Jesuit on the Roof of the World: Ippolito Desideri's Mission to Tibet


Jesuit on the Roof of the World is the first full-length study in any language of Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733), a Jesuit explorer and missionary who traveled in Tibet from 1715 to 1721.

Based on close readings of a wide range of primary sources in Tibetan, Italian, and Latin, Jesuit on the Roof of the World follows Desideri's journey across the great Western deserts of Tibet, his entry into the court of the Mongol chieftain Lhazang Khan, and his flight across Eastern Tibet ...

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Jesuit on the Roof of the World is the first full-length study in any language of Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733), a Jesuit explorer and missionary who traveled in Tibet from 1715 to 1721.

Based on close readings of a wide range of primary sources in Tibetan, Italian, and Latin, Jesuit on the Roof of the World follows Desideri's journey across the great Western deserts of Tibet, his entry into the court of the Mongol chieftain Lhazang Khan, and his flight across Eastern Tibet during the wars that shook Tibet during the early-eighteenth century. While telling of these harrowing events, Desideri relates the dramatic encounter between his Jesuit philosophy and the scholasticism of the Geluk monks; the personal conflict between his own Roman Catholic beliefs and his appreciation of Tibet religion and culture; and the travails of a variety of colorful characters whose political intrigues led to the invasion of Zünghar Mongols of 1717 and the establishment of the Chinese protectorate in 1720.

As the Tibetans fought among themselves, the missionary waged his own war against demons, sorcerers, and rival scholastic philosophers. Towering over all in the mind of the missionary was the "fabulous idol" Avalokitesvara and its embodiment in the Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso. In describing his spiritual warfare against the Tibetan "pope," the missionary offers a unique glimpse into theological problem of the salvation of non-Christians in early modern theology; the curious-and highly controversial-appeal of Hermetic philosophy in the Asian missions; the political underbelly of the Chinese Rites Controversy; and the persistent European fascination with the land of snows.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A great feat of historiography, this at-once sympathetic and unblinking account of Desideri's missionary career and the collective fantasies behind it makes for terrific reading. Treated to a feast of intimate details drawn from letters, journals, and theological tracts alike, the reader comes to understand from the inside the ambitions and the disappointments of this seminal moment in the history of what we now call interreligious dialogue. Desideri's fascinating story helps us appreciate his complex combination of admiration, accommodation, and refutation of Tibetan Buddhist thought, all set against the turbulent period in Lhasa during the life of the Sixth Dalai Lama, not to mention virulent competition between Christian missionary sects at the time."
-- Janet Gyatso, author of Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary

"This is a very important book. It is the first in English seriously to treat the life and work of Ippolito Desideri, an eighteenth-century Italian Jesuit who was the first Christian intellectual seriously to engage Tibetan Buddhism in its own terms, to the point of writing extensive treatises in scholastic Tibetan. Pomplun is a first-rate Tibetanist as well as a good theologian, and he writes beautifully. The result is a book of considerable intellectual weight that is a delight to read."
--Paul J. Griffiths, author of Lying: An Augustinian Theology of
Duplicity, and Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Gramma

"The Jesuit missionary Ippolito Desideri, who lived in Lhasa during the turbulent years of the early 1700s, has been perceived as a uniquely fascinating and sympathetic figure by Western observers of Tibet ever since the rediscovery of his writings over a century ago. Previous scholarship, however, has not clearly situated Desideri in the context of his times and of his spiritual and intellectual formation. In Jesuit on the Roof of the World, Trent Pomplun vividly portrays Desideri's world in its remarkable contours, at once at the intersections of Asia and Europe, and medieval and modern. The book is a pleasure to read, and one, at last, that I can recommend to readers in both European and Asian studies."
-- Matthew T. Kapstein, Director of Tibetan Studies, École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris

"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." --First Things

"This is a brilliant book, a fascinating account that is part review of the intensity of Jesuit formation, part biographical and historical narrative, and part philosophical and theological review of missiology and soteriology in the post-Tridentine era. Pomplun's work has that none-too-common quality for nonfiction books: being a page-turner. . . The book is a delight to read, shedding light on a little known area of Jesuit and Tibetan studies, one whose historical context has a particularly vivid contemporary significance--namely, the philosophical, social, and theological meanings and values layered in 'interreligious dialogue.' This is a great book."

"Pomplun's study is well researched and elegantly written, a sophisticated sympathetic, even exciting account of Ippolito Desideri's (1684-1733) five-year mission to Tibet. . . generous, thought provoking, and exceptionally well-researched. I recommend it highly for both its treatment of initial Christian contact with Tibet and for its historiographical methodology."--Theological Studies

"An insightful book. . . This volume is highly recommended for both the serious student of Jesuit history, and Tibetan culture."

"Pomplun makes a significant contribution to Tibetan studies and the history of the Jesuit missions through his meticulously researched and perceptive reconstruction of the life and times of Ippolito Desideri, the notorious eighteenth-century Jesuit missionary to Tibet. Despite being written for partisan purposes...Pomplun rewards ecclesiastically minded readers with judicious treatment of relatively unkown debates concerning free will, the terms under which non-Christian religious beliefs and practices were evaluated as positive or negative for salvation, the influence of movements such as Hermeticism and Pythagoreanism in forming a late baroque Catholic imaginaire receptive to pagan wisdom as an expression of perennial religious truth, and the salvation of individual non-Christian believers."--Religious Studies Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195377866
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 11/11/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Trent Pomplun is Associate Professor of Theology at Loyola University Maryland. His research interests include late medieval and early modern Catholicism, missions history, and Indo-Tibetan religion and culture. Jesuit on the Roof of the World is his first book.

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