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  • The Holy Trinity in Ippolito Desideri's Ke ri se ste aṇ kyi chos lugs kyi snying po
  • Trent Pomplun

On April 10, 1716, Ippolito Desideri, a Jesuit who had but recently arrived in Tibet, wrote a long letter to another Jesuit missionary, Ildebrando Grassi, who was stationed in Mysuru, India. Desideri recounted his adventures since the two men had last been together, three and a half years earlier, at the Jesuit residence in Goa. He told of his travels to Surat, Delhi, Lahore, Leh, and Lhasa, and recalled his first impressions of Tibetan religion and culture. Tibetans, he told Grassi, were gentle and docile, but coarse and uncultivated. In Desideri's opinion, they had neither arts nor sciences, but they did reject the doctrine of transmigration and appeared to have some knowledge of the Christian faith.1 "Here is what I learned about the Tibetans' religion," he wrote,

They call God könchok (dkon mchog), and they appear to have some notion of the adorable Trinity, for at times they call Him könchok chik (dkon mchog gcig), that is, the One God, and at other times they call Him könchok sum (dkon mchog gsum), that is, the Triune God. They also use a kind of chaplet, over which they repeat the words Oṁ ah hūṁ, and they say that the word Oṁ signifies knowledge or an arm, that is, power; ah is the word, and hūṁ is the heart, or love, and that these three words mean God. They also worship a being named Padmasaṃbhava, who was born some seven hundred years ago. When asked if he were God or man, some people replied that he was both God and man, having neither father nor mother, but having been born from a flower. Even so, they have statues representing a woman with a flower in her hand, whom they call Padmasaṃbhava's mother, and they venerate several others whom they treat as saints. In their churches, one finds an altar covered with cloth and ornaments, and a sort of tabernacle sits in the middle of the altar, where they say Padmasaṃbhava dwells, though they also assert that he is in heaven.2

This letter, which survives only in a French translation, is noteworthy if only because Ippolito Desideri would later repudiate almost everything he affirmed in it. In a matter of months, the Jesuit missionary would change his mind about Tibetans' capacities for art, for science, and for culture. He would also change his mind considerably about their religion. [End Page 117]

Perhaps the most significant change—and one that would later play a large role in his legal battle with the Capuchins for control of the Tibetan mission—concerned the knowledge that Tibetans had of the Holy Trinity, the central Christian mystery that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In what follows, I would like to explore Ippolito Desideri's explanation of the Holy Trinity, especially in the Ke ri se ste aṇ kyi chos lugs kyi snying po (The Essence of Christian Doctrine). I will briefly situate Desideri's account of Tibetans' knowledge of the Trinity in the general historical and theological context of the early modern missions, outline his various attempts to explain this central Christian mystery in Tibetan, and offer some tentative speculations on the Jesuit's motives for choosing certain Tibetan terms. I hope this discussion of Desideri's treatment of the Holy Trinity might contribute to Christian theologians and Buddhist philosophers who are engaged in interreligious dialogue and assist them in their reflections about how best to translate their respective faiths in such dialogue. Desideri's translations are not always perspicacious—as we shall see—but they are instructive, especially to the extent that they show us the issues that must be considered when anyone wishes to translate the basic terms of his own religion into an alien language. With this difficulty in mind, we might also consider the inadequacy of all language, human or angelic, when confronted with the mystery of God's infinite transcendence.

Ippolito Desideri in Context

Before addressing Desideri's translations, I would like to point out that the description of Tibetan religion...


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