Some Observations Concerning
Ippolito Desideri, S.J. - A Well Known European Tibetologist Who
Lived in Tibet from 1716 to 1721
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
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
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
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
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
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 Desideri¡¯s 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
It is remarkable that a foreigner should have learnt enough Tibetan
in only five years to have written so extensively and cogently about
His Tibetan writings will provide scholars with a field of research
for a long time to come.