Sue Young Histories

Alexandra David Neel 1868 - 1969

June 27, 2010

[Alexandra David Neel]( (born Louise Eugenie Alexandrine Marie David) 1868 - 1969, was a Belgian French explorer, anarchist, spiritualist, Buddhist and writer,

Alexandra David Neel managed her amazing trip to Lhasa in 1924 by taking the homeopathic remedy nux vomica,

More bothersome was the “general emaciation and debility I had scarcely felt until now, thanks to [taking] the stimulants” (that is, homeopathic strychnine)‘.

Alexandra David Neel was most known for her visit to Lhasa, Tibet, in 1924, when it was forbidden to foreigners. David Neel wrote over 30 books about Eastern religion, philosophy, and her travels. Her teachings influenced beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and philosopher Alan Watts.

Born in Paris, she moved to Ixelles (Brussels) at the age of six. During her childhood she had a very strong desire for freedom and spirituality. At the age of 18, she had already visited England, Switzerland and Spain on her own, and she was studying in Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society.

In 1890 and 1891, she traveled through India, returning only when she was running out of money. In 1900 she met and lived with the railroad engineer Philippe Neel in Tunis, whom she married in 1904.

In 1911 Alexandra quit Neel and traveled for the second time to India, to further her study of Buddhism. She was invited to the royal monastery of Sikkim, where she met Maharaj Kumar (crown prince) Sidkeon Tulku. She became Sidkeong’s “confidante and spiritual sister” (according to Ruth Middleton), perhaps his lover (Foster & Foster).

She also met the Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama twice in 1912, and had the opportunity to ask him many questions about Buddhism—a feat unprecedented for a European woman at that time.

In the period 1914-1916 she lived in a cave in Sikkim, near the Tibetan border, learning spirituality, together with the young (born

  1. Sikkimese monk Aphur Yongden, who became her lifelong traveling companion, and whom she would adopt later.

From there they trespassed into Tibetan territory, meeting the Panchen Lama in Shigatse (August 1916). When the British authorities learned about this—Sikkim was then a British protectorate—Alexandra and Yongden had to leave the country, and, unable to return to Europe in the middle of World War I, they traveled to Japan.

There Alexandra met Ekai Kawaguchi, who had visited Lhasa in 1901 disguised as a Chinese doctor, and this inspired her to visit Lhasa disguised as pilgrims. After traversing China from east to west, they reached Lhasa in 1924, and spent 2 months there.

In 1928 Alexandra legally separated from Philippe Neel, but they continued to exchange letters and he kept supporting her till his death in 1941. Alexandra settled in Digne (Provence), and during the next 9 years she wrote books.

In 1937, Yongden and Alexandra went to China through the former Soviet Union, traveling there during the second World War. They eventually ended up in Tachienlu, where she continued her investigations of Tibetan sacred literature.

One minor mystery relating to Alexandra David Neel has a solution. In Forbidden Journey, p. 284, the authors wonder how Alexandra David Neel’s secretary, Violet Sydney, made her way back to the West in 1939 after Sous des nuées d’orage (Storm Clouds) was completed in Tachienlu.

Peter Goullart’s Land of the Lamas (not in _Forbidden Journey’_s bibliography), on pp. 110–113 gives an account of his accompanying Ms. Sydney partway back, then putting her under the care of Lolo bandits to continue the journey to Chengdu. Mme. David-Neel evidently remained in Tachienlu for the duration of the war.

While in East Tibet Alexandra and Yongden completed circumambulation of the holy mountain Amnye Machen. The pair returned to France in

  1. Alexandra was then 78 years old.

In 1955 Yongden died at age 56. Alexandra continued to study and write at Digne till her death at age nearly 101. According to her last will and testament, her ashes and those of Yongden were mixed together and dispersed in the Ganges in 1973 at Vârânasî, by her friend Marie Madeleine Peyronnet.


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