“Suffering raises up those souls that are truly great; it is only small souls that are made mean-spirited by it.” –Alexandra David-Néel.
There are many footnote people in history, those who never rose to the highest heights of fame or wealth, who nonetheless accomplished great things. One of the most fascinating that I have come across was Alexandra David-Néel.
Born in France in 1869, she was the first European to visit various parts of Tibet, including the forbidden city of Llhasa. By the age of fifteen, she had already steeped herself in the philosophy of the Stoics and had experimented with austere practices from the biographies of ascetic saints that she had found in the library of one of her relatives. From an early age, she trained herself to withstand the rigors of privation.
By the age of twenty-one, she had traveled to London, learned English and Sanskrit, and converted to Buddhism. At her father’s suggestion, she studied piano and singing. She became an opera singer under another name and toured the Far East, including taking the position of first singer at the Hanoi Opera House for two years. She married but didn’t want children as she thought they would interfere with both her independence and her educational pursuits.
In 1912, she traveled to India to further her study of Buddhism. There, she met the Dalai Lama who was in exile in Darjeeling. He advised her to learn Tibetan. She took his advice and learned to speak the language like a native. Never one to do anything by halves, she also studied the methods of Tibetan yogis by living in a cave for two years atop a 13,000-foot peak. The hardships of continuous cold, hunger, and isolation exhilarated her. There were days spent without food or warmth, but she never complained. When she emerged from her retreat in 1916, she had earned the blessings of the holy men of Tibet and understood the Tibetan way of life in a way that few have managed since.
At one monastery she was assigned a young male attendant named Yongden, who remained with her for the rest of his life. He died in 1955 in France.
In 1924, they spent a year traveling to Llhasa disguised as a peasant woman and her Buddhist monk son. Had their true identities been discovered, it is likely they would have been put to death, but time and again it was David-Néel’s command of the language and the customs that saved them. She was fifty-five years old at the time.
She returned to Europe, and in 1927, published her account in the book, My Journey to Llhasa. She later wrote dozens of books as well as articles on her travels and her study of Buddhism, receiving many honors for her accomplishments.
Apparently she was not an easy person to live with as she demanded the same standards from others that she demanded of herself. She was a remarkable force of nature. She died in 1969 at the age of 100, one of the most well-travelled and knowledgeable women of her time.
What I find most remarkable was her extraordinary attitude, discipline, and willingness to follow her dreams in order to go in directions few have gone.