October 31, 2020
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To Kill With A Borrowed Sword

Dispelling the Darkness is a brilliant translation of two extraordinary works by the 17th century Jesuit priest Ippolito Desideri.

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To Kill With A Borrowed Sword
To Kill With A Borrowed Sword


A Jesuit’s Quest for the Soul of Tibet

by Donald S Lopez Jr. and Thupten Lama

Harward University Press

Cover Price Rs.799/-

Dispelling the Darkness is a brilliant translation of two extraordinary works by the 17th century Jesuit priest Ippolito Desideri. He had travelled to Tibet as a missionary and his  two principal works, an incomplete and incomparable masterpiece of logic and subtlety called  ‘Inquiry concerning the Doctrine of Previous lives and Emptiness’(Inquiry) and a completed work, the brilliantly curated  ‘Essence of the Christian Religion’(Essence) are the objects of translation here.

As soon as Desideri arrived in Tibet, he had thrown himself in typical Jesuit fashion into mastering the highly developed Buddhist doctrines and canonicals work as well as the method and techniques of its scholastic culture. He had hoped to adopt its spiritual sensibility, theological grammar and highly specialised vocabulary of its clergy to forge a   propaganda weapon.  The weapon would cut through the enemy doctrine like a damascene sabre. The two doctrines that hove into view were the twin pillars of the Buddhist faith, the doctrines of rebirth and emptiness. 

The Inquiry is Ippolito’s scything sword for the first challenge. To begin with, the work almost passes off as a work by a pietist buddhist cleric. It adopts the Tibetan scholarly convention of opening a work by ‘an expression of worship’ written so artfully, that it might be thought that it was an invocation of the Buddha, not of Christ as Desideri meant it to be. It begins by describing the deity as ‘not relying or depending upon another yourself, all that exists depends upon you.’. This tactfully contradicts the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination, but a Buddhist reader might well interpret it in consonance with their doctrine. Such is Desideri’s skill. The succeeding passages, which to us would be extolling Christ’s sacrifice, could be interpreted by a Tibetan as recalling the innumerable instances of the Bodhisattva’s sacrifice to help or save others. Even the passage that deals with the relationship between God the father and Christ the Son, could be seen through Tibetan lenses as referring to the ‘two bodies’ of the Buddha – ‘truth body’ and ‘form body’. He ends the opening part by then suddenly talking about the scholar going in refuge and bowing down before ‘him’ – the Christ/buddha interchangable duality undistinguishable here. Desideri is playing this on the heartstrings of the Tibetans.

The doctrine of rebirth so central to Indic religion was Desideri’s greatest challenge. The Aristotelian Christian world had an Unmoved Mover and a first cause. The doctrine of Karma and rebirth which gave no place for such a deity stood as a threatening ridge pole of an enemy faith.  Desideri’s answer is to state that if the Tibetans were to only embrace their own tradition of ‘correct inferential reason’ then ‘no birth of any sentient being has the quality of being beginningless, because birth of any sentient being that has already been born does not have the quality of being beginningless’. He then draws on the Buddhist theory of causation, Desideri argues that since birth entails ‘the production of something new’, something that did not exist – it is illogical to hold that birth has no beginning. He then proceeds on a full-fledged assault on the theory of Karma, even going in so far as to quote Nagarjuna, the revered Mahayana Philosopher, to show its absurdity.

Then as an intended death blow to the doctrine of rebirth, he flings an empirical argument. If there is indeed rebirth and transmission of memories, as the lama’s claim, why is there no recollection of Buddhist religion and doctrine by the newly born soul, he asks. The work comes to an end soon after and is left unfinished. In conclusion, the Inquiry is simply a heroic and herculean attempt to use every contrivance of Buddhist metaphor, ambiguities of its language, differing texts to cut down a key Buddhist doctrine.

The Essence is in the literary sense the natural successor to the Inquiry. The first part is an intelligent refutation of the doctrine of emptiness while the rest is a straight forward introduction to the Christian faith. Emptiness in the Buddhist doctrine is anatman, “no self” meaning that there is no eternal soul only, no permanent entity that is the initiator of thought and action, only a chain of unrelated mental and physical moments. “No Self” is a cardinal doctrine because for the Buddhists, a false sense of self motivates desire and attachment, which is the source of misery and unhappiness. Closely related to ‘No Self’  is the doctrine of ‘dependent origination.’ Nagarjuna, the Indian philosopher, with great doctrinal authority in Tibet described the two paradoxical doctrines as one implying the other. According to him ‘ dependent origination is emptiness….because there are no phenomena whatsoever that do not rise dependently, there are no phenomena whatsoever that are not empty’.

In the Essence he attacks this doctrine from a first principle. At the outset he invokes the Christian god as the ‘self-existent Jewel’. ‘Self-existent’ is a technical phrase in Buddhist philosophy, one that implies ‘independence, autonomy and eternity, something that is untouched and beyond chain and effect.’ Such a characterization of god, fundamentally challenges the regnant thinking among Buddhists that everything is empty of self-existence. 

He then uses as a whetstone to sharpen the intellectual edge of his blade, a classic Buddhist metaphor – the reflection of the moon in a lake. In the Buddhist interpretation, this is another example of something that does not exist, a metaphor for the false appearance of all conventional phenomena.  Desideri, a consummate duelling artist flips this metaphor on its head. He argues that for something to be false, something must be true. Similarly, for there to be a false moon, a reflection, there must be a real moon in the sky. In fact, he concludes that part of his argumentation by stating that both the twinned doctrines of ‘no self’ and ‘dependent origination’ are only ‘meaningless contradictory talk.’

He then takes a deeper stab at the doctrine of emptiness by positing a Christian view of the Human mind. He states that it has the capacity to ‘imagine something that surpasses a particular object of experience’.  He contorts, with supreme elegance, two technical terms in Madhyamaka philosophy, which has deep roots in Tibetan Buddhism, to buttress his argument. He then uses another classic metaphor of that Philosophy, The Chariot to discuss the relationship of the parts to the whole. He writes ‘it must follow that without the parts of the chariot, a chariot does not exist. In the same way, it must follow that without a single thing that is established for  a conventional consciousness, their collection also does not exist’. He concludes this fascinating series of rapier like arguments by declaring the need for a supreme, intrinsically existing entity. 

About three fourths of the Essence, is the catechism part. Its less interesting from a historical and literary perspective.

On the whole, Dispelling the Darkness is great work and the authors have provided a clear translation as well as a highly scholarly and well explained intrdcutions. This book should be of great interest to anybody with an interest in Buddhism, the Jesuits or Tibet. 

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