Dispelling the Darkness

A Jesuit's Quest for the Soul of Tibet

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Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Thupten Jinpa
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , April
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Dispelling the Darkness: A Jesuit’s Quest for the Soul of Tibet, by Donald Lopez and Thupten Jinpa, adds a refreshingly new perspective to the general scholarship of the “most famous European missionary in Tibet”—Ippolito Desideri. Unlike most previous literature involving—for the most part—the biography of Desideri or the Tibetan mission, this is the first attempt at English-language translations of his famous Tibetan works, including the “Inquiry Concerning the Doctrines of Previous Lives and of Emptiness” [“Inquiry”] and the “Essence of the Christian Religion” [“Essence”].

Thus far, another catechism written by prominent Jesuit missionaries in Asia has been translated into English. In this sense, Lopez and Jinpa offer an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle, elucidating how Christian missionaries encountered and responded to Asian traditions through their writings, and in this case, that of Tibetan Buddhism.

The introduction briefly outlines the life of Desideri, his major Tibetan works, how his Buddhist education facilitated his writing, and charts the contour of “Inquiry” and “Essence.” Lopez and Jinpa explore the context of Jesuit encounters with Buddhism, including refutations of Buddhist doctrines since their earliest missions in Japan. The authors conclude that from Japan, China, and to Tibet, there seems to be a growing sophistication among the missionaries’ understanding of Buddhist doctrines—such as reincarnation and emptiness—with Desideri’s accomplishment unmatched by his confreres.

The following chapters are divided into two major parts of four chapters, each part beginning with one chapter of the authors’ detailed summary of the work followed by a subsequent chapter of the text. The book ends with a chapter of final thought. Seeking to “present some of Desideri’s arguments in full, while leaving space for the reader ” (26), Lopez and Jinpa translate the “Inquiry” only in part given its immense volume. The “Essence,” for its brevity, was translated in full to demonstrate Desideri’s “creative use of Buddhist vocabulary to convey Christian doctrines” (28).

Chapter 1 begins with Desideri’s preamble in the Tibetan form of invocation with analysis of its four constituting poems—a dissimulation of Christianity in Buddhism—followed by the interpretation of what Lopez and Jinpa renders a case of comparative religion in “Inquiry.” Desideri’s defense of the significance of learning another religion appears as a paradoxical mixture of “interreligious dialogue,” with the purpose of converting the Tibetans. On the one hand, Desideri claimed that those who know only one religion know none, echoing Max Muller’s famous dictum of comparative religion (40). On the other hand, to Desideri, studying another religion was nothing but to advocate the “stainless and pure” Christian religion.

Reading through the translated text of “Inquiry” in chapter 2, the reader marvels at the eloquence of Desideri’s logical reasoning in refuting reincarnation and rebirth, with ample syllogisms and consequences. He offers us a fascinating debate using the Buddhist metaphors, and “turns it to his own advantage.” Where the Tibetans used the rebirth of lama as proof of reincarnation, Desideri questioned why the reincarnated lama only remembers the possessions of the previous life, rather than the essential points that “cultivate faith, obeisance, offering, confession of sins etc” (129). As such, Lopez and Jinpa argue that the “Inquiry” follows the forms and methods of the Tibetans. In its content, Desideri borrowed “extensively and creatively” from Tsong kha pa’s—the founder of the Geluk sect—works.

In Chapter 3, Lopez and Jinpa present another meticulous summary of “Essence” which consists of Desideri’s refutation of emptiness, and a Christian catechism for catechumens. In this first part, Desideri cites Buddhist works, uses metaphors, structures, arguments, and the technical vocabulary of Tibetan Buddhism, whereas his Christian catechism resorts to the well-established Roman Catholic doctrines of his time.

These two distinctive parts are not unrelated, in that Desideri seeks to destroy the edifice of Buddhism, to build his Christian citadel (170). In one way or another, his catechism reminds us of Matteo Ricci’s work—True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven—in its argumentation through a standard set of topics, with some recurring metaphors such as the story of Augustine and the child on the beach. As Lopez and Jinpa put it, “the most obvious, is that the two Jesuits seek to use the scriptures of the heathen to support the doctrines of the Church … there are also … important similarities in content” (8).

Lopez and Jinpa indicate that another distinctive feature of “Essence” lies in Desideri’s strategic emphasis on doctrines that have analogues in Tibetan Buddhism, while leaving those unknown practices or doctrines less attended. In “Essence,” Desideri shows the reader a much more comprehensive refutation of dependent origination, and opens the door to the knowledge of God and other standard doctrines of his day: the Holy Trinity, the Apostles’ Creed, or the Ten Commandments.

In chapter 5, Lopez and Jinpa contrast Desideri’s intention of writing with his failure to reach the Tibetan readers given the political conflicts in both Tibet and Rome. As the authors claim, Desideri’s works deserve to be hailed as an early testament to interreligious dialogue, and given their due attention today. While this is undoubtedly a positive evaluation of Desideri’s works, regretfully, the authors offer little about what connection his mixed interreligious dialogue has with the present Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

Lopez and Jinpa’s expert translation and fine summary present Tibetologists, Buddhists, and Jesuit scholars with invaluable resources to see Desideri in new light. In addition, with Trent Pomplun’s Jesuit on the Roof of the World: Ippolito Desideri’s Mission to Tibet: 1716-1721 (Oxford University Press, 2010), these two books comprise an enriched scholarship of Desideri’s life and thought.

This book not only enhances our understanding of Desideri, but also poses new directions for further inquiry; such as a comparative study of the different responses that European missionaries experienced towards Buddhism in Asia. Desideri’s critique of emptiness and reincarnation seems to be a worthy field of research for the present Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy Fu Yu is lecturer in English at Zhejiang University City College.

Date of Review: 
September 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Donald S. Lopez, Jr. is Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan.

Thupten Jinpa is Adjunct Professor of Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University.


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