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  • Ippolito Desideri S.J.: Opere e Bibliografia
  • Francis V. Tiso
Ippolito Desideri S.J.: Opere e Bibliografia. By Enzo Gualterio Bargiacchi. Roma: Institutum Historicum S.I., 2007. 303 pp.

One of the great lacunae in the history of Buddhist-Christian relations has been a lack of attention to the work of missionaries who reported on Buddhist belief and practice in various parts of East and South Asia. As a result, the important work [End Page 166] of the Italian Jesuit Ippolito Desideri (1684–1733) has not received the attention it deserves. There had been centuries of missionary contact with the Buddhists of Sri Lanka, Japan, and China, but it was not until the mission of Desideri to Tibet (1716–1721) that the connection between the Buddhism of Southeast Asia and that of China and Japan could be established on the basis of Desideri’s study of Tibetan historiographical materials.

Desideri was the first European to become fluent in Tibetan, the first to understand Buddhist Mahayana scholasticism, the first to grasp the meaning of Vajrayana ritual and practice, the first to describe the political situation of Tibet, the first to engage in serious debate with Tibetan lamas, and the first to write extensively on Catholic Christianity in Tibetan. Desideri left a body of works in Tibetan that have been translated into Italian by Giuseppe Toscano, SX, and published by IsMEO during the 1980s. Yet Desideri’s greatest achievement, the translation into Latin of Je Tsong Kapa’s Lam Rim Chen Mo, seems to have been lost. Moreover, the great intellectual and spiritual accomplishments of this Jesuit missionary were not much appreciated in his own lifetime, in part because of the political situation of the Society of Jesus at that time. As a result, although the overall facts of Desideri’s life were never completely forgotten, his writings lay hidden in the Jesuit Archives at Rome at precisely the time when those engaging in contact with Asian religions would have benefited from his insights.

The author of this summary of the works of Ippolito Desideri and of the entire corpus of materials related to his oeuvre, Enzo Gualtiero Bargiacchi, is convinced that even today the works of this eighteenth-century Jesuit missionary have something to offer. I would agree with Bargiacchi, because I am equally convinced that the Desiderian project is in many ways a better model for interreligious dialogue between Christians and Buddhists than any of the more recent models that have been proposed and implemented since the Second Vatican Council. Recent essays by Trent Pomplun and Michael Sweet in Buddhist-Christian Studies (vol. 26, 2006) have shown that exchanges between missionaries and Buddhists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were more profound and more fruitful than we are inclined to believe on the basis of superficial histories of the period. It seems that, with the suppression of the Jesuits (1773–1815), a certain retrenchment in the Catholic theology of grace operating outside the confines of the Church set in, muting the vibrant speculations of theologians seeking to make theological sense of the reports of missionaries such as Desideri.

Desideri’s approach to the Buddhism of Tibet continues to challenge our own approach to interreligious dialogue. In the first place, Desideri underwent extensive linguistic, spiritual, and theological training as a young Italian Jesuit. He seems to have had unusual physical stamina and mental acuity, particularly for the study of languages. He learned Tibetan in about four months and immediately began writing a treatise, the Tho rangs, explaining Christianity to the Tibetan literati. As his Tibetan improved, he composed other, more sophisticated works in which he took up the topics on which Buddhists and Catholic Christians could agree (the contingency of the created world, the moral law) and on which they disagree (the law of karmic retribution, [End Page 167] emptiness, reincarnation, soteriology). Desideri sought to take seriously the philosophical positions of the lamas, with whom he lived and engaged in debate. He adapted his presentation of Christianity to the linguistic requirements of Tibet, and he did not hesitate to acknowledge the excellence he found in the moral character and intellectual refinement of the Tibetans. Finally, one detects a respect...