Alexandra David-Néel: The Extraordinary Experience Of A Spiritual Traveler
Writer, opera singer, and Buddhist, she was the first Western woman to speak of the philosophies and religions of the East.
“To the one who knows how to look and feel, every moment of this free wandering life is an enchantment,” wrote Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969). Her inclination for travel and her attraction to spirituality led her into Lhasa, Tibet’s forbidden city in 1924. The first Western woman to ever visit, she returned to the West with what she’d learned of the philosophies and religions of the East. Well outside any ordinary walk of life, she’d traveled widely and captured the enlightenment she found along the way in her writings. Her extraordinary life that lasted, incredibly, 101 years.
From a very young age, David-Néel’s restless spirit encouraged her to take trips and to bravely challenge the conventions of her time. As a child, it’s said, she spent much of her time in museums, where she studied Eastern arts and religions, and this inevitably leads her to Buddhism, the religion she practiced for a good part of her life. In her youth, David-Néel also studied Sanskrit and Eastern philosophy at the Sorbonne. At age 23, after receiving a small inheritance, she embarked on her first trip to India. She lived there for some time in a center for Theosophical studies near Madras, where she continued her studies of Sanskrit and became familiar with the ancient practice of yoga.
Having spent all her money, David-Néel traveled back to Belgium (where her family lived) and, to sustain herself, decided to study music at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. Having become a professional opera singer, her work with the Hanoi Opera Company drew her back to the world she loved so much: the Orient. Another trip, as a singer, drew her to Tunisia, where she worked as the musical director of the casino where she met the millionaire Philip Néel. She married him at age 36, and the two remained together for seven years.
Although he would financially support her until his death, David-Néel separated from her husband in 1911. It was then that she returned to India where she would remain for 14 years. During this time she became the disciple of a Buddhist monk and lived in a cave for two years. Her knowledge of Sanskrit continued to open doors, but beyond that, she would also have to learn Tibetan and even some esoteric techniques like the tumo, a form of meditation for generating body heat under extreme conditions. During her years in India, David-Néel adopted Aphur Yongden, a 14-year-old servant, with whom she would travel to many countries in Asia over the years. On one of her many trips to Japan, she met a monk who had managed to enter Lhasa posing as a Chinese doctor. Based on this meeting, David-Néel began to plan her own trip to the Tibetan capital.
In 1924, at 56 years of age, David-Néel colored her face with charcoal, braided her hair (posing as the servant of Aphur) and finally entered Lhasa. It was thus that she became the first Western woman to enter the place which had been entirely forbidden to foreigners. She stayed for two months until the British government discovered her and she was expelled.
In her book Magic and Mystery in Tibet, published in 1929, David-Néel would describe the improbable and wonderful world she’d found in Lhasa. It was one endowed with surprising, magical elements, phenomena such as telepathy and many other extraordinary practices. She described the asceticism in monks who ran uninterrupted through the mountains for days and recorded her experience with pre-Buddhist shamanistic rituals, like a spell that could supposedly revive the dead.
After her trip to Tibet, David-Néel returned to France and went to live in Provence (where she would one day be visited by none other than the Dalai Lama). She wrote some 30 books on the Far East and what she’d learned there. The corpus of her work influenced, especially, writers of the Beat Generation, among them Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, as well as Alan Watts (a charming philosopher of the spirit in his own right).
Today, a woman learning yoga and visiting India might seem commonplace, but the way David-Néel lived her life was unprecedented. The stories of her travels (like those of the journalist, Nelly Bly) not only inspire in their force and depth, but remind us that in life, all true journeys lead inevitably into the interior.
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