidkeong written at Gangtok on 8 October 1912, he thanked her for the meditation method she had sent him.

On 9 October, he accompanied her to Darjeeling, where they visited a monastery together, while she prepared to return to Calcutta.

In another letter, Sidkeong informed David-Néel that, in March 1913, he was able to enter Freemasonry at Calcutta, where he had been admitted as a member, provided with a letter of introduction by the governor of Bengal, a further link between them.

He told her of his pleasure of having been allowed to become a member of this society.

When his father was about to die, Sidkeong called Alexandra David-Néel for help, and asked her for advice in bringing about the reform of Buddhism that he wished to implement at Sikkim once he came to power.

Returning to Gangtok via Darjeeling and Siliguri, David-Néel was received like an official figure, with guard of honour, by Sidkeong on 3 December 1913.

On 4 January 1914, he gave her, as a gift for the New Year, a lamani's (female lama) dress sanctified according to the Buddhist rites. David-Néel had her picture taken with a yellow hat completing the ensemble.

On 10 February 1914, the Mahārāja died, and Sidkeong succeeded him.

The campaign of religious reform could begin, Kali Kumar, a monk of southern Buddhism was called to participate in it, as well as Sīlācāra Bhikkhu (an Englishman) who was then living in Burma.

Hteiktin Ma Lat (Burmese princess) came from that same country, David-Néel was in correspondence with her, and Sidkeong married Ma Lat, with Alexandra David-Néel becoming the Mahārāja's marriage counsellor.

While she was at the monastery of Phodong, the abbot of which was Sidkeong, David-Néel declared she heard a voice announcing to her that the reforms would fail.

On 11 November 1914, leaving the cavern of Sikkim where she had gone to meet the gomchen, David-Néel was received at Lachen Monastery by Sidkeong.

One month later, she learned about Sidkeong's sudden death, news that affected her and made her think of poisoning.

In December 1914, Sidkeong was found dead in his bedroom, apparently of heart failure, aged 35, in what the British described as “mysterious circumstances”.

1st trip to Tibet and meeting Panchen Lama (1916)

On 13 July 1916, without asking for permission, Alexandra David-Néel left for Tibet, accompanied by Yongden and a monk.

She planned to visit 2 great religious centres close to her Sikkim retreat:

the monastery of Chorten Nyima and Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, close to Shigatse, one of the biggest cities of southern Tibet.

At the monastery of Tashi Lhunpo, where she arrived on 16 July, she was allowed to consult the Buddhist scriptures and visit various temples.

On the 19th, she met with the Panchen Lama, by whom she received blessings and a charming welcome:

he introduced her to his entourage's persons of rank, to his professors, and to his mother (with whom David-Néel tied bonds of friendship and who suggested to her to reside in a convent).

The Panchen Lama bade and proposed her to stay at Shigatse as his guest, what she declined, leaving the town on 26 July, not without having received the honorary titles of a Lama and a doctor in Tibetan Buddhism and having experienced hours of great bliss.

Upon her return to Sikkim, the British colonial authorities, pushed by missionaries exasperated by the welcome afforded David-Néel by the Panchen Lama and annoyed by her having ignored their ban of entering Tibet, informed her that she was to be deported for violating the no-entry edict.

Trip to Japan, Korea, China, Mongolia, and Tibet

As it was impossible to return to Europe during World War I, Alexandra David-Néel and Yongden left Sikkim for India and then Japan.

There she met the philosopher Ekai Kawaguchi who had managed to stay for 18 months in Lhasa as a Chinese monk in disguise a few years earlier.

David-Néel and Yongden subsequently left for Korea and then Beijing, China. From there, they chose to cross China from east to west, accompanied by a colourful Tibetan Lama.

Their journey took several years through the Gobi, Mongolia, before a break of three years (1918–1921) at Kumbum Monastery in Tibet, where David-Néel, helped by Yongden, translated the famous Prajñāpāramitā.

Incognito stay in Lhasa (1924)

Disguised as a beggar and a monk, respectively, and carrying a backpack as discreet as possible, Alexandra David-Néel and Yongden then left for the Forbidden City.

In order not to betray her status as a foreigner, David-Néel did not dare to take a camera and survey equipment, she hid, however, under her rags a compass, a pistol, and a purse with money for a possible ransom.

Finally, they reached Lhasa in 1924, merged with a crowd of pilgrims coming to celebrate the Monlam Prayer Festival.

They stayed in Lhasa for 2 months visiting the holy city and the large surrounding monasteries: Drepung, Sera, Ganden, Samye.

She knew the Dalai Lama well from earlier times, but he didn't know that she was in Lhasa and she could not reveal her identity.

She found "nothing very special" in Potala, of which she remarked that the interior design was "entirely Chinese-style".

Despite her face smeared with soot, her yak wool mats, and her traditional fur hat, she was finally unmasked (due to too much cleanliness – she went to wash herself every morning at the river) and denounced to Tsarong Dzasa, the Governor of Lhasa.

By the time the latter took action, David-Néel and Yongden had already left Lhasa for Gyantse.

They were told about the story only later, by letters of Frank Ludlow (a British officer in Lhasa) and David Macdonald (the British sales representative in Gyantse)

In May 1924, the explorer, exhausted, "without money and in rags", was accommodated together with her companion at the Macdonald home for a fortnight.

She managed to reach Northern India through Sikkim thanks partly to the 500 rupees she borrowed from Macdonald and to the necessary papers that he and his son-in-law, captain Perry, obtained for her.

In Calcutta, dressed in the new Tibetan outfit Macdonald had bought for her, she got herself photographed in a studio.

After her return, starting at her arrival at Havre on May 10, 1925, she was able to assess the remarkable fame her audacity had earned her. She hit the headlines of the newspapers and her portrait spread in the magazines.

The account of her adventure would become the subject of a book, My Journey to Lhasa, which was published in Paris, London and New York in 1927,

but met with disbelief of critics who had a hard time accepting the stories about such practices as levitation and tummo (the increase of body temperature to withstand cold).

4. 1925–1937: The European interlude

Back in France, Alexandra David-Néel rented a small house in the hills of Toulon and was looking for a home in the sun and without too many neighbours.

An agency from Marseille suggested a small house in Digne-les-Bains (Provence) to her in 1928. She, who was looking for the sun, visited the house during a rainstorm, but she liked the place and she bought it.

4 years later, she began to enlarge the house, called Samten-Dzong or "fortress of meditation", the 1st hermitage and Lamaism shrine in France.

There she wrote several books describing her various trips.

In 1929, she published her most famous and beloved work, Magicians and Mystics in Tibet.

5. 1937–1946: Chinese journey and Tibetan retreat

In 1937, aged 69, Alexandra David-Néel decided to leave for China with Yongden via Brussels, Moscow and the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Her aim was to study ancient Taoism.

She found herself in the middle of the Second Sino-Japanese War and attended the horrors of war, famine and epidemics.

Fleeing the combat, she wandered through China on a shoestring budget.

The Chinese journey took course during 1.5 years between Beijing, Mount Wutai, Hankou (Wuhan now) and Chengdu.

On 4 June 1938, she went back to the Tibetan town of Tachienlu (Kangding) for a retreat of 5 years.

She was deeply touched by the announcement of the death of her husband in 1941.

While in Eastern Tibet David-Néel and Yongden completed circumambulation of the holy mountain Amne Machin ("Grandfather Pomra").

In 1945, Alexandra David-Néel went back to India thanks to Christian Fouchet, French Consul at Calcutta, who became a friend; they stayed in touch until David-Néel's death.

She finally left Asia with Aphur Yongden by airplane, departing from Calcutta in June 1946.

On 1 July, they arrived at Paris, where they stayed until October, when they went back to Digne-les-Bains.

6. 1946–1969: the Lady of Digne

At 78, Alexandra David-Néel returned to France to arrange the estate of her husband, then she started writing from her home in Digne.

In 1952, she published the "Unpublished Tibetan Writings", an anthology of Tibetan literature including, among other things, the erotic poems attributed to the 6th Dalai Lama.

In 1953, a work of actuality followed, Old Tibet versus New China, in which she gave "a certain and documented opinion" on the tense situation in the regions once visited by her.

She went through the pain of suddenly losing Yongden on 7 October 1955:

Yongden, seized by a strong fever and sickness, which David-Néel attributed to a simple indigestion, fell into a coma during the night and died carried off by kidney failure according to the doctor's diagnosis.

Just having turned 87, David-Néel found herself alone.

Yongden's ashes were kept safe in the Tibetan oratory of Samten Dzong, waiting to be thrown into the Ganges, together with those of David-Néel after her death.

With age, David-Néel suffered more and more from articular rheumatism that forced her to walk with crutches. "I walk on my arms", she used to say.

Her work rhythm slowed down: she didn't publish anything in 1955 and 1956, and, in 1957, only the 3rd edition of the Lamaism initiations.

In April 1957, she left Samten Dzong in order to live at Monaco with a friend who had typed her manuscripts.

She decided to live alone in a hotel, going from one establishment to the next, until June 1959, when she was introduced to a young woman, Marie-Madeleine Peyronnet, who she took as her personal secretary.

She would stay with the old lady until the end, "watching over her like a daughter over her mother – and sometimes like a mother over her unbearable child – but also like a disciple at the service of her guru".