Alphabetum Tibetanum: The Beginnings of Tibetology in the Western World
Antonio Agostino Giorgio
Editiones Voce: Cologne, 1995.
820 pp., $70.00 (cloth).

Wheel of Life," from original manuscript, Alphabetum Tibetanum, collection of the Oriental Division of the New York Public Library.
Wheel of Life,” from original manuscript, Alphabetum Tibetanum, collection of the Oriental Division of the New York Public Library.

Alphabetum Tibetanum, a massive, 820-page work written in 1762 in late scholarly Latin, constitutes the first publication of its kind in the Western world: the first large-scale, encyclopedic attempt to understand Tibetan culture, language and religion from a Western perspective. Although the major section of the work is based on religious polemic, it retains value as a major link in the earliest chain of Tibetan studies in the West. The current edition, published in Italy, is a facsimile of the original book.

The entire work was a result of the Catholic Capuchin missionary work in Lhasa during the early to mid-eighteenth century. During this time, when a massive Chinese military and cultural presence from the Ching court was established in Tibet, the Capuchins had established a mission in Lhasa in 1707 and were studying with Tibetan lamas. When the Catholic missionaries left Tibet in 1745 (following a period during which missionary work was forbidden and no new missionaries were allowed into Tibet), that brief window of Western access to Tibet, and indeed in Lhasa itself, closed, and has never been reopened to the present day on the scale that they enjoyed. Alphabetum Tibetanum was intended to assist missionaries who would be going to Tibet.

Part One, the most extensive section, is—perhaps understandably—an elaborate argument attempting to demonstrate that Tibetan religion is derived from the Manichaean heresy, the belief that the spirit could be released through ascetic practices. In the midst of this presentation, features of Tibetan religion, hierarchy, ritual, history and geography are described in detail. For example, an engraving gives what appears to me to be an accurate floor plan of the inner sanctuary of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.

The engraving illustrated here, of the Tibetan Wheel of Life, was made from an original in the Museum of Cardinal Borgia in Velletri. As

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.