Immortality & Reincarnation

Immortality & Reincarnation: Wisdom from the Forbidden Journey, by Alexandra David-Neel, Rochester: Inner Traditions, 1997, originally published in French by Editions de Rocher, Paris, 1978.



I highly recommend this book. It is one of the best written by this unusual and very knowledgeable author. It gives ample information about beliefs and facts on reincarnation in China, Tibet and India. I will focus with my quotes on China, the Scholarly Taoist body of wisdom as this is my primary field of interest and religious practice. (See my site,

In accordance with my review philosophy, I am not going to paraphrase the author, for my knowledge on the matter is minor if not non-existent compared with the ample knowledge of the author, which is why I have taken quotes that ‘speak for themselves’ and present them, as usual, below.

Alexandra David-Neel
Alexandra David-Neel

About the Author

“To the one who knows how to look and feel, every moment of this free wandering life is an enchantment,” wrote Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969). Her inclination for travel and her attraction to spirituality led her into Lhasa, Tibet’s forbidden city in 1924. The first Western woman to ever visit, she returned to the West with what she’d learned of the philosophies and religions of the East. Well outside any ordinary walk of life, she’d traveled widely and captured the enlightenment she found along the way in her writings. Her extraordinary life that lasted, incredibly, 101 years.

From a very young age, David-Néel’s restless spirit encouraged her to take trips and to bravely challenge the conventions of her time. As a child, it’s said, she spent much of her time in museums, where she studied Eastern arts and religions, and this inevitably lead her to Buddhism, the religion she practiced for a good part of her life. In her youth, David-Néel also studied Sanskrit and Eastern philosophy at the Sorbonne. At age 23, after receiving a small inheritance, she embarked on her first trip to India. She lived there for some time in a center for Theosophical studies near Madras, where she continued her studies of Sanskrit and became familiar with the ancient practice of yoga.

Having spent all her money, David-Néel traveled back to Belgium (where her family lived) and, to sustain herself, decided to study music at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. Having become a professional opera singer, her work with the Hanoi Opera Company drew her back to the world she loved so much: the Orient. Another trip, as a singer, drew her to Tunisia, where she worked as the musical director of the casino where she met the millionaire Philip Néel. She married him at age 36, and the two remained together for seven years.

Although he would financially support her until his death, David-Néel separated from her husband in 1911. It was then that she returned to India where she would remain for 14 years. During this time she became the disciple of a Buddhist monk and lived in a cave for two years. Her knowledge of Sanskrit continued to open doors, but beyond that, she would also have to learn Tibetan and even some esoteric techniques like the tumo, a form of meditation for generating body heat under extreme conditions. During her years in India, David-Néel adopted Aphur Yongden, a 14-year-old servant, with whom she would travel to many countries in Asia over the years. On one of her many trips to Japan, she met a monk who had managed to enter Lhasa posing as a Chinese doctor. Based on this meeting, David-Néel began to plan her own trip to the Tibetan capital.

In 1924, at 56 years of age, David-Néel colored her face with charcoal, braided her hair (posing as the servant of Aphur) and finally entered Lhasa. It was thus that she became the first Western woman to enter the place which had been entirely forbidden to foreigners. She stayed for two months until the British government discovered her and she was expelled.

—Taken from here.


—The idea of ceasing to exist is odious and horribly painful to every individual. No matter how low his station in life, the individual longs with all his might to endure for a long time, to live on indefinitely and eternally. /Preface, viii

—The problem of eternal life is intimately linked to the ego. It is evident that the idea one has of the ego and the manner in which its mental representation has been fashioned dictate the conceptions of which modes of duration are applicable to it. /Preface, viii

—Taoism does not envision a veritable beginning of the universe, an absolute commencement. Our world is nothing but a mode, a phase of ‘Existence in Itself,’ the Tao, which no word can describe nor any thought comprehend. The beginning of our world is located in the chaos from which all emerged originally and to which everything will be integrated anew. Chaos exists periodically. Intervals of inconceivable duration separate the periods in which the world exists from those in which it dissolves back into chaos. A latent energy exists within this chaos: respiration. Exhalation, or breath, creates all that exists. If one doesn’t fear to employ a rather singular phraseology it could be said that the world, emanating from chaos, has been ‘breathed’ into the void. /1-2

—These energy-breaths contained within chaos are mirrored in movement. They divide and combine while passing from a purely subtle state to one that gradually becomes more and more material. The more subtle substances rise and form the sky, while those that have attained a state of gross matter descend and form the earth. It is from these inferior breaths that man is made. /2

—These breaths are not inert. They possess their own form of vitality. However, that which truly animates the human body is a pure breath (with no extraneous elements) emanating directly from the Tao. Through embodiment, this pure breath blends with teh grosser elements that constitute the material substance of the body. It is the separation from this superior breath from these grosser elements that causes death. /Id.

—None of the constituent elements of the individual assemblage is intrinsically immortal. The man who is infatuated with immortality most create his own. There has never been a Taoist conception of an immortal principle separate from the physical body. Therefore, the objective is to make the body immortal since it is this immortal body that will continue to serve as a habitation for the spirit. Such an undertaking is arduous, but the ancient Taoists believed themselves capable of pursuing it to good effect as long as they persevered in their efforts. /2-3

—Like genies, the Immortals would promenade in the guise of ordinary individuals, and only those endowed with superior faculties of clairvoyance were capable of recognizing them. /4

—According to Taoists, the individual contains within his body several souls. These include three superior souls: the houen and seven inferior souls: the p’o. These souls can be considered individual entities that enjoy a more or less independent existence and are not immaterial, though composed of a substance that is more subtle than that which makes up the body. At the death of an individual, these different souls disperse without ceasing to exist. /6

—One law governs the world. All life, which presents itself differently to each of us, is essentially one. This very same doctrine is taught today by those rare Taoist teachers that it is still possible to encounter. /11

—One must be vigilant [according to Taoism] to prevent the entrance of malevolent or dangerous guests. (…) The most malefic of these guests are three in number and are known as the three cadavers or the three worms. They install themselves in the body before birth. (…) These undesirable fellow lodgers are destroyed by following an appropriate diet, consisting primarily of abstaining from grains. [Note: According to the Chinese: wheat, barley, millet, rice, peas, and beans]. Meat, wine, all strong drink, garlic, and onions are also prohibited. This diet must be followed by a great number of years. (…) It is only after one has killed the three worms that gnaw on certain bodily organs, with the aid of various dietary abstentions, that one can begin the superior diet of ‘feeding on air.’ This diet consists of assimilating the vital energy in which the world bathes. In this manner one develops ‘embryonic breathing,’ which is analogous to teh cosmic respiration that gave birth to and sustains the world. /12-13

—The result of this embryonic breathing is a transformation of the material substance of the body that begins to take effect gradually. The body becomes more subtle, more durable, and finally capable of resisting all causes of destruction. /13

—Embryonic breathing is developed through progressively exercising the capacity to hold one’s breath. First, you must know how to breathe deeply—‘down the heels,’ as the Taoists say. Then, the inhaled air must not remain stationary. It must be made to circulate throughout all the various parts of the body, following a highly detailed itinerary that prescribes the time it should rest in the principal vital centers, located respectively in the brain, the heart, and the lower abdomen. /13

—The tissues of the body, traversed by this circulation of air, are imbued with the living fluid that it transports, which they then digest and assimilate. At the same time, the strength of this current carries away the noxious spirits and the enemy gods that have penetrated the body. Thus a new, indestructible body is formed inside the body. /13

—The exercises of breath retention should not be practiced at a time or place chosen at random. A high place in the mountains, far removed from human habitation, and in teh morning at dawn are indicated as being favorable to these exercises. One must inhale through the nose with the mouth completely shut, whereas one exhales very gently between lips that are clenched, leaving only a slight opening. /14

—The awakening of embryonic breathing is the departure point of a movement named ‘the return to the root’ or ‘the return to life’ and was taught by Lao-tzu. When this embryonic breathing is set in motion, a feeling of joy fills every cell of the entire body and sends a clear and luminous breath climbing up to the crown of the head in such a way that the senses also become greatly illuminated. Next, this breath dissolves into the spirit, and the Taoist begins his alchemy by preparing the elixir of life within that will make him suitable for immortality. /15

—When the human being leaves the womb, the primal mind dwells in the little spot located between the eyes, but the conscious spirit resides beneath the heart. This heart is dependent upon the outside world. /20

—The fundamental doctrine of Taoism is that of non-action. This is what is most plainly exhibited in the Tao Te Ching and the teachings based on that work.*

—The Taoist meditation is a non-meditation. It doesn’t propose any subject or investigation on which to focus. /24

* See, for example, Peter Fritz Walter, The Tao Te Ching / Dao De Ging. (Includes Audio). See also the Audible Audiobook.

Categories Taoism
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