Jeanne Mascolo de Filippis “Alexandra David-Neel's trip to Lhasa bears witness to tremendous moral strength. »

- through Francois Leclercq

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A free spirit, Alexandra David-Neel was one of the first Buddhists in France. This committed woman went after her dreams by surveying the Himalayas and being the first Westerner to enter Lhasa, Tibet. Interview with Jeanne Mascolo de Filippis, author and director who has just dedicated a biography to her.

Why twenty-five years after the filming of your documentary, broadcast on France 2 in 1993, return again to the figure of Alexandra David-Neel by devoting a biography to her?

It was the Paulsen publishers who asked me to do this book for their Texts and Images collection on the occasion of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Alexandra David-Neel, who was the greatest explorer of the XNUMXth century. At the age when an official retirement is taking shape, it was, for me, a way of closing the loop by returning to a subject that has carried me for adolescence.

There is in you, as in Alexandra David-Neel, a passion for travel and an impossibility to stay put...

I have been defending Alexandra body and soul for many decades, perhaps in part because of her irrepressible attraction to other places and her very pronounced taste for movement and the terrain.

When and how did this fascination for the Himalayas arise in her?

His first trips took place in Europe and then in North Africa. She will often say that she found, afterwards, in the Himalayas, in the majestic grandeur of its landscapes, her impressions of the solitudes of North Africa and the Atlas. This North Africa that she traveled for a long time and where she met, in Tunisia in 1900, her husband, Philippe Neel de Saint-Sauveur. Alexandra is curious about places like the people who live there. When she encounters the Himalayas, she feels a real call. She begins by traveling to India where she goes in search of the origins of Hinduism and Buddhism, then to Ceylon. This woman, who strives to understand the meaning of our presence on earth, is seduced by the art of living and the feeling of harmony that emerges from these peoples of the Himalayas and by their unique ability to give meaning to their life. She finds herself caught up in the Himalayas also because she meets Tibetan Buddhist masters there, from whom she finds answers to her existential questions.

Under what circumstances does she encounter Buddhism?

She met him in Europe at the end of the 1889th century. It was at this time that Émile Guimet founded the eponymous museum on the banks of the Seine. He will utter a sentence that will mark Alexandra David-Neel: “To understand Buddhism, you must have a Buddhist soul”. She likes to say that it is there, in this museum which has just opened in Paris in XNUMX, that her vocation was born. Émile Guimet then organized, almost every month, at a time when Buddhism was very fashionable, Buddhist ceremonies and rituals.

What were his Buddhist practices?

She lived as a hermit, an anchorite, in Sikkim, a state in northern India, at an altitude of 4000 meters, for two to three years, at the feet of Lachen Gomchen Rinpoche, this tantric master who was very recognized at the time. . It was with her master that she deepened her knowledge. It was this man, whom she consulted regularly, who taught her the self-control practices and rituals of Tibetan yogis. In particular, she learned from him the practice of Toumo, which makes it possible to face both physical pain and extreme climatic conditions. She is a Buddhist first and foremost, because this philosophy appeals to her and helps her to live.

What does this fierce desire to violate prohibitions by entering Lhasa in Tibet mean?

Only a few people were authorized, at the time, to enter Lhasa. The rest of Tibet is accessible. Scientific expeditions go there regularly. It is forbidden, on the other hand, to enter it from Sikkim, unless one has an official authorization issued by the British. Failing to obtain it, Alexandra David-Neel was expelled from Sikkim twice. She is an anarchist and a committed woman whose mentor and spiritual guide Élisée Reclus, this citizen of the world, libertarian militant and non-violent anarchist. She is a free woman who does not support taboos.

She finds herself caught up in the Himalayas also because she meets Tibetan Buddhist masters there, from whom she finds answers to her existential questions.

She is not the only one to feel this fascination. Victor Segalen will also write an ode to Tibet, to this mythical Tibet and to this city of Lhasa which makes many Europeans dream. Then germinates in her the idea, in 1918, at the age of 50, to achieve a feat that no one has ever accomplished. Her trip to Lhasa, which she would enter in 1924, at the age of 56, was a physical feat for a woman of her age. He also testifies to his formidable moral strength which allows him to transcend all trials. Alexandra is an ambitious woman. This feat will also satisfy his fierce desire to be known.

During her life, she made amazing encounters, including that of the XNUMXth Dalai Lama in exile in Kalimpong…

She was indeed the first Westerner to meet the XNUMXth Dalai Lama, the predecessor of the current temporal and spiritual leader of Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso. She presents herself to him as one of the first Buddhists in France. This one will say to her while laughing: "If you claim to be a Buddhist, madam, you must learn Tibetan". It is this meeting that will lead her, thereafter, to her master, Lachen Gomchen Rinpoche, in Sikkim and to learn Tibetan on the spot and by following courses at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes and at the Sorbonne. Thanks to Alexandra, this is the first time the Western world has heard of the Dalai Lama.

Is there a connection between your biography of Alexandra David Neel and your documentary The childhood of a master, which recounts the extraordinary destiny of Kalou Rinpoche, both released in the fall of 2018?

I shot a large part of the documentary on Alexandra David-Neel in Sikkim. It was during this shoot, in 1992, that I first met this young Tulku, born in 1990 in Darjeeling, who is the reincarnation, recognized by the Dalai Lama, of a great Tibetan master who died in 1989 When I first filmed him, he was 18 months old. After this shoot, I made a film, The llama child, on its history. I then had the chance and the unique opportunity to follow Kalu Rinpoche intermittently over a period of twenty-five years. It is the life of this Little Buddha, who has become a young adult, his questions, his doubts, his journey that tells this film co-directed with Bruno Vienne

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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