Illustration: nineteenth century British map
Walking 2000 miles to the Land of Snows
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
“Stop here! Go no further!” Such were the commands of a few Western politicians, to explorers, savants, missionaries, scholars, to all, in fact, except their agents, who travelled freely, wherever they were sent, in this so-called “Forbidden Land.”
What right had they to erect barriers around a country which was not even lawfully theirs? Many travellers (sic) had been stopped on their way to Lhasa, and had accepted failure.
I would not.
I had taken the challenge by my oath on the “iron bridge” and was now ready to show what a woman can do!
The French/ Belgian Louise Eugénie Alexandrine Marie David was born in 1868, the same year as W.E.B. Dubois and Gertrude Bell, and the year before Gandhi was born. Paris still lacked the Eiffel Tower, New York did not have the Brooklyn Bridge, and women did not yet vote much less go tramping across continents.
Spiritual adventure stories such as hers combine lives filled with daring and hazard with a philosophy of engaged learning. Part page-turning entertainment, part history of Western Orientalist philosophy, Alexandra David-Neel’s writing fleshes out a dry impugning of intentions with a pulsing and insatiable appetite for experience.
Such writing places our own life journeys in a context of authentic inquiry and vivid participation in the great questions of our time.
If the path from which you’ve explored the embodied practices of yoga hasn’t yet led you through “spiritual adventure stories” you have a great pleasure before you. Unlike our contemporary accounts of the beneficial exchanges of eco tourism, early explorers made no excuses about their flat-out desire for adventure.
We were yet in that part of Thibet still under Chinese rule, wherein foreigners can travel freely, though at their own risk, it was important that rumors of my wanderings in the neighborhood of the border should not spread.
For the Thibetan officials, once warned and on the alert, would have the road carefully watched, which would greatly increase the difficulties of our entering the forbidden area.
Driven by the curiosity to know more than was being reported to her from translations and European teachers and to experience Buddhism directly, David-Neel exemplifies the energetic spirit in which learning is not undertaken to improve one’s character but to improve one’s chance of survival across forbidden and forbidding borders.
Her story is one of a life lived right out to the edges of its potential. When she died at the age of 101, she left us a literature of both sober observation and erudition, and a wild thrill of escapades: border crossings, costumes and disguises, caves and arduous mountain passages and invented identities among strangers and government agents.
I had hesitated a long time in choosing the road I would take in order to enter independent Thibet. The one I preferred, or perhaps I should say the one which circumstances seemed to be thrusting upon me, is followed every autumn by many travellers.
By taking it I foresaw that I should run the danger of frequent meetings.
Not that this inconvenience was without its favorable aspect, since our tracks could be more easily lost amongst those of pilgrims from various Thibetan regions, each of whom spoke in different dialects, and whose womenfolk had a variety of different dress and coiffures.
The little peculiarities of my accent, my features, or my clothes would more easily be overlooked on such a road, and if enquiries were to be made, they would have to embrace so many people that confusion might very likely follow to my advantage.
An early vocation and a keen eye for detail
David-Neel was strong-willed and independent. She had been involved with the Theosophical Society as a teenager and travelled internationally by the age of eighteen, then left for India a few years later. In her early thirties she lived with a railroad engineer in Tunis, Philippe Neel, whom she subsequently married.
(There is, by the way, a glowing biography on-line, accompanied by grainy black and white photos, and bits of handwritten letters to her husband.)
By the time of her two thousand miles on foot trek to Lhasa, David-Neel was in her mid-fifties. Her book is filled with extraordinary descriptions of villagers, robbers, hermits, beggars, warriors and the countryside of her journey. She goes lightly from danger that makes the reader hold her breath to extolling the bliss of sleeping in unconfined places.
Best of all, David-Neel reports her personal experience with teachers and traditional practices, including Tibetan yogas, among them the much studied practice of tun mo, developing skill with the heat of one’s own body.
The flint an steel which, according to Thiben custom, Yongden carried attached to his belt in a pouch, had become wet during our passage across the snowfields, and now it did not work at all.
This was a serious matter.
Of course we were no longer on the top of the range and we had only a few hours to wait before the sun would rise; but even if we escaped, being frozen, we were not at all certain that we should not catch pneumonia or some other serious disease. “Jetsunma,” said Yongden, “You are, I know, initiated in the thumo reskiang practice. Warm yourself and do not bother about me.”
True, I had studied under two Thibetan gompchens the strange art of increasing the internal heat.
For long I had been puzzled by the stories I had heard and read on the subject and as I am of a somewhat scientific turn of mind I wanted to make the experiment myself. With great difficulties, showing an extreme perseverance in my desire to be initiated into the secret, and after a number of ordeals, I succeeded in reaching my aim.
I saw some hermits seated night after night, motionless on the snow, entirely naked, sunk in meditation, while the terrible winter blizzard whirled and hissed around them! I saw under the bright full moon the test given to their disciples who, on the shore of a lake or a river in the heart of the winter, dried on their bodies, as on a stove, a number of sheets dipped in the icy water!
And I learned the means of performing these feats.
I had inured myself, during five months of the cold season, to wearing the single thin cotton garment of the students at a 13,000- foot level.
Time and again, David-Neel provides an account of the cultural pragmatism that embodies spiritual practices, from the prayers and prognostications offered by a traveling lama in exchange for shelter or food, to surviving extreme conditions and exposure during pilgrimage and fleeing persecution.
She describes with emotion the other practicality, that of freedom from attachment or possession, that caused her to be “homesick” ever after.
And now that I have thoroughly experienced the joys and the hardships of the arjopa’s life in Thibet, I deem it to be the most blessed existence one can dream of, and I consider as the happiest in my life those days when, with a load upon my back, I wandered as one of the countless tribe of Thibetan beggar pilgrims.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.