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  • Desideri's Understanding of Emptiness
  • Enzo Gualtiero Bargiacchi

The works of Ippolito Desideri (1684–1733)1 lay forgotten in the archives for a very long time;2 had they been studied, European studies of Tibet and Buddhism would have begun a century earlier. The partial publication of his Relazione in 1904 was not enough to make scholars of Buddhism interested in the subject and resulted only a modest enthusiasm in the geographical and anthropological fields.3 Later the Swedish geographer and explorer Sven Hedin (1865–1952) stated that Desideri "had accomplished a journey which ought to make his name forever famous,"4 and also that "by far the greatest part of Desideri's narrative is a description of the cult and religion of the Tibetans, which is not less admirable than the geographical part."5 But it was yet another geographer and explorer, Filippo De Filippi (1869–1938), who made available the Jesuit missionary's work by publishing an English version of the Relazione6 in 1932. Charles Oldham recognized that "there will no longer be any excuse for the ignorance and misconceptions regarding Desideri, to which Cornelis Wessels and De Filippi have drawn such pointed attention."7

In reality, however, Desideri's work would still be awarded inadequate consideration for some time, apart from the generous praise of Giuseppe Tucci, which appeared exclusively in Italian articles and books, and of a few other scholars of Buddhism. This continued even after the critical edition of the Relazione and letters, expertly edited by Luciano Petech,8 despite the prestigious reputation of this academic and the ISMEO, the institute directed by Tucci that sponsored the series; very little attention was also paid to the translations by Saverian missionary Giuseppe Toscano9 (1911–2003) of Desideri's works in the Tibetan language.10 Around the turn of the millennium academics such as Donald Lopez, Rudolf Kaschewsky, and Martin Brauen began to pay closer attention to Desideri's work.

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the Jesuit missionary's work, as shown by the panel "Buddhism in the Writings of Ippolito Desideri" at the Fifteenth Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies (Atlanta, 23–28 June 2008), as well as two fundamental events concerning it; now Michael Sweet is completing the new English edition and translation of the Relazione.11

Even today Desideri's writings can still provide academics in various disciplines with useful material for reflection, and not only in historical terms. As far as Tibetan religion is concerned, Desideri extensively discussed many important topics, in the Relazione and in his works in Tibetan, with considerable interpretative skill. [End Page 101] Unfortunately, none of this information reached the scholarly community, with the exception of a few rough ideas.12

Roy Andrew Miller13 has pointed out his correct interpretation of the mantra oṁmaṇi padme hūṁ; more recently Rudolf Kaschewsky has maintained that Desideri's excellent linguistic analysis of this mantra "may mark the memorable beginning of Tibetology in the West."14 But the most surprising result is without doubt his perfect understanding of the Buddhist concept of emptiness. Tucci states that

Some aspects of Tibetan theology are very difficult to understand: for example, the concept of Ton pa gni—insubstantiality of all phenomenal things—in which, following the ancient mystical tendencies of the Mahayana, Buddhists dissolve all appearance and illusion, men and things, inexistent and unreal like a dream or mirage. Even today very few Westerners are able to attain a perfect understanding of the depth of this doctrine. It is therefore amazing how Desideri, with no knowledge of Indian philosophy, was able to grasp the real meaning of these difficult ideas.15

Let us define here the reasons for this discovery and consider its profound meaning.

Desideri certainly possessed remarkable linguistic and logical-philosophical aptitude, and he had honed and developed these skills during the challenging studies typical of Jesuit schools. He was furthermore assisted by a tenacious and heroic determination to fulfill his mission, but one of the decisive factors in explaining the reasons for his cognitive success lies in the complete honesty of his approach, as a man and a priest convinced of...


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