I first heard about Ippolito Desideri a few years ago, during an APA meeting, at a Hune Society session. Alison Gopnik, known best for her work in developmental psychology, was presenting an absolutely fascinating paper about the possibility that Hume’s account of personal identity/the self was influenced (indirectly) by Buddhist thought.
Ippolito Desideri was an Italian Jesuit, hoping to establish a mission in Tibet and convert the Buddhists there to Christianity. According to Gopnik, “When he arrived at Lhasa, the Khan and the Dalai Lama welcomed him enthusiastically. The welcome did not diminish when he announced that he was a lama himself and intended to convert them all to Catholicism. Instead, in a typically Buddhist response, they suggested that, in that case, it would be a good idea if he learned Tibetan and studied the Tibetan religion. If he could actually explain why his religion was superior, they would convert” (p. 13-14).
Desideri took them up on that suggestion, and spent five years studying the language and religion in Buddhist monasteries and universities. I won’t spend too much more time rehashing and abridging the information Gopnik covers in her article, but the connection of Desideri to Hume comes from the fact that, after a territorial dispute regarding Tibet was resolved in favor of the Capuchins over the Jesuits, Desideri was ordered back to Europe and his path home involved an extended stay at the college of La Flèche (where Hume would later stay while composing the Treatise).
I found a google pdf of (an abridged translation of) Desideri’s account of his travels. I haven’t had a chance to carefully look through it—it is quite thorough—but in my skimming, I came across a very interesting passage. Before I share it, I’ll give a bit of context. The account is divided into four books: Book 1 concerns Desideri’s journey to Tibet and the mission he established there, book 2 is his description of the culture and civil government in Tibet, book 3 is Desideri’s description of what he calls “the false and peculiar Religion prevailing in Thibet”, and book 4 concerns Desideri’s return to Europe. While it is correct to say that Desideri thought the Tibetan religion was a false and erroneous form of atheism, such a description obscures some of the nuance in his stance. In describing the reception of his first attempts to convert the Tibetans, Desideri explained his view of the two components for a religion, and indicated where he felt the substantive divergence was between his religion and the religion of Tibet:
Moved by Divine Grace, far more powerful than any words of mine, they inquired over and over again whether there was any great difference between our Holy Faith and their sect or Religion. Partly not to diverge in any way from Truth, and partly not to discourage them, I explained that in every religion there were two principal facts; firstly, principles, maxims, or dogmas, to be believed, and secondly, precepts, counsels, or instructions as to what to do or not to do. As regards the first our Religion and theirs were absolutely different but in the second the difference was very slight. This explanation consoled and encouraged them greatly, and they showed in many ways that Divine Grace was gradually animating and inciting them. (p. 99)
The majority of Desideri’s concerns and objections, then, relate to points of doctrine or dogma, rather than differences in respect of practical guidelines or ethical rules. One of the questions Desideri takes up is the issue of whether or not the Tibetan religion was truly atheist, given that the Tibetan religion incorporated a variety of what we would term supernatural entities. The passage that caught my attention comes from discussion that touches on this point. Desideri says:
16. THE Thibettans acknowledge no Supreme Judge who rewards the good and punishes evildoers. They assert that good men are rewarded according to their merits and evildoers punished according to their sins, without the intervention of a Supreme Ruler of the world. Merit and demerit have an innate power over rewards and punishments that can never fail. Thus the Thibettans illustrate the weight or lightness of bodies by the example of fire. If fire is restricted or stifled it dies down, but when the obstacle is removed it forth anew; in like manner when the life of a virtuous man is ended, although no controlling Providence exists to aid him in obtaining reward, he obtains it by the sheer power of his merits. Likewise, if all impediments are removed, a stone will roll downhill by its own weight, and needs no helping hand. In the same way, when a sinful man dies, although there is no judge to pass sentence, the mere force of his own demerits condemns him to the punishment he deserves for his wickedness. (p. 238)
I don’t have anything especially insightful or interesting to share regarding this quote, but I did find the view described rather striking.