Cultural clashes, political turmoil, civil war — adventure boils over in Ippolito Desideri’s diaries from his time as an Italian missionary in Tibet. Two Madison scholars have translated the priest’s writings into “Mission to Tibet” from Wisdom Press.
“He was an indomitable figure,” translator Michael Sweet said about Desideri, an Italian Jesuit who traveled to Tibet in 1716 and stayed until 1721. “His writing is wonderful. It’s a very accurate description of the land, the customs, the commerce, the people, the religion,” Sweet said.
Sweet and Leonard Zwilling are the driving forces behind the translated book, a project they embarked on years ago.
“This was something that germinated over many years,” Sweet said. He and Zwilling had been active in the Buddhist studies program at UW-Madison, where they learned of Desideri’s work.
“We had a unique vantage point by having Tibetan knowledge and Mike’s Italian language skills. He started translating the work in about 2003 and it took seven years,” Zwilling said. “We joke that it took longer to do this book than Desideri spent in Tibet.”
Desideri’s exploits made for fascinating work for the translators. “It’s this tale of a guy making his way from Italy across the sea to India, over the Himalayas, across the Tibetan plateau in winter,” Sweet said. Desideri brought no intellectual baggage with him, because he was essentially the first European to learn about Buddhism from Tibetan scholars.
“He didn’t have any preconceptions,” Zwilling said. “He had the good fortune, or misfortune perhaps, of being in India at a time of great turmoil. He’s the only Western witness to a very tumultuous time in Tibet. It’s a very important writing historically.”
Desideri had such an affinity for languages and such acute perception skills that he was the right man at the right time to encounter Tibetan intellectuals and engage them in dialogue over their own religion, Sweet said. His time spent there produced the first dialogue between a Western thinker and Tibetan Buddhist culture.
For those interested in Tibetan history, Desideri’s writing is essential, Sweet said.
“It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the encounter between civilizations and how people understand each other,” he said.
Zwilling stressed that it’s not just for anthropological types, saying that “Mission to Tibet” is for anyone who likes a really good yarn.
“There are clashes between Chinese armies, Mongol armies, Tibetan armies ... It’s more than simply a missionary’s account; it lends itself to Hollywood treatment,” Zwilling said.
Desideri set out to write a page-turner, one that would encourage and inspire people and bring him back to Tibet to continue his mission of converting Tibetans to Christianity. But that was not to be.
“That’s the tragic aspect of his career,” Zwilling said. His writings were suppressed until the late 19th century. “Mission to Tibet” is the first complete English translation of Desideri’s account of his sojourn. “He did all this great work,” Zwilling said, “but it came to nothing in his lifetime.”