Alexandra David-Néel

Spiritual Icon, Feminist, Anarchist

A new look at the inner life of the founder of Modern Buddhism in the West.
—Herve Giraud, Buddhist Chronicle

Marion Dapsance’s new biography of the French exploratrice extraordinaire Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969) breaks the mold of the many previous studies of this renowned historical figure.

How was it that David-Neel was revered as a great Buddhist by so many artists and intellectuals – including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Alan Watts?

Celebrated in her native France as a major spiritual icon of the 20th century, a fearless adventurer, bringer of Buddhism to the West, erudite chronicler and author of over 40 books, she undertook a spiritual journey that was far more nuanced and complex than publicly portrayed.

Dapsance’s book delves deep into David-Néel’s writings to rediscover her real message. Far from adopting Buddhism, she is revealed as a staunch materialist, hostile to all forms of religion. We follow her journey from Catholic convert to Protestantism, to her obsession with late 19th-century esotericism, and finally to nihilism and anarchism. It was only after decades in the Far East that she invented her own belief system, which she called Buddhist Modernism.

This story shows how her free-thinking independence is the true source of the myth of the intrepid journalist-orientalist, the “lamp of wisdom,” the “woman with soles of wind.”

Marion Dapsance

Marion Dapsance holds a PhD in Anthropology from the École Pratique des Hautes Études at the Sorbonne, Paris. She has taught the History of Buddhism in the West at Columbia University, New York and courses in Anthropology, Methodology, Buddhism, and Intercultural Relations at the Catholic University in Paris. Currently an associate Professor at Unicervantès in Bogota, Colombia, she is the author of several books and articles on Modern Buddhism.

Who was Alexandra David Neel?
A Brief Story of a Buddhist Anarchist

By Marion Dapsance

This article first appeared in Buddhistdoor

Alexandra David-Neel (1868–1969), a French traveler and a prolific writer, is variously celebrated for being “the first Buddhist in France,” “a fearless explorer,” “the first Western woman to reach Lhasa,” “a mystic,” “a great sage,” “a bridge between Tibet and the West,” and “a White lama.” Although not entirely untrue, many of those appellations tend toward the mythological rather than the historical and it is therefore worthwhile to ask the question, in what sense was David-Neel a Buddhist?

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 An Adventurer in Tibet

A film by the European Arte TV network on David-Neel’s life

Watch on YouTube
(In French with English subtitles)

The First Buddhist in Paris

By Marion Dapsance

Eclectic Buddhism, a French Fin-de-Siècle Eccentricity

In 1912, when she met with the 13th Dalai Lama in Kalimpong, the renowned French explorer Alexandra David-Neel introduced herself as “the first Buddhist in Paris.” She insisted that nobody in France before her had ever practiced meditation nor even adopted Buddhist principles in their daily lives. Obviously, Buddhism had been studied in texts by several Sorbonne professors and their students. France had even produced many great linguists, such as Eugène Burnouf and Sylvain Lévi, but what had they done, really? Dissect Sanskrit roots, said the former opera singer, who ended her career to become a famous writer specialized in all things Asian. She, on the other hand, was a practicing Buddhist and, as such, she was pleased to meet with the Dalai Lama on an (almost) equal footing.    What Alexandra David-Neel actually thought of the Dalai Lama and of his religion is a more complicated issue…

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TitleAlexandra David-Néel
Spiritual Icon, Feminist, Anarchist
SizeTrade paperback, 6 x 9 in (15.24 x 22.86 cm)
List PricesUS: $18.95; UK £14.95; EU €16.95
PublishedNovember 15. 2021
FeaturesBlack & White
BISACNonfiction > Biography & Autobiography > Adventurers & Explorers
Nonfiction > Biography & Autobiography > Cultural Heritage