Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Six Years in Tibet

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Six Years in Tibet

Article excerpt

Six Years in Tibet JESUIT ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD: IPPOLITO DESIDERI'S MISSION TO TIBET BY TRENT POMPLUN Oxford, 320 pages, $29.95

HOW MANY OF history's most fascinating tales go untold for want of the right teller, I wonder. There are some events that can be appreciated, or in fact even noticed, only by persons of very rare and very particular attainments; and often the right person never comes along. This is probably especially true in the case of those curious and crucial historical junctures where two essentially alien cultures meet fully for the first time. Only someone more or less equally familiar with both cultures, able to look at the encounter from both sides with comparable sympathy, has any real chance of understanding what has occurred and of conveying it to others.

For instance: Any number of scholars have recorded the fact of the Jesuit missionary Ippolito Desideri's (1684-1733) sojourn in Tibet from 1715 to 1721 -where he immersed himself in the study of the country's language and customs, studied Buddhist metaphysics, engaged in debates with Buddhist monks, and composed Christian treatises in Tibetan, before a variety of political forces (both in Tibet and within the Church) obliged him to leave again. But until now no scholar has succeeded particularly well in describing the event of that strange meeting between two almost perfectly incommiscible worlds. This is because, simply enough, those who have written about Desideri's mission in the past have either been Tibetanists, whose grasp of early modern Catholic theology and culture is typically fairly tenuous, or Catholic historians, who know very little about the indigenous Buddhism, monastic orders, or the religious culture of Tibet. As a result, practically no one until now has produced an account of the mission that has adequately explained the spiritual and intellectual forces at play, the cultural and institutional logic underlying the story, or the true nature of the debates in which Desideri and his Tibetan interlocutors engaged.

Happily, in this case, the story has fallen into the hands of Trent Pomplun, a scholar particularlyand, for all I know, uniquely- able to tell it properly. He is a Tibetanist, to begin with, thoroughly versed in Tibet's language, history, culture, religious beliefs, philosophical schools, and monastic orders; and his training in Buddhist metaphysics is broad and deep. He is also, however, a Catholic theologian and historian with an unusually capacious knowledge of late Scholastic and early modern Catholic thought (generally the more recherché the better) as well as of ecclesiastical history and politics. He can move with ease between Latin and Italian texts on the one side and Tibetan on the other and is thoroughly at home in the conceptual worlds from which all of them issue. He even seems to have a special interest in the history of the Jesuits. And he writes well. In short, it would be hard to imagine a scholar more ideally suited to understand Desideri's story in all its aspects, from every important perspective, and to appreciate its wonder, irony, and (ultimately) futility.

Pomplun first unfolds the story of Desideri's Jesuit formation, placing it in the context of a larger overview of the great age of Catholic missions, and of the debates regarding nature and grace- or of natural and revealed knowledge of God- that so preoccupied many of the best minds of "Baroque Catholicism" (a term, incidentally, that Pomplun employs only very diffidently). This portion of the book provides a splendid insight into the sheer romance that the Jesuit cause exercised over the minds of many of the idealistic young men who entered the Society of Jesus in its early period and that inspired them to endure hardships, to risk death, and to undertake such prodigious feats of scholarship. It also quite effectively draws connections between the distinctively Jesuit devotional and contemplative uses of disciplined imagination and the spiritual and intellectual preparation for missions in distant lands. …

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