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  • The Devil's Stratagem or Human Fraud:Ippolito Desideri on the Reincarnate Succession of the Dalai Lama
  • Michael J. Sweet

The institution of the Dalai Lama and the narrative of his reincarnate succession have become so familiar in the course of the past few decades as to seem almost unremarkable. But, let us imagine hearing the story of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama's succession for the first time: the prophecies of his dying predecessor, the cryptic words of the state oracle, dreams, omens, a mummy turning its head and a fungus growing on a pillar (both indicating the direction of the birthplace of the new incarnation), visions in a sacred lake, and finally the discovery and recognition of a remarkable child who gives incontrovertible evidence of remembering his past life,2 followed by his enthronement and veneration as a virtual god-king—some people will take this story as a factual report, others will find it a captivating fairy tale,3 while still others would dismiss it as a sham. The process of reincarnate succession is unique to what Ippolito Desideri called "the false and most singular religious sect found in Tibet. . . . this hodgepodge of bizarre dogmas which make up a religious monstrosity unlike any other religion in the world that I know of,"4 and in the shock of first encounter it has appeared either miraculous, fraudulent, or diabolical to many outsiders who heard about it through the middle twentieth century, before Tibet was forcibly incorporated into China, when it could still be viewed as a remote and mysterious theocratic kingdom.5 The reception of the reincarnate succession narrative in the West, in China, and elsewhere certainly warrants a full-length treatment. Here I will focus on a small aspect of this subject, namely, how this narrative was received by one exceptional individual, the Italian Jesuit missionary Ippolito Desideri (1684–1733). In describing his understanding of reincarnate succession, applied in particular to the case of the Dalai Lama, I hope to illuminate Desideri's struggle in engaging with Tibetan Buddhism, caught as he was between acceptance and even enthusiasm for many aspects of Tibetan culture and religious life and his unswerving commitment to the faith and doctrine of the Catholic Reformation; the motive for all of his trials and labors in the Tibet mission was a burning desire to win the imperiled souls of the Tibetans for Christ. [End Page 131]

Reincarnate succession has a long history in Tibet. Almost five hundred years before Desideri's sojourn, the Franciscan William of Rubruck (ca. 1220–after 1257) mentioned hearing of a boy who was less than three years old "yet was fully capable of rational thought; he said of himself that he was in his third incarnation, and he knew how to read and write."6 William, whose journey (1253–1255) to the court of the Mongol great khan Mönke occurred not very long after the institution of incarnate lamas originated in Tibet,7 was the first to introduce the figure of the infant tulku [incarnate lama] as child prodigy, which we will encounter subsequently.

Aside from this one early reference, the subject truly surfaced for the first time in Athanasius Kircher's 1667 China Illustrata;8 the section dealing with Tibet was based on the account given to him by the German Jesuit Johannes Grüber, who had briefly visited Lhasa in 1661.9 Kircher's depiction of Tibet is a second- or third-hand mishmash of misinformation, fantasy, and the barest minimum of fact. The Dalai Lama is presented as a demonically inspired antipope: "He is worshiped like a divinity . . . They kiss his feet with incredible veneration, as if he were the Pope . . . by this the deceitfulness of the evil spirit is wondrously shown, for the veneration due only to . . . the Pope of Rome is transferred to the heathen worship of savage nations, like all the other mysteries of Christianity."10 Kircher here resorts to the principle of diabolical plagiarism, originating in early Christian apologetics, to explain the perceived resemblances of Tibetan practices and institutions to those of Roman Catholicism.11 However, he regarded the Dalai Lama's succession as a purely human deception in which a...


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