Review: Magic and Mystery in Tibet- Alexandra David-Neel

“No description can give an idea of it. Gold, silver, turquoises, jade, were lavishly used on the altars, the tombs, the ornamented doors, the ritualistic implements and even on mere household objects for the use of wealthy lamas. Should I say that I admired this opulent display? No, for it seemed unrefined and childish: the work of powerful giants whose minds had not grown up. That first contact with Tibet would even have impressed me unfavourably if I had not had ever present before me the vision of its calm solitudes, and known that they conceal ascetic sages who spurn the vulgarities that are the insignia of grandeur in the eyes of the masses.

Alexandra David-Neel (Magic and Mystery in Tibet, 1932)

david neel


Magic and Mystery in Tibet – Alexandra David Neel

Magic and Mystery in Tibet – Alexandra David Neel. Alexandra David Neel was a Belgian French explorer, spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist and writer, and famous for her visit to Lhasa, Tibet, in 1924, when it was still forbidden for foreigners to enter. David Neel wrote over 30 books on Eastern religion, philosophy, and her travels. Her teachings influenced beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, philosopher Alan Watts, and Benjamin Creme. Seeker, adventurer, pilgrim, and scholar, David Neel was the first European woman to explore the once forbidden city of Lhasa. This memoir provides an objective account of the colorful, and even supernatural events she witnessed throughout the 1920’s among the mystics and hermits of Tibet.

In her early twenties she was introduced to Madame Blavatsky, whose esoteric ideas had a significant influence on Alexandra. She formed a close allegiance with Annie Besant and joined the European Section of the Theosophical Society in London on June 7, 1892. In 1893 she went to Adyar and spent much of the year there studying Sanskrit.

I highly recommend everyone reading her timeless book, every page is interesting. You can walk with her through her travels into the forbidden city, David-Neel’s words are candid and authentic. You can download Magic and Mystery in Tibet for free from the Theosophical Society. She’s incredibly intelligent, well-written, insightful but also shewed and critical.

The passage above most eloquently quotes how I feel about being involved with Tibetan Buddhism as a westerner, from the inside for over 30 years now. She articulately calls out what to western eyes can seem garish, of the outer form of institutionalized Tibetan religious culture, but reveres and treasures the inner yogic paths of simplicity and austerity. This simple inquisitive yogic path is what I feel, the Buddha originally intended for us to follow. He was one of the original secularists. He reportedly forewarned us not to deify him or any other person, even one with supposed “magical” qualities. He did not want us to form a religion, to write down and encode any of his teachings, all were committed to memory. He insisted that we not make any images of him as this religiousity would posit the mind to seek refuge in something- doctrine, a person outside of oneself. I believe that he would be exceedingly unhappy with the religion and religiosity that we created worldwide in his name, and I don’t think it is serving us, but rather creates a container of false monasticism, child abuse, spiritual codependency and the exploitation of vulnerable students that is often housed under the edifice of modern Buddhism.

Unfortunately, with all of the recent reductionism, deconstructionism, cultural conflicts, power differentials of Lamaism, and outright scandals and abuse that have been revealed in Tibetan Buddhism and Buddhism as a whole over the past few years, I believe that we are in danger of losing the original, powerful, transformative, simple meditation and then more complex and sophisticated yogic methods that are precious in essence and efficacy. To preserve the latter, the invitation for me now is to look inward, invest in real inner gnosis, devoid of concept, even sutra and tantra and to me, this is what is defined as being a Buddhist. It may be high time to distill all efforts and sever culture trappings to reconnect to his original, wholesome intent. May it be so, and David-Neel does a excellent job of helping us to see this culture and tradition as she did, with fresh eyes and inscrutable hearts.

2 thoughts on “Review: Magic and Mystery in Tibet- Alexandra David-Neel

  1. I feel a strong soul kinship with this woman, I was born 41 days after she died and we have very oddly similar parallels and synchronicities. She was born, October 24, 1868, I was born October 18, 1969, and we had so many of the same experiences, kind of uncanny, maybe there is some truth to “soul families,” or similar spirits? We discussed this here:



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