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  • Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in Ippolito Desideri
  • Trent Pomplun

Ippolito Desideri (1684–1733), a Jesuit priest and missionary who lived in Tibet from 1715 to 1721, is relatively well known among Tibetanists and historians of the Society of Jesus. Often identified as the first modern scholar of Tibetan religion and culture, Desideri traveled across Tibet's western deserts, rubbed elbows with dignitaries in the court of the Mongol chieftain Lhazang Khan, and left a fascinating account of the political events that led to the establishment of the Manchu protectorate in 1720. The Jesuit's importance in the history of Buddhist-Christian dialogue is a secret known to specialists, largely because none of his Tibetan writings have been translated into English, and his magnum opus, the immense Questions on Reincarnation and Emptiness Offered to the Scholars of Tibet by the Christian Lama Ippolito (Mgo skar bla ma i po li do shes bya ba yis phul b'ai bod kyi mkhas pa rnams la skyes pa snga ma dang stong pa nyid kyi lta ba'i sgo nes zhu ba), has neither been printed nor translated into any language. In fact, Desideri's Italian writings languished in various archives for almost two hundred years; like one of Padmasa.bhava's treasures concealed for future generations, they were unknown until the Pistoian gentleman Filippo Rossi Cassigoli discovered them in 1875. Ippolito Desideri has since undergone a series of remarkable transformations in the academic literature. British apologists for the Younghusband expedition thought him a spy, the great geographers of the early twentieth century treated him as an explorer, students of Tibetan history saw him as a historian, and Roman Catholic Tibetanists saw him as a theologian who anticipated the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. As the twentieth-century drew to a close, scholars enamored of postcolonialist studies often saw the posthumous founder of Tibetan studies as a cipher for the West's own anxious fantasies about the land of snows. Still, little genuinely historical research had been carried out on Desideri's corpus since Luciano Petech published his critical edition of the Jesuit's account in the mid 1950s. The three papers that follow, versions of which were given at the Fifteenth Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies in June 2008, are representative of the new historical research on Ippolito Desideri.

The renaissance in Desideri studies began with the work of Enzo Gualtiero Bargiacchi, an independent scholar from Desideri's birthplace, Pistoia, Italy. Bargiacchi laid the groundwork for a reappraisal of the great Jesuit in an article, "La Relazioni [End Page 97] di Ippolito Desideri fra storia locale e vicende internazionali," which appeared in the journal Storialocale: Quaderni pistoiesi di cultura moderna e contemporanea in 2003.1 This wonderful work set the stage for a series of small monographs, articles, and conference presentations that culminated in two works of great importance for Desideri studies. The first, Ippolito Desideri S.J. Opere e Bibliografia, which was published in the series Subsidia ad Historiam Societatis Iesu by the Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu in 2007, is absolutely indispensable for any scholar of Desideri.2 The second, a website devoted to Desideri (, is a goldmine for information on the Jesuit, and part of Bargiacchi's larger Progetto Desideri. Bargiacchi's essay in this issue of Buddhist-Christian Studies continues his bibliographical project by outlining the history of assessments of Desideri's views of emptiness (stong pa nyid). In it, Bargiacchi gives much-needed body to the suggestions of Giuseppe Tucci, Luciano Petech, and Giuseppe Toscano about Desideri's understanding of the fundamental Buddhist truth, and continues the eminent Italian tradition of scholarship on Desideri. It should give the reader a good feel for Bargiacchi's mastery of the materials and serve to spur them on to his other fine publications.

I have approached Desideri from a different angle in my own research. I have tried to communicate something of the complexity of Western feelings about Tibetans and their religion during Desideri's day, but also to show how one risks misunderstanding these views without a better knowledge of the theology and spirituality of the Society of Jesus. This article, part...


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