With nothing to keep her company in the Himalayan cave except for a flickering candle, Alexandra David Neel noticed that another day had passed. Isolated from the attachments of civilization, here she was, a French woman living as an ascetic in this cave at 13,000 feet altitude. The snow was heavy that winter of 1914, blanketing the rocky outpost at Sikkim. There would be no contact with the outside world until the snows melted in springtime. It was perfect for the esoteric studies, which Alexandra now absorbed under the tutelage of the Gomshen– the Great Hermit of this monastery near Tibet. She felt as if she were in heaven.
With much luck she had met the Gomshen many months before, and asked him to take her as his student. He was said to have magical powers and his appearance fostered that belief. He carried a rosary of 108 beads, each one carved from a different human skull—and around his body hung magic amulets. His hair reached to the ground. He was an expert at “tumo” breathing—the Tibetan art of generating body heat to keep warm no matter how cold it got. He could manifest phantoms called “tulpas” and became the trusted but feared demon controller for the surrounding villages.
Magic and Mystery
Sikkim, situated at the base of the third largest mountain in the world, where Guru Rinpoche had brought Buddhism from India in the 9th Century, became a magical land where Buddhism mixed with local religions. Now, here in this monastery, Alexandra David Neel was not only studying Buddhism, but a very esoteric branch of it that contained elements of animism and Tibetan magical shamanism.
So she could understand the teachings and ancient manuscripts Alexandra learned Tibetan and Sanskrit. She desired to absorb as much of this ancient knowledge as possible in the allotted time. After two years of priesthood training—and with the blessing of holy men— she emerged from her cave as the first woman granted the title of Llama in Tibet.
All those times she had run away from her suffocating family in France, starting the first time at two years old, seemed only as warm up exercises for the freedom she felt now. Her fascination with Buddhism came to fruition here at 13,000 feet in Sikkim.
On the Way to the Cave
This was just the mid-point of her journey. Born in 1868, and now in her early 50’s, she had already traveled through India on foot, had gotten married to a man named David Neel whom she met there. After a few years of marriage, she said that she needed to “get away” for a while and promised to return within 18 months—but the trip took longer than expected. When she finally did return, fourteen years later, she became famous for her exploits. Alexandra David Neel knew no boundaries; she had been the lover of The Crown Prince Tulku in Siikkim. She also met with the exiled Dalai Lama in Darjeeling, and through his encouragement, found the Gomshen to take her as a student.
After two years in the hermit cave, Alexandra, unable to return to France because of WWI, went instead to Japan with her lifelong traveling companion Lama Yongden. While there, she met Ekai Kawaguchi, who had visited the closed city of Lhasa, in Tibet, disguised as a Chinese doctor. She decided to see the mysterious city for herself. And so, at age 55, and with a solid knowledge of Tibetan and Sanskrit, Alexandra David Neel and Yongden embarked on a daring and arduous journey.
Gun Toting Buddhist
They traveled disguised as a Tibetan peasant woman and her Buddhist monk son. Under her raggedy disguise Alexandra hid a gun, but in spite of the fact that the untamed land harbored lions, tigers and bandits she never had to use it. Alexandra’s intimate knowledge of the Tibetan language and customs was enough to keep them safe.
At one stage, in early 1923, they went as far north as the Gobi Desert then South through China, and westwards into southern Tibet. Altogether their dusty, zigzag, South to North, East to West journey through China covered around 8,000 miles on horse, sedan chair and foot!
Llasa, At Last
They made the last part of the dangerous trek in the dead of winter. They faced waist-deep snow, bitter cold and treacherous crossings of mountain ridges and passes up to 20,000 ft. After nearly a year of travel, hardship and adventure, she became the first European woman to enter the mysterious city of Lhasa. They stayed for two months.
When she returned to France in 1924 she brought with her the young Lama Yongden, as proof of her trip to Lhasa. The journey, which she chronicled in her book, My Journey to Lhasa, made her world famous. She had even become famous in Tibet, as “the Llama hermit woman”.
That she had succeeded—where other, better equipped, explorers had failed—is a testimony to this remarkable woman.
For ten years Alexandra shared her many journeys in a series of books, articles and lectures. At times bordering on the incredible, her adventures nevertheless drew back the curtain surrounding the mystique of the Orient. People wanted to hear about strange phenomenon such as a ‘lung-gom’ runner, or how Alexandra supposedly managed, through intense concentration and mystical rites, to produce a phantom called a Tulpa.
Dust Off those Walking Shoes
Sitting and writing or sipping tea in well-behaved parlors started taking its toll. Alexandra remembered the thrill of running away from home when she was five. She remembered the park down the road, at dusk, and the allure of the unfamiliar. This is what drove her life. Wanderlust took hold again—and in 1937 at the onset of WWII, Alexandra nearly 70, left France with Yongden and went again to China via the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria forced them Westwards to Tatsienlu in Central China. During this nine-year trip they also went to Korea, Mongolia and Tibet, where they waited out the ending of war. In all of her travels, she met with spiritual teachers and learned as much as she could from them.
After this long adventure, Alexandra and Yongden returned home to Digne, France. Yongden died in 1955 and Alexandra continued writing, not only about her adventures, but also detailing esoteric Buddhism in books such as Magic & Mystery in Tibet.
Some consider Alexandra David Neel as one of the 19th Century’s foremost explorers and interpreters of Eastern Mysticism. Lawrence Durrell called her “the most astonishing Frenchwoman of our Times”.
Alexandra David Neel’s adventures in life started small, perhaps as an escape, but eventually included some of the most exotic places in the world. Her fluency in the Tibetan language as well as the teachings she documented, influenced many spiritual searchers including beat writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Alan Watts. The places she visited had been closed to the outside world and even now Tibet and Nepal, with their ancient mysteries, continue to beckon adventurers.
Alexandra died in 1969, at nearly 101 years old. France posthumously awarded her the title of: Commander de la Legion d’Honneur. His Holiness The 14th Dalaï Lama also posthumously honored Alexandra David Neel by visiting her house, thereby paying tribute to her courage and adventurous work, which had made Tibetan spirituality accessible for the first time to Westerners.
In Benares, on February 28, 1973 the ashes of Alexandra David Neel, the first Western woman to explore Tibet and of her adopted son, Lama Yongden, were scattered together on the waters of the Ganges.