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Some Observations Concerning Ippolito Desideri, S.J. - A Well Known European Tibetologist Who Lived in Tibet from 1716 to 1721

Elaine Robson

As a youth Ippolito Desideri, who was born in Italy in 1684, set his sights on going to Tibet. He was Catholic in religious belief and trained for the priesthood. His aspirations for the people of Tibet were very similar to those who possess a strong Bodhicitta motivation.
A Catholic Jesuit mission had been opened in Western Tibet, in Tsaparang, many years earlier in 1624. Despite the enthusiastic patronage of the King of Guge it had been forced to close in 1641 due to changing political circumstances.

Desideri The Explorer
In 1741 Desideri set off from Delhi in North India with his superior [Rev. M. Freyre] to try and find Tsaparang. Unfortunately they followed a very difficult and indirect route via Lahore and Srinagar in Kashmir. Eventually they arrived at Leh the capital of Ladakh. Here Freyre decided he had had enough of high mountains and frostbite. He set himself the task of returning to India by a different route as soon as he could. He gave up all thought of trying to reopen the Jesuit mission in Tsaparang.
Despite earnest pleas from the King of Ladakh to remain in Leh and open a mission there, Freyre (accompanied by a reluctant Desideri) set off for Lhasa. He had heard that he could return to India from there.
After seven extremely dangerous and difficult months they finally reached the capital of Tibet. 'Freyre left for India as soon as he was strong enough to travel again. But Desideri decided to stay on in Lhasa and
"continued his study of the Tibetan language from morning to night, only stopping to drink tea."

A Royal Welcome
The political ruler of Tibet at that time was Lhasang Khan. Desideri found himself very warmly welcomed by Lhasang Khan and his officials. They were very curious about his religious beliefs and asked many questions. He was then requested to prepare himself for a debate with some of the leading scholars of the day. He was asked to talk about Buddhism and to say clearly where his ideas differed from theirs and why. In order to prepare for the debate he was sent to Sera Monastery to study the Kangyur and the Tengyur.
Desideri The Scholar
Sadly the debate never took place as Lhasang Khan and his officials were assassinated in December of 1717 by their political rivals in the Dzungar uprising. Desideri fled the instability of Lhasa and travelled 8 days to the province of Takpo Kheir. There he continued his research into Tibetan Buddhism and wrote hundreds of pages in Tibetan explaining his conclusions. He also translated the Lam rim into Italian.
The interaction between himself and the learned professors and doctors of the day seems to have been one of mutual respect and stimulation. They appreciated his genuineness and sincerity, and he welcomed their search for truth and willingness to discuss religious philosophy.

Desideri The Man
Despite his strong convictions, which he did not hesitate to express, he appears to have been a gracious considerate man. He had many genuine Tibetan friends, especially amongst the ruling authorities and lamas. In fact he was so accepted in Tibet that he was invited to spend the rest of his life there. He was given his own house at the foot of the Potala. Desideri would have been very happy to stay. Before leaving his homeland he said he was prepared to die in Tibet. But tragically this great scholar was forced to leave the country. This was not by the Tibetans but by some fellow Europeans who were Catholics, but belonged to a different order (the Capuchins). They considered Tibet to be "their" area and did not want a Jesuit living there. After five years Desideri had no choice but to leave Tibet. He made his way slowly to the border of Nepal carrying his extensive Tibetan manuscripts with him. He did not feel that the Capuchins would be able to understand what he had written. Later he returned to Italy where he died of pneumonia in Rome aged only 48.
Desideri's manuscripts were only discovered in Italy just over 100 years ago. They were found amongst some papers in the home of an Italian gentleman who had died in Desideris hometown of Pistoja.
I don't know if any copies of Desideri's work remain in Tibet but I did hear a rumour that some scholars at the Kumbum Monastery know about his writings.

A Brief Analysis Of Some Of Desideri's Thoughts
This section will be dealt with in more detail in the seminar. His main concern was that the lack of a primary cause in Tibetan Buddhist thinking caused the doctrine of sunyata to be seriously flawed. To Desideri, the primary cause was a self-existent Being who does not depend on any cause, but is Himself the first cause of everything there is.
It is remarkable that a foreigner should have learnt enough Tibetan in only five years to have written so extensively and cogently about Tibetan Buddhism.
His Tibetan writings will provide scholars with a field of research for a long time to come.


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