“The Novice,” by Stephen Schettini
Vishvapani reviews Schettini’s heartfelt and vivid account of becoming a Tibetan Buddhist monk and his valuable reflections on what it means for westerners to practice Buddhism
When I first encountered Buddhism in the UK around 1980 there was already a generation of established practitioners, most of whom shared a common background. They were hippies … or should that be ex-hippies? Their faces lit up as they recounted their adventures: how they set out from respectable homes to discover the excitements of London’s Kings Road, join the flower children in the Haight, or make exotic journeys to the East. There were stories of dope deals that went wrong, revelatory acid trips, close shaves with bandits in the Afghan mountains, and spiritual discoveries in India.
Title: The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit and What I Learned
Author: Stephen Schettini
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press
Available from: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.
All that is in The Novice. Stephen Schettini grew up in London and Gloucester in an English-Italian family with at least its share of emotional repression and Catholic guilt. At the time, he just wanted to get away and felt increasingly estranged from his family’s petty bourgeois ambitions. With his philosophical leanings and alienation from society, Schettini was a natural recruit to the counter-culture and he eventually hitchhiked along the hippy trail that led stretched from Europe to India. His story was so familiar that it seemed clichéd until it struck me that I couldn’t think of another book that tells it, and that Schettini tells it well. His writing is lucid and vivid, at least once the story gets going, and he doesn’t let the impulse to reminisce get in the way of his tale.
In India, Schettini‘s path diverged from that of the Buddhists I had met, who had enjoyed their adventures and come home. He heard that the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan refugees were living in Dharamsala in the Himalayan foothills, and set off to find what they had to offer. The turning point came when Schettini met and studied with Lama Yeshe, “the hippy Lama,” who exuded warmth, taught in English and knew enough about the Western culture to pepper his teachings with humorous asides about supermarkets and consumerism. Something clicked for Schettini when he encountered Tibetan Buddhism: the promise of an inner peace that would resolve his emotional turmoil; a new identity that would end his isolation; a philosophy that answered his questions; and benign, seemingly all-knowing lamas upon whom he could rely.
Schettini soon became a monk and found himself in Switzerland studying with the famous scholar, Geshe Rabten, and sharing an intense existence with several other young monks. Two members of this tight-knit group have become prominent figures in western Buddhism. Alan Wallace is a leading figure in the dialogue between science and Buddhism, and Stephen Batchelor is a writer and teacher whose approach is amply expressed in the title of his latest book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (which is also part-autobiography and covers some of the same ground as The Novice).
The intellectual trajectories of Schettini’s fellow-monks suggest the struggles that awaited Schettini himself as he moved from immersing himself in Tibetan culture and religion and hoped to integrate it with the rest of his life. Geshe Rabten’s regime emphasized study, but this turned out to mean memorizing ancient texts and mastering traditional arguments. Debate was on the curriculum, but it involved deploying those arguments skillfully, rather than subjecting an issue to the kind of fundamental inquiry that is found in western philosophy. The monks developed a camaraderie mixed with competitiveness that stopped some way short of intimacy. But the wider community around Rabten included proprietorial lay-women, wealthy donors who were treated as favourites and, later, a younger monks with a starry-eyed faith in the infallibility of their teacher.
Wishing to get to know the Tibetans better, Schettini left Rabten and traveled to Sera monastery in southern India, where he was the only westerner. Living among Tibetans and speaking their the language, the sheen that had made them seem semi-mythic beings faded and Schettini saw their limitations. The monks were immersed in a dogmatic system that closed off the possibility of even posing certain questions, and some thoughts were literally unthinkable within the limitations of the Tibetan language. Meanwhile, they lived in insanitary conditions, and refused to take basic precautions against infection and disease. Schettini returned to Switzerland, skeptical of many aspects of the tradition and was astonished by the naivety of Rabten’s students, who seemed so “dazzled by exotic thinking and ritual” that they accept the Teacher’s decisions without question. Before long he quit.
The remaining 25 years of Schettini’s story are recounted briskly. Unlike Batchelor, whose time as a Tibetan monk takes up just a couple of chapters of his book, Schettini was too snagged by the self-doubt and insecurity underpinning his decision to become a monk to explore other philosophies or Buddhist traditions. In order to live happily in a way that was authentic he needed to uncover the buried emotions that had been with him all along. Schettini realized that the very difficulties he had once fled were, in fact, the keys to his happiness. He needed to face them, and face himself rather than fleeing or blaming the monastic establishment.
Schettini wrote and rewrote the book that became The Novice over many years as he wrestled with his past. But the product is far more than a therapy journal. In reflecting on his life and the religion he encountered Schettini tried to “pick out the gold from the dross.” The personal philosophy he arrives at is a kind of wary spiritually-aware humanism. He mistrusts institutions and dogmatically-held beliefs, holding that “the more deeply we are motivated by emotion, the more insistently we pass it off as reason” and that “denial is a force to be reckoned with and our principal obstacle.”
This is wise, but I read Schettini’s reflections with sadness. I am sad that the reality of Tibetan Buddhism fell so far short of the image that beguiled him and many others. And I am sad that his eventual stance is so circumspect. I believe there is more gold in Buddhism than Schettini acknowledges, however much dross may accompany it. Indeed, I think there are more possibilities in the human condition than he mentions, and that Buddhism speaks to many of them: possibilities of mental development, compassion, and moral excellence. Religious institutions may often be rigid, but that isn’t a reason to give up on creating better ones.
It is over forty years since westerners started to investigate Asian spiritual traditions in large numbers, and many of the institutions they created in their efforts to establish Buddhism in the West are likewise several decades old. It is high time to let go of illusions about both the mystical East or the glorious prospects for western Buddhism and reflect seriously and honestly on what has been learned. The Novice is a heart-felt, frank, informative and eloquent contribution.
See more writing by Vishvapani at Wise Attention