Indiana University Bloomington

The Vicar of Lhasa: An Account of a Jesuit on the Roof of the World

Elliot Ubelhor, Tibetan Studies

Written for Topics in Christianity: Catholic Controversies

Instructor: Constance Furey


“And down the loaded air there comes

The thunder of Thibetan drums,

And droned—‘Om mane padme hum’s’

A world’s-width from Kamakura.”

– Kipling, The Buddha at Kamakura


How does a person react when confronted with a new idea? Do we shun it in hopes to stay subscribed to our own world view, or do we attempt to rectify our own? At the very least one should attempt to empathize with the other party in hopes that one would be able to see where the other ideas are coming from. This juxtaposition of ideas was something that various religious orders and their subsequent missionaries faced throughout the history, including one of the most famous ones, the Catholic Society of Jesus. The Society of Jesus garnered plenty of controversy over the years, due to their abrasive missionary work and utter devotion to the Pope. However, in tandem to this, their work also opened the eyes of the European world to many places not previously known of. One such missionary who helped achieve this was Father Ippolito Desideri of Pistoia. Desideri’s tireless effort to convert Tibet and its constituents helped Europeans get a glimpse of the Tibetan plateau and its people, in a time when little was known about it. This was largely due to Desideri’s quest to understand the Tibetans and their way of life. Many missionaries in the past had discounted other civilizations as savage and beyond help, opting for forceful conversion in place of mutual understanding. Desideri, however, was not so quick to do that, and as result, he helped unlock the door to the Roof of the World.

Desideri’s story begins in the small town of Pistoia, Italy, where he was born and baptized as Ippolito Tommaso Gaspare Romolo Desideri in the year 1684 to a Pistoian patriciate (Desideri & Zwelling 15). Desideri’s mother died when he was only two years of age and his father, Iacopo Desideri, remarried to a very pious woman by the name of Maria Costanza Dragoni. Due to increased religious fervor of the house, four out of the five Desideri children would enter some form of religious service, with only one choosing to stay in the secular world and have children. Desideri would then enter Jesuit school at the age of nine, on May 12, 1693, where he would undergo a very humanistic approach to education, with an emphasis on Latin and classic literature (Desideri & Zwelling 15). It was during this time that Desideri would also learn of the many great Jesuit missionaries of the past, people such as St. Francis Xavier, “the apostle to the Indies”, Giuliano Bandinotti (a native of Pistoia) the first missionary to Vietnam, as well as Franciscan Arcangelo Carradori (another native), who was a missionary in Upper Egypt and Arabia. This religious fervor and the proximity of it to his home, would later cause Desideri to want to become a religious figure himself.

Desideri’s promise as a budding seminarian was apparent early on, when, in April of 1700, he was selected by the Jesuits of Pistoia to be sent to Rome to undergo formal training as a candidate to enter the Society of Jesus. On April 27, he entered the Society at the Church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, and on May 9 after a period of reflection, donned the habit of a novice (Desideri & Zwelling 16). The two-year period of his novitiate was a time when Desideri grew deeply entrenched in the Society of Jesus, undergoing spiritual exercises and gaining a deep sense of self-knowledge. This was also a time when a friendship would grow between Desideri and Ildebrando Grassi, a fellow Jesuit who would one day accompany Desideri on his journey to India (Desideri & Zwelling 16). After concluding his two years of study, prayer, work and contemplation, Desideri took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and official ended his time as a novitiate on April 28, 1702. Desideri then took the vows of a scholastic in order to prepare for the priesthood. Desideri would train for the next nine years for the priesthood, undergoing strict scholastic training in Rome, taking classes on philosophy, theology, and more humanities courses, and excelling as a student, being asked to preside over his logic class in just his second year. This success would lead one to think that Desideri would not be the ideal candidate for a cosmopolitan career as a missionary. Instead, it would seem better suited for him to stay in Rome, and help train the newly minted seminaries as an academic or become a high ranking bureaucrat in the Jesuit order. However, despite all his successes and promise of successes in the church as one of these roles, Desideri would choose instead to become a missionary (Desideri & Zwelling 16-7).

Scholars are unsure of why Desideri chose missionary work over other callings, but it is clear that the choice was not an easy one. In his book, Historical Notices of Tibet, Desideri writes of “an inward impulse calling me to the Indies missions (Desideri & Zwelling 17)”, while at the same time “feeling a certain and intrinsic and stubborn repugnance in my nature for so arduous and painful an enterprise (Desideri & Zwelling 17)” This struggle was severe enough that Desideri chose to withhold from completing his third year of theological study, instead choosing to take a spiritual retreat to the Holy House at Loreto, a sacred retreat house of the Virgin Mary. After completing his pilgrimage and undergoing another set of spiritual exercises, Desideri resolved to become a missionary (Desideri and Zwelling 17), writing a formal letter of application to Michaelangelo Tamburini, father general of the Jesuits, requesting to be posted to “the Indies” which, at that time, were known to encompass all of South, Southeast, and East Asia. However, Desideri would not end up in what he knew as the Indies. Instead, he would end up going to another world entirely.

Prior to Ippolito’s entry into Tibet, the Jesuits had made two previous attempts to convert the Tibetan people. Jesuit Missionary work first began under the supervision of missionary António de Andrade in 1624 at Tsaparang (Rtsa pa rang) the capital of the then western Tibetan kingdom of Gugé (Gu ge), and a second mission under the Portuguese Jesuits Estevão Cacella and João Cabral in 1626 at Shigatse (Gzhis ka rtse) in Tsang (Gtsang) Central Tibet, however, this mission ended in 1635 with both missions being covered in Andrade’s Novo descobrimento do gram Cathayo ou reinos do Tibet (The New Discovery of Great Cathay or the Kingdoms of Tibet) (Desideri and Zwelling 18). At the same time two Jesuits, Johannes Grüber and Albert d’Orville, traveled through eastern Tibet, with their account being recorded by Athanasius Kircher in his best seller, China Illustrata. In the book Kircher explains that many a missionary went into Tibet in order to search for the great kingdom of Prestor John. According to Kircher,

The Egyptians called their first leader pharaohs, and the later ones ptolemies. The Moors called their leaders seraphs. The Persian leaers were known by such names as Xerxes and Artaxerxes, but now are are called sophis. In the same way the name Prestor John has been used for a long time to denote the dignity of Christian princes. The scholars agree that these ruled in Asia and not in Ethiopia or any part of Africa as many people incorrectly believe. The location of this empire has not been fully established (43).

At the time, many believed that the area which now encompasses the Tibetan plateau as the place where Prestor John lived and thus were incentivized to golooking for this forgotten Christian kingdom. By the time Desideri began his journey to the Tibetan plateau, many of the previous missions founded by Jesuit’s before him had disbanded. The Society during Desideri’s time was fighting many internal disputes with other religious, as well as disputes with secular authority over where the orders loyalty truly lay. Many secular powers (mainly Spain and Portugal) were worried about the growing number of missions that were popping up throughout their rapidly expanding empires, and because of this no religious order was able to create a mission without the expressed permission of these secular authorities, and was unable to do so if there was already a mission in that area. A Tibetan mission then played a big role in this struggle, as it provided a connection between missions already established in India and South Asia and ones that existed at the time in China and the whole of East Asia (Desideri and Zwelling 20).

The main contestation of this mission lay between the Society of Jesus and the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. In 1698, the Capuchins had already won a major victory against the Jesuits, having a Jesuit mission in the northwestern Indian city of Surat closed. By gaining a foothold on the Tibetan plateau the Capuchins would then have been able to successfully isolate the Jesuits to Goa and away from the Far East, as the Jesuit mission in Thailand was ceded in 1681 to the Church as a Vicars Apostolic (a church territory under control of a local bishop).

This sudden retraction of the Jesuits expanding empire galvanized the order into action, and plans began to re-establish Andrade’s former mission in western Tibet thus allowing the Jesuit dream of a connection between China and India to be realized (Desideri & Zwelling 24).

It was the hope of the Jesuits that this new mission would flourish, as it was under the realm of the Qing court, which, thanks to the help of Jesuit missionaries like Mateo Ricci and Giuseppe Castiglione, was Jesuit friendly. This sense of hospitality was due to the Jesuits attitude towards other cultures they attempted to convert. In his book, The First Jesuits, Robert O’Malley highlights the words of Spanish hagiologist, Pedro de Ribadeneira, stating that the Jesuits’ wearing “clothing not much different from the Chinese custom” had been essential for their winning acceptance and entrée into the imperial court (342). Indeed, it seemed as though this idea of partial assimilation and attempt to understand the culture would play a key factor in many Jesuit missions, including Desideri’s, who, along with his companion Ildebrando Grassi, on September 27 left Rome for Tibet, knowing almost nothing about his destination, and having very little time to pack and say goodbyes, hoping that his time in school and willingness to learn would sufficiently suit him for his needs abroad.

Desideri arrived in Goa September 21, 1713 having traveled from Lisbon and around the Cape of Good Hope to India, and arrived to a country that was shrouded in chaos. Desideri arrived in India during a particularly tumultuous time of the Mughal Dynasty. The then newly appointed emperor Farrukhsiyar had just finished waging war against and brutally murdering his uncle and predecessor Jahander Shah, and the ripples the war created were still being felt when

Desideri arrived (Desieri & Zwelling 135). While in India, Desideri would visit the missions and Catholic communities of each subsequent town he and his party passed through. Desideri would then stop in Agra for a three month stay. Describing the city, Desideri said, “The city of Agra, the splendid buildings, gardens, and sumptuous mausoleums, all of which may be said to rival the the magnificence of Rome (Desideri, Filippi & Wessels 68).” While in the city, Desideri was determined to learn Persian, as he was sure it was the lingua franca of the Tibetan plateau, and was determined to use this as a way to connect with the populous. However, he would be sadly disappointed, later wishing he could have spent the time learning Hindustani instead, as that was the lingua franca of the region in which he would found his first encounter Tibetan speaking peoples (Desideri & Zwelling 135).

Desideri first entered an area north of Kashmir, known as Baltiyul (bal ti yul) on the May 29, 1715. This region had been ruled by kings in the past but at that time was under the rule of the Mughal Emperor. Desideri noted about the region:

There are no cities in this country but only villages and hamlets; most of the houses are half underground, and the part extending above ground is rather low. The land produces only barley, wheat, and some legumes, and for fruit only apricots. These peoples’ religion used to be the same as that of second and third Tibet, but as they are at present ruled by Mohammedans, most have become followers of the sect of Mohammed (Desideri & Zwelling 161).

This is significant because it shows Desideri studying and learning about the people he is preaching to rather than merely discounting them as some pagan people. Soon after this, Desideri left Baltiyul and traveled farther into the heart of the Himalayas, or as the missionaries knew them Dorsum Orbis (The Back of the World). This time was a particularly hard one for Desideri as the missionaries faced constant peril along their journey. Desideri notes in his accounts a particular time when he and his company were forced to cross a bridge between two mountains:

Between the two [mountains] was a wide and rapid torrent impossible to cross by either wading or swimming. Travellers are therefore obliged to use a bridge made of twisted willows. From one mountain to the other two thick ropes of willow are stretched nearly four feet apart, to which are attached hanging loops of smaller ropes of willow about one foor and a lhalf distant from one another. One must stretch out one’s arms and hold fast to the thicker ropes while putting one foot after the other into the hanging loops to reach the opposite side….only one can cross [at a time]…and one is so high above the river, and the bridge is so open on all sides, that the rush of water beneath dazzles the eyes and makes one dizzy (Desideri, Filippi & Wessels 76).

Throughout all of these immense odds (and a bout of snow blindness) Desideri and his company, determined to reach the Tibetans, arrived at the Kingdom of Ladakh Yül (la dwags yul), or “Second Tibet” in July of 1715. Here Desideri noted that the language and customs of the people are much the same as the ones in Baltiyul. This was also the first time that Desideri would analyze the Tibetan people, writing to Tamburini that the people of Ladakh were “gentiles”, meaning that they did not follow any specific Abrahamic religion. Desideri even stated that the governor of Ladakh, Nyima Nyamgyal (nyi ma rnam rgyal), also wished for the Jesuit to learn Tibetan, as it would provide an easier means for them to communicate to the court about religious topics, a proposal in which Desideri very much wanted to accept, so he could communicate to the court and its constituents (Pomplun 66). However, in sharp contrast to Desideri’s fascination with the people of Ladakh and eagerness to learn, Desideri’s superior and travel companion, Manoel Freyre, exhausted from travel, wished to descend from the “filthy and famished” region and return to the Mughal Empire, and found a way to do that, much to Desideri’s disappointment who stated, “I wished to lie as still as a stone and die a thousand times, but obedience is better than sacrifice (melior est obedientia quam vicrimae)” (Pomplun 66).

It was during their stay in Ladakh that Freyre found out about a ‘third Tibet” the Tibet in which Capuchins had visited before, but to Freyre’s delight, provided a quick escape to the Mughal Empire. The group left the capital of Ladakh, Leh (le) on August 17, 1715 and proceeded to enter into the northern mountain plains that stretch between Ladakh and Tibet, crossing through the settlements of Gartok (sgar thog) and Tashigang (bkra shis sgang) traveling through a land filled with “putrid water” and “noxious air” that would occasionally kill off pack animals. Luckily for Desideri and company, medicinal herbs and barley kept any sickness at bay, and the will to reach the “third Tibet” propelled them forward (Pomplun 65-7).

The success on this journey through this harsh region that the Jesuits achieved was in thanks to a widowed Mongol-Tibetan princess by the name of Cacal, who helped escort the Jesuits from Tashigang to Lhasa during the later half of 1715. Desideri attributes this stroke of good luck to God saying:

Amid these trials and torments, sensibly comforted by the loving kindness and paternal assistance of God, by whose singular love we had undertaken all of these things, we yielded to everything in good spirits. With a cheerful and healthy disposition and constant heartfelt contentment, with serene conversations between ourselves and with others, we passed through this desert free of alacrity, as though we had gone on a voyage of amusement and recreation (Pomplun 68).

The Jesuits would accompany the princess to a pilgrimage at Mount Kailash (gangs rin po che). Desideri even noted that if he and the princess got along so well, that, if together any longer and had been more fluent in the language that he was sure he would have converted her to Christianity (Pomplun 68).

After the pilgrimage the group continued on its way. They would arrive at the first major village of this “third Tibet” Saga (sa dga’), also passing through the Sakya Monastery (sa skya dgon pa) and the Tibetan city of Shigatse (gzhis ka rtse). Finally, on March 17, 1716, after three years, five months, and twenty-two days, and crossing countless mountains, valleys, and streams, Desideri and his companions arrived at the city of Lhasa (lha sa), capital of “third Tibet” and where Desideri would remain for the rest of his time as a missionary.

After immediately arriving in Lhasa, Desideri caught the attention of the ruler, Lha-bzang Khan, who at the time, was king of Tibet and a fervent Tibetan Buddhist. Upon Arriving in Tibet, Lha-bzang Khan requested Desideri come before him in court in order to explain to him what he was doing in Tibet. Desideri asked the king for authorization to remain in Tibet and preach to the Tibetan people. The king lauded Desideri “as a very educated person, serious, sincere, engaging in seeking the truth, and fearless in maintaining it (Toscano 58).”  The king then gave permission to Desideri to stay and study in Tibet, imploring that he learn the language so that they may be able to speak in depth about religious topics at a later time, and sent a Lama to attend to Desideri each day to see if he needed assistance, and to check on his progress (Toscano58).

This was the first time Desideri began attempting the conversion of the Tibetan people, writing his first book in Tibetan, The Sign of the Morning Sunrise Clearing Away Darkness (tho rangs mun sel nyi ma shar ba’i brda’) in which he proposed the tenents of the Christian faith.

Desideri presented the work in front of the king and an entire assembly hall filled with lamas, governors and ministers. The king lauded Desideri for his immense skill with the Tibetan language, especially after such a short time learning it, and began to read aloud, occasionally pausing and having an attendant read for him (Toscano 60).

Desideri wrote the book in verse, much like a Tibetan sutra, hoping to help sway listeners to convert to Christianity. He even decided to bring his ideas in front of the assembly claiming to be similar to the great Buddhist master and guru Padmasambhava (Padma bka’ thang). like Padmasambhava, Desideri claimed to be a “treasure revealer” (gter son) who was revealing the Gospel “treasure” (gter ma), thus linking the Gospel to a divine origin, which he would hope, act as a further persuasive tool by which to convert the attendees of this assembly (Pomplun 76).

After reading Deisderi’s work, Lha-bzang Khan invited Desideri to continue studying the Buddhist Canon. This was no easy feet as the Canon is made up into two immense corpuses of literature, the Kangyur (bka’ ‘gyur), which are the Buddha’s teachings, and the Tengyur (bstan ‘gyur) which are commentaries on these teachings. Reading both would take Desideri up to one and a half years to do. Desideri, however, jumped on this suggestion as it allowed him to better understand where the Tibetans were coming from when discussing religious discourse (Toscano 60).

During this time studying the Kangyur and the Tengyur Desideri wrote his magnum opus, Reincarnation and Emptiness Offered to the Scholars of Tibet by the Christian Lama Ippolito (mgo skar bla ma i po li do shes by aba yis phul b’ai bod mkhas pa rnams la skyes pa snga ma dang stong pa nyid kyi lta ba’I sgo nes zhu ba) as well as other works, such as, The Essence of Christian Doctrine (ke ri se ste an kyi chos lugs kyi snying po) and On the Origin of Sentient Beings and Various Other Phenomena (sems can dang chos la sogs pa rnams kyi ‘byung khungs). In these works, Desideri attempted to use Buddhist terminology to rectify the Tibetan’s view of the world, and align it with that of Western Christianity.

Through this intensive study of both Tibetan Buddhism and the language as well as an understanding of the Tibetan way of life, Desideri commented in his later accounts on the spiritual state of the Tibetan people saying:

If one considers what I have stated about the Thibettan religion, although I believe the articles of Faith to be absolutely wrong and pestiferous, yet the rules and directions imposed on the will are not alien to the principles of sound reason; they seem to me worthy of admiration as they not only prescribe hatred of vice, inculcate battling against passions, but, what is more remarkable, lead man towards sublime and heroic perfection (Desideri, Filippi & Wessels 299-300).

This passage points to an important insight that Desideri seemed to take away from his missionary work, that, to Desideri, much of the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine was cohesive with that of Christianity. This insight was something that was integral to Desideri’s missionary work, for if he wouldn’t have taken the time to learn about Tibetan Buddhism in the first place, then perhaps these similarities would not have gleamed as brightly as they did, if at all.

Even though Desideri found many similarities between Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism, there were also many things he found to be controversial. In particular, the subject of reincarnation, as seen in his critique of the process of choosing a new Dalai Lama, which he called “the work of the devil (Sweet 134)”. However, unlike predecessors, Desideri did not dismiss the idea of reincarnation based on superficial knowledge or hearsay. Instead, due to his relationship with the ruler at the time as well as many high monks at the monasteries he visited, Desideri had first-hand accounts during the long process of selecting the Seventh Dalai Lama, who was being chosen while Desideri was in Tibet (Sweet 134). This would give an unprecedented insight to Desideri and, more broadly, the West on this elaborate and complicated process.

The other controversy that Desideri attempted to rectify was the Buddhist concept of emptiness (stong-pa nyid). To Desideri, this subject fascinated him, as it lay at the heart of Tibetan Buddhist belief, and for an 18th-century Catholic missionary, possessed a relatively insightful knowledge on it, stating the following:

[A]ll things are empty of existence in themselves. The reason…is that nothing owes its own existence to an intrinsic nature and exists essentially on its own. The reason for this being so…is that nothing is totally independent inasmuch as there is nothing that is…unconnected, unlinked, and without reciprocal correlation […but] everything considered in the light of its essential nature has some correlation with some term or object, then nothing possesses its own essence absolutely of itself, but rather from the term or object which it is correlated (Bargiacchi 104).

To Desideri, the logic in this argument could only lead to an existence that would not place any emphasis on a divine being and creator, and that was something he could not fundamentally accept.

Desideri would work on these discourses like these during the remainder of his time in Tibet. Fleeing Lhasa for a short period, after the king Lha-bzang Khan was killed during the invasion of the Dzungar Khannate, but returning shortly after, continuing to debate and defend the doctrines of Christianity. In 1721, Desideri received a letter from the Pope stating that the Lhasa mission would be permanently handed over to the Capuchins, and left for Rome; traveling over the Himalayas to Katmandu and then down into India, returning to Rome in 1728. For the remainder of his life, Desideri would write his adventures in, Historical Notices of Tibet: and a Personal Account of the Journeys and the Mission Undertaken There. Dying a short while later in 1733. His works and the truths found within them both on the Tibetan people and their way of life would remain hidden for the next hundred years, until the late 19th century, when they would be found at his hometown chapel in Pistoia, Italy, thus helping the world to help unlock the secrets of the Roof of the World.


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