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BOOK REVIEW: "My Journey to Lhasa" by Alexandra David-Neel

Harper Perennial
Alexandra David-Neel's book "My Journey to Lhasa" was originally released in 1927.
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BOOK REVIEW: My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Neel (Harper & Bros.) 1927

Upon finishing the remarkable account of French/Belgian writer and adventurer Alexandra David-Neel’s secret trip into mysterious Tibet in the early 1920’s, as noted in her 1927 story My Journey to Lhasa, I can’t help but wonder why we don’t hear more about this courageous, curious and remarkable woman who defied convention and survived many hardships to reach her goal – Lhasa.

David-Neel was incredibly intelligent and learned in the ways of the mystic East, along with the occult teaching of Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, she was quite confident at a time when feminism was scoffed at (Blavatsky, years early, had learned much during her visits and study in the remote and rugged Himalayas).

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama, wrote in 1992, when My Journey to Lhasa was reprinted, notes in the foreword of the book about how much he enjoyed David-Neel’s writing style and account of her experience in Tibet (the “Land of Snows,” as he calls it), making her way to the hidden capital of Lhasa (beating out yoga master and adept Theos Bernard by a few years).

“Its great merit is that it conveys the authentic flavor of Tibet as she found it, described with affectionate humor,” the Dalai Lama wrote, adding that due to Communist China’s takeover of Tibet in 1959 a lot of the experiences and people and culture is “now lost forever.”

Thankfully, we do have Madame David-Neel’s detailed account of her journey, one fraught with dangers, disease and amazing and superstitious people where Buddhism – prayer and practice – is part of daily life, from the noblemen down to the most humble of farmers.

As for Alexandra David-Neel, she was born into a comfortable, bourgeois family, but one where she never quite felt comfortable herself. Drawn to Tibet, allegedly “since infancy,” David-Neel’s destiny seemed to be her taking her from Paris to the “Land of Snows,” a place largely forbidden to outsiders, but a place the drew her ever closer, with its “steppes, the solitude, the eternal snows and the big skies,” which always seemed to haunt her.

And yet the political situation in Tibet, internally, and externally, as often is the case in that Himalayan kingdom, prevented the usual visit. But no one ever accused Alexandra David-Neel of not being resourceful as she sought to reach Lhasa and be the first European woman to ever do so.

So, disguised as najorpas – beggar-pilgrims – David-Neel (who spoke Tibetan – this would be her fifth trip there) along with her adopted Sikkimese son, a young monk named Aphur Yongden,

Even in the most perilous of circumstances, be it crossing a dangerous bridge, eating sketchy food not fit for a dog or facing life-threatening situations such as frostbite from worn-out shoes, David-Neel always seems to keep her cool, often, while her native companion and son looks on in astonishment.

With her knowledge of the occult and Tibetan Buddhism, David-Neel got out of a potential scrape with 14 “popas” (known for their banditry) and as she and Yongden realize they are going to be robbed, she says: “No harm will be done. All will end well.”

This startles the superstitious “popas” and they ask if she is a pamo, or a medium under occult control.

Yongden pipes up, understanding what his mother is doing and adds, “My father was a black nagspa, and she was his initiated consort.” A nagspa, David-Neel notes, is known in Tibet as a “knower of the secret spell, a dreaded kind of sorcerer.”

Clearly uncomfortable being in the presence of someone claiming to being adept at the dark arts, the popas move on. Later, referring to Yongden (both she and her son were “lamas”), the more common “Yellow Cap” sect of lamas admitted to the superiority of the “Red Cap” (connected to Yongden) in regards to “questions more or less connected with magic and occult science.” Proud of her son, she adds: “Humble and dirty as it was, my companion’s red hat enjoyed much success.” (More about that is found in another book of hers: Magic and Mystery in Tibet)

And while many Westerners idealize or romanticize Tibet as a spiritual haven, it is in many regards very poor and backward in its ways, even today. David –Neel’s portrayal of the people and land and encounters comes across as very authentic and real. She does a wonderful job of making it feel as if you were right there with her.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Former Red Dirt Report book critic Kendal Stegmann wrote a review of a book by local author Gary Conrad titled The Lhasa Trilogy. Read the review here.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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