The Story of a Buddhist Anarchist - Alexandra David Neel

Alexandra David Neel was an explorer, a spiritualist, an anarchist, and a prolific writer. She was of French origin and shot to fame after her visit to Lhasa in Tibet at a time when it was forbidden for any foreigners. During her life span of 101 years, she went on to write almost 30 books on Eastern religions which even today continues to be the most authentic evidence on Tibetan Buddhism.

A Little About Neel's Life

Alexandra David Neel
She was born in a comfortable household in Paris to an elderly couple in 1868. From the beginning, young Alexandra always had an independent mindset, and it is said that she ran away from her home at a very early age to embark on a long and memorable journey of travel and discovery.

Personal Beliefs and Spirituality

Even as a teenager, she had a deep interest in religion, and she continued her faith by writing letters to God considering Jesus as her master. However, she slowly went on to reject Catholicism and developed a keen interest in Greek philosophy. It was this interest that gradually led her on to the path of discovering the spiritual traditions of Asia. She was intuitively drawn to Buddhist philosophy, especially to the life of Gautama Buddha and at the time placed a picture of Christ as well as Buddha in her bedroom.

Education, College & Philosophy

In college, she went on to study Theosophy and English language skills and immersed herself into Buddhist art once she returned to Paris. This was a time when many women were not allowed to audit courses, whereas she went on to audit courses in Hindu philosophy, and Chinese Taoism at the College of France and the Sorbonne. It was then that she fearlessly became a Buddhist and made her first spiritual journey to India in the year 1889.

Personal Identity As A Woman

Alexandra David Neel
As she began to identify herself as a Buddhist, she expressed her desire to live a free and empowered life which was not tied to what other people expected out of her or the general societal norms. At that time, women were expected to either become a wife or a mother or seek employment in agriculture, industry, or trade. It was quite a rare occurrence when women would seek out intellectual professions, especially at a time when female artists were usually not paid for their work.

Wedlock & Continued Journey

Later on, she went on to take everyone else by surprise when she was joined in wedlock to Philippe Neel, a successful and handsome engineer based in Tunis. However, she embarked on her journey in just a week after marrying her husband and began her 14-year long journey through Europe and Asia. Her husband continued to support her throughout her journey financially and offered her the economic security, which she lacked as a spinster.

Further Endeavours - The Only Buddhist In Paris

Alexandra David Neel
To continue her studies on Buddhism she travelled to the royal monastery of Sikkim; where she went on to befriend Sidkeong Tulku Namgyal, the spiritual leader of the country. He was a great mentor to her and went on to inspire her for her future endeavours in life. She also got the chance to meet the 13th Dalai Lama who had fled Tibet after the invasion by the Chinese troops. She surprised him by sharing the fact that she was the only Buddhist in Paris and was involved in the deep learning of Buddhist texts. She received his blessing and followed his guidance in learning Tibetan.

Visiting Forbidden Locations

The story of Alexandra visiting the forbidden city Lhasa is almost too impossible to fathom and extremely fascinating to put in words. The country had been closed off to foreigners fearing any kind of encroachment and destruction by the British and Russian empire. She went on to spend almost two months hiding without detection living a hard life staying in peasant homes, sleeping on greasy cloths, and eating nauseating food. On the flip side, she was able to learn high physical endurance and also went on to study many rare manuscripts in ancient Sanskrit doctrines dating back to the 2nd and 6th Centuries C.E.

A Writer's Journey

Among her first writings in Asian, she described two Chinese philosophers of the 5th Century C.E; “Meh-ti” (Mozi) and “Yang-Chu” (Yang Zhu). She also supported the views of Yang Zhu which claimed that

“There is no God to dictate one’s behaviour, there is probably no soul, and therefore no life after death, all laws enacted by humans are false; each individual is a transitory combination of cells, and therefore one should only follow one’s instinct to survive and avoid suffering.”

She was also awarded the Gold Medal of the Geographical Society of France and was subsequently named Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. All her achievements and journeys are testimonies of her brave nature and thirst for knowledge. She was an ardent believer that Buddhism is not just another religion to follow but a philosophy to live a good life.      

This post was published by Priyanka Chugh

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