Dispelling the Darkness: A Jesuit’s quest for the soul of Tibet
Donald S. Lopez and Thupten Jinpa
Harvard University Press £23.95
Church Times Bookshop £21.55
THERE are two good stories here. The first is that of Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733), a Jesuit missionary to Tibet, famous for his Notizii Istoriche del Tibet (Historical Notices of Tibet), and even more for his epoch-making works in the Tibetan language, Inquiry concerning the Doctrines of Previous Lives and Emptiness and Essence of the Christian Religion.
He set sail from Genoa in December 1712 and arrived in 1716 in Lhasa, where his companion left him to continue his work alone. He devoted himself to the study of the Tibetan language and of Tibetan Buddhism to such good effect that within a year he presented the Khan with a description of Christianity, written in classical Tibetan.
Soon, however, the rival Capuchins, who had finally received a decree from the Propaganda Fidei in Rome assigning Tibet to them “to the exclusion of every other order”, caused him to leave in 1721 for India, where he remained for another five years, continuing his work on his two great masterpieces.
He died in Rome in 1733, and his work nearly died with him, erroneously catalogued in the Japanese section of the Jesuit Archives and rediscovered only in 1970. That is the second big story. We, and all who are interested in the Jesuits, the history of missions, Buddhism, Tibet, and the art of translation, are indebted to the authors of this sumptuous volume for translating the texts (selections from the monumental Inquiry and the whole of the more manageable Essence) into flowing English, and providing introductions both to the tragic story of Desideri and to his writings.
These are not works of comparative religion. Desideri mastered the literary styles of classical Tibetan and the thought forms of Buddhism to refute the fundamental doctrines of emptiness and of reincarnation, and to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity. His sole aim was to convert; and in this, so far as we know, he failed completely. It is unlikely that any Buddhist read him, let alone was influenced by him, in the 18th century.
By a strange irony, though, his prodigious intellectual achievement has been reborn in our day. In 2010, the Dalai Lama, the Fourteenth, mentioned Desideri in his The
Good Heart: A Buddhist perspective on the teachings of Jesus, saying, “Although he came as a missionary, . . . Desideri’s experience of immersion in Tibetan culture produced a remarkable and very early testament to inter-religious dialogue. . . I hope that one day a translation and careful study of this important document (the Inquiry) will be undertaken to make it available to a wider world.”
This hope has been amply fulfilled by this admirable work of scholarship and piety.
The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham and a former Secretary of the Board for Mission and Unity.