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Magic and Mystery in Tibet (David-Neel)

Posted: Wed Jun 09, 2021 11:55 pm
by Kim O'Hara
A friend passed a very old, battered copy of this book my way recently and I found it fascinating as an historical artifact and impressive in an intrepid-traveller kind of way.
The author, Alexandra David-Neel, was part of the early Western engagement with Asian religion, along with the theosophists (whom she knew). This book was first published about 1930 (my copy is a 1960s republication) and relates what she saw in the Himalayas about 1912-1926. She got to Lhasa, in disguise, and wrote about that trip (I haven't seen that book but would like to) and in fact this book sometimes reads like a collection of bits that wouldn't fit into her first book.
It's clear that she had a solid grounding in Buddhism before going to the Himalaya (primarily Theravada) and that she was a serious practitioner.
Having read it, I can guess where Lost Horizon was coming from and where 'Lobsang Rampa' found his source material, but it's also great context for the post-diaspora Western vajrayana tradition.
Extraordinary life!


Re: Magic and Mystery in Tibet (David-Neel)

Posted: Thu Jun 10, 2021 2:10 am
by Schrödinger’s Yidam
I know someone who asked an English speaking pre-PRC Tibetan which western author best captured what old Tibet was like, and he said Alexandra David-Neel.

Re: Magic and Mystery in Tibet (David-Neel)

Posted: Thu Jun 10, 2021 9:20 am
by Giovanni
My first teacher thought that she had certainly been where she said, and met many of those who she claimed, but that many of her claims are fictional and sensationalist.

Re: Magic and Mystery in Tibet (David-Neel)

Posted: Thu Jun 10, 2021 11:10 am
by humble.student
In spite of the two dozen books on the woman, there is still a lot that could be said about Alexandra David-Neel, whose life has become something of a cottage industry for biographers of all stripes.

Sure, there’s a lot of fictionalised and exaggerated stuff in there, she tried to earn a living from her writing after all, and that involved dressing things up a bit. Her actual translations of Buddhist texts are almost unknown - the prajnaparamita sutra plus some commentary springs to mind.

Her novels (attributed or co-written with Lama Yongden) are pleasant reads; 'The Power of Nothingness' was translated into English by Janwillem de Wetering, of Amsterdam Cops fame, the other one, ‘Tibetan Tales of Love and Magic’ was translated by the scion of some theosophist family whose name I forget. I enjoyed them, even if they are bit outlandish at times.

In one of the recent biographies, a researcher found a letter sent to her by a Chinese scholar studying Tibetology in France, presumably after the war. He said he had been studying with the Panchen Lama, if I recall rightly, in the 30s in Beijing, and asked him if he had heard of the French woman in Tibet. The lama replied to him that he had, and not only that, but that she had been living with his own mother for a time, as a nun.

Re: Magic and Mystery in Tibet (David-Neel)

Posted: Thu Jun 10, 2021 11:50 am
by Giovanni
She certainly was a pioneer who actually attempted to find the reality of the Vajrayana. In contrast to some slightly earlier attempts by people like Blavatsky who used the Vajrayana as a platform for their own ideas.
Her descriptions of some practices like lung gom do not bear much comparison to the reality as anyone who has seen lung gompas in action will know. Her descriptions are more like Kung fu movies.
But a genuine pioneer.