Ippolito Desideri:
Pioneer in the Tibetan Buddhist-Christian Dialogue


The Italian Jesuit, Ippolito Desideri, ten months after leaving Kashmir, arrived in Lhasa on March 18, 1716. There he continued his study of the Tibetan language, translated a book he had written on Christian beliefs into Tibetan verse, and presented it to the king, and thus secured the claim to being a pioneer in the Tibetan Buddhist-Christian dialogue. But this was just the beginning of his efforts. With the encouragement of the king and the king’s monastic advisors he went on to try to master the philosophical and religious subtleties of the Tibetan language, and, as perhaps the first westerner, studied among the monks at Sera Monastery. His goal was to compose in Tibetan a work he called The Essence of Christian Perfection. Unfortunately, war overtook the country soon after, and the king was killed. Lhasa became unsafe, and Desideri withdrew to a place eight days travel away where he continued to work on his treatise. He was to remain in Tibet until 1721 when he was recalled when the mission area was given to the Capuchins.

The Essence of Christian Perfection has two parts. The first, which interests us here, is cast in the form of a debate with the Tibetan idea of emptiness against which it advances the Christian idea of God. The second part sets forth Christian beliefs in the form of a dialogue between master and disciple.

Among Tibetan doctrines emptiness has been the most difficult for Desideri to grasp. He tells us how he struggled to understand it at Sera. He asked one of the doctors there to explain it to him, but the doctor claimed he didn’t understand it, himself. Finally, after much mental effort and prayer, Desideri felt that he had made a breakthrough. This understanding was vital to him because it seemed to him that the Tibetan view of emptiness served "to exclude and absolutely deny the existence of any uncreated and independent being, and thus effectually to do away with any conception of God." (An Account of Tibet, p. 105)

He summarizes the Tibetan teaching on emptiness as follows: "Things are conceived as non-existent and devoid of any self… Nothing exists because nothing has any essence by itself, and therefore nothing exists which is not… unconnected, unfettered and without correlativity." The soul who arrives at this insight "is convinced that it has no existence, the principle and fundamental root of any passions which is the attractive and pernicious phantasm… or I, ceases to exist." (Ibid., p. 249) Desideri complains that even in the most sublime contemplation the Tibetans "loose themselves in elaborate and futile subtilizations, pretending that man disappears, even to himself, and that to a cleansed and purified mind all things vanish, and that nothing exists." (Ibid., p. 299)

In the first part of The Essence of Christian Perfection Desideri advances philosophical arguments for the existence of God as an independent being originating from Himself and independent of others, and thus in opposition to the Tibetan idea of emptiness. He writes:

"If we examine honestly the Tibetan religious books we will not find in them partiality, animosity, nor intolerance.

But they

  1. teach that there does not exist any being which originated from itself.
  2. they affirm all things exist only insofar as they depend on others…

If it is true that all things exist only insofar as they depend on others, and there does not even exist one thing which originates from itself, then they ought to admit that all things are like the reflection of the moon that I see very clearly in a lake.

Now I propose to demonstrate the weak point of these considerations in the following way:

  1. There really is the reflection of the moon in the water
  2. There is not able to be a true figure of the moon in the water which is not a reflection of the moon which is in the sky

Therefore your two affirmations are contradictory:

  1. All things exist only insofar as they depend on other things;
  2. An independent first being does not exist on which all things depend." (The Essence of Christian Perfection, page 157-158)

Desideri then advances a series of arguments of which we will look only at the first, which is based on the principle of causality: "If you admit these two statements, you ought also to admit by rigorous logic that an actual living being exists only because it is dependent since it is empty of being originating from itself; this signifies that without its cause it would not be able to be because it is solely dependent itself.

But its cause finds itself in the same condition, as well, as does the cause of its cause, etc., insofar as that all the beings, empty of being originating from themselves, exist only because they are interdependent." (Ibid., p. 158)

This leads to the formation of an unlimited chain of dependent being, but Desideri argues that such a chain cannot exist. If you admit, he tells us, that the road from Lhasa to India is unlimited, anyone who leaves Lhasa will never arrive in India. "In the same way if we admit that the series of causes that precede the actual living being are unlimited, it is impossible that the actual living being would be able to reached by the energy of the causes that preceded it, and therefore would not ever able to be born." ( Ibid. p. 160)

This gives us the flavor of Desideri’s kinds of arguments. Several points, however, need to be kept in mind. The above citations are translated from an Italian translation of Desideri’s Tibetan original by G. Toscano who discovered Desideri’s Tibetan manuscript in the Jesuit archives in Rome and published it in 1982. Would they sound the same if they were directly translated from the Tibetan? Robert Goss translates, presumably from the Tibetan, the lines we have quoted above: "If one examines the scriptures and the philosophical systems of Tibet with a wisdom which remains honest, without partiality, and without hatred and attachment, they (their scriptures/systems) assert that there is not even one substance established as inherently existent. They understand that all existing substances are viewed as empty, the emptiness of inherent existence itself." (Goss, p. 80) This allows us to see that another translation might give Desideri’s text a different flavor.

Desideri was a child of his time, in this case of the post-Reformation Church, and so he was not hesitant in insisting on the truth of his Catholic faith and take pleasure in combating the falsity of the Tibetan positions. This, however, did not seem to offend the Tibetans who had their own long scholastic tradition of debate, and who were eager to read his writings and argue his assertions. More importantly, Desideri assumes that the Tibetan doctrine of emptiness is a metaphysical doctrine like the arguments for the existence of God that he is advancing rather than the result of meditation. I have questioned this premise in Christianity in the Crucible of East-West dialogue.

Yet in final analysis we must admire both Desideri and his dialogue partners for entering into a debate of central issue at the very beginning of the Tibetan Buddhist - Christian dialogue and we would do well to emulate them.

Desideri, Ippolito. 1937. An Account of Tibet. The Travels of Ippolito Desideri of Pistoia, S.J., 1712-1727. Edited by Filippo de Filippi. London: George Routledge & Sons, Ltd.

Desideri, Ippolito: Opere tibetane di Ippolito Desideri. A cura di G.S.X. Toscano. Lo Snin-po (Essenza della dottrina Cristiana). 1982. Roma: Instituto Italiano per il medio ed estremo.

Goss, Robert E. 1998. "Catholic and Dge Lugs Pascholasticism" in Scholasticism: Cross-Cultural and Comparative Perspectives. State University of New York Press.