In 1965 Lawrence Durrell, on assignment from a popular woman's magazine, interviewed the 96-year-old Alexandra David-Neel at her home in Digne, in the south of France. Famous for her earlier adventures in India, China and Tibet, and the books recording these, Alexandra is best known for her daring journey to Lhasa over the Trans-Himalayas in midwinter 1924. Accompanied by her adopted son Lama Yongden, she was disguised as a beggar/pilgrim and eluded soldiers, brigands and officials of the British Empire. David-Neel became the first European woman to reach Tibet's forbidden capital, and she remains the most accurate, extensive source on the arcane Buddhist practices of a nearly vanished world. Durrell called her "the most astonishing woman of our time."
When we interviewed the renowned novelist in a Greek neighborhood in the South Bronx, while researching our biography, "The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel," he fondly recalled her eternally youthful air. Although worn down by the hardship of her travels, Alexandra kept a radiance that had drawn countless admirers, including generals and heads of state. She was born Alexandrine Marie David (a distant relation of the artist David) in Paris in 1868 to a left-leaning father, a publisher and a puritanical mother. Alexandra began her career as a lovely opera singer, complimented by Massenet. When her voice broke, she became a strongly feminist writer, while her interest in Eastern philosophy matured. In 1904 she married Philip Neel, manager of the French railways in Tunisia. It was a marriage of convenience for both parties, and Alexandra soon took off for India. Her one significant love affair, with Sidkeong Tulku, the young, handsome, reforming Maharaja of Sikkim, ended tragically when he died in pain, poisoned, in 1914.
Alexandra, for solace and enlightenment, turned to the Gomchen of Lachen, the Hermetic master of a small monastery in a mountain village near the Tibetan border. Stout and ugly, the locals believed he could fly through the air, kill men by a glance and command demons. But the British authorities respected him, and with this wizard Alexandra seemed to magically learn Tibetan. His occult knowledge formed the basis of her "Magic and Mystery in Tibet," translated round the world. The practices the Gomchen taught her -- such as tumo, breathing to create heat to ward off the piercing cold of the snows -- permitted David-Neel to succeed on her journey via unexplored country to Tibet's capital. Her "My Journey to Lhasa," published in New York, London and Paris in 1927, became an instant classic of travel and adventure.
Above Lachen was the Gomchen's cave, at 12,000 feet, where he spent most of his time in meditation. Along with her adopted son, 15-year-old Lama Yongden, Alexandra took up residence in a nearby, sparsely furnished cave, to which she adjoined her tent, cooking utensils and her bathing tub. She agreed to become the Gomchen's disciple and promised him obedience. For the next two years, in cave, tent or cell, she studied tantric Buddhism with the Gomchen by conversation, reading texts, practice and telepathy. The Gomchen and Alexandra would sit together in silence, focused on the imagined aspects of a deity -- perhaps Vajrapani, the protector -- their goal being an entirely unified mental state. Afterward the Gomchen would quiz his pupil, who became sufficiently adept that in her trek to Lhasa she could receive messages "written on the wind."
Alexandra became adept at tumo breathing, involving meditation on the fire within. For a final exam she bathed in a mountain stream on a moonlit night, then sat naked, meditating until dawn. She caught a cold, but tumo would save her life on the journey to Lhasa. First, she visited the Panchen Lama, second in the hierarchy to the Dalai Lama, at Shigatse, Tibet, crossing the forbidden border. She was impressed by the Panchen's erudition, and she realized that in Tibet she was coming in contact with a wise, civilized people. In contrast, the British Political Officer, Sir Charles Bell, despite being a Tibet enthusiast, had Alexandra expelled from both Tibet and Sikkim.
Undaunted, Alexandra headed for Kum Bum monastery in Eastern Tibet via China. The Manchu dynasty had collapsed, China was in turmoil, but Alexandra pushed on past brigands and warlords and immersed herself in the monastic life and the study of rare manuscripts at Kum Bum. She observed the practices of Bon, an ancient faith, and she engaged in some of their occult practices. In August 1922, with the help of another learned British official, Sir George Pereira, Alexandra began her zigzag journey to Lhasa. Alexandra was 55 when, along with Yongden, she defeated the fierce Himalayan winter and rugged terrain to achieve her goal.
The epic story of Alexandra and Yongden's reaching Lhasa is too incredible to summarize here. Victorious, Alexandra descended to India, flaunted her triumph before British officials, and sailed for France. She made her home at Digne at the foot of the Basses-Alpes, which she joked were "Himalayas for pygmies." She stocked her villa Samten Dzong (fortress of meditation) with a collection of tankas, masks, prayer rugs, manuscripts and photos -- a miniature Tibet. She even brought home a necklace of gold coins, a gift from Sidkeong. She had refused to spend even one, no matter how desperate her need.
Over the next 40 years Alexandra and Yongden wrote two-dozen books on Eastern themes, ranging from adventure classics to "The Secret Oral Teachings In Tibetan Buddhist Sects," praised by Alan Watts as "wonderfully lucid." Occasionally, the pair -- she dressed in a lama's robes, he in a black suit -- sallied forth to lecture in European capitals, always planning new voyages of discovery that she grew too arthritic to undertake. At 100 Alexandra renewed her passport, fruitlessly planning a trip across Russia that would end at New York.
Yongden had predeceased Alexandra, who passed away in 1969, just shy of her 101st birthday. At Samten Dzong, now a museum, some mementos from Alexandra's forbidden journey remain: a compass, a cooking pot, her automatic pistol, a native hat, box cameras, a Tibetan rosary made of 108 pieces of human skulls. Alexandra's real legacy endures in her books, which have inspired many Westerners to travel to Tibet, to study Tibetan Buddhism and to live the adventure that is life.
Barbara and Michael Foster are the authors of two biographies of Alexandra David-Neel: 'Forbidden Journey' and 'The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel' (Overlook, in print).