The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit and What I Learned
by Stephen Schettini
||Greenleaf Book Group Press
||September 1, 2009
Barnes & Noble.com
The Enlightenment, Disenchantment and Redemption of a Relentless Truth Seeker
As a young man in the 1970’s, Stephen Schettini at age 22 abandoned his home and university education to hitchhike four thousand miles, across 14 countries, and traded in his birth culture of Anglo-Italian Catholicism for Tibetan Buddhism. He was on a soul-searching mission to find truth, to discover life’s purpose, to put meaning in his existence and find a foothold in life. He eventually found what he was looking for, but it wasn’t what he expected. Although he didn’t have the answers, he realized over subsequent decades that some powerful questions had taken root. Why do we seek security? What are we afraid of? Why are we driven so compulsively to control our surroundings? Why are we here? Rather than bright inner lights and spiritual transcendence, he was led to a profound calm, clarity and joy that, he realized, had been within reach all along…
Although I’d been feted on my arrival, I was now subsisting on daily
monastery fare—meager, broken, gravelly rice with a spoonful or two of
watery dal. Each of the two Sera colleges (Jey and Mey) had its own grimy shop stocked with the occasional banana, rounds of sweet white bread,
boiled candies, soap, toothbrushes and other items. For a few paisa, you
could even buy an aspirin or a tetracycline94 tablet, but fresh fruits and vegetables were virtually unheard of. Just five miles away in Bylakuppe they were available in abundance, but few monks seemed to care.
Thomtok’s servant explained why. “Back in the old country we hardly
grew vegetables,” he said dismissively. “We had yaks. You know yaks?”
“Maybe you think so, but you don’t really. The best milk, fantastic
butter, plenty of meat . . . and delicious, hot blood.” He stared. “Boy, that blood was delicious.” He threw his head back dramatically and convincingly
mimicked the gesture of pouring the thick liquid down his gullet.
“It was so good. Then we didn’t care how cold it was outside, our bodies
stayed toasty warm.”
“It was the land of snows,” he pointed to his knees. “This deep. We had
no heating, none!” His hand rose to throat level, and he shivered. “We
smeared butter on our bodies to keep out the cold. Otherwise, your skin
would crack open.” He leaned forward with bulging eyes, took out a large
cube of raw pig fat, sliced off thick strips of lard and slid them down his
throat. “Bet you can’t do that!” he said, grimacing.
“Probably not,” I agreed.
“Mmm! Delicious.” He smacked his lips.
The sound of nervous laughter behind made me turn, and there was
Thomtok smiling weakly. “He’s just playing.”
His eyes flickered uncertainly.
`The Novice' is memoir about young Englishman becoming Buddhist monk, then quitting
By: MICHAEL HILL
09/03/09 2:20 PM EDT "The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit and What I Learned" (Greenleaf Book Group, 346 pages, $24.95), by Stephen Schettini: Far from home and strung out on morphine, Stephen Schettini was saved from his skid when a friend showed up at his hovel in Pakistan to force him to clean up and move on. The young Englishman traveled around India and immersed himself in Buddhist teaching. He became a monk, shaved his head and donned traditional robes. He logged a lot of mountain time, first in Switzerland and later at a remote Tibetan monastery.
Then, disillusioned after eight years, Schettini exited back into Western culture.
Schettini, now middle-aged, takes an introspective look at his geographical and spiritual journey back in the '70s in "The Novice." Thankfully, this is not one of those stories about well-to-do Westerners claiming to feel oppressed by materialism before they jet off to Dharamsala. Schettini is too hard-core for that.
He grew up in Manchester, England, the son of restaurateurs and a bit of a misfit. He bristled at the rigid Catholicism of his boyhood and was distant from his parents. He was a kleptomaniac, loathed himself and, like others before him, sought a geographic cure.
Schettini hitchhiked from western Europe to India. This is not strictly a travel book, but his descriptions of his journey through Turkey, pre-revolutionary Iran and pre-Taliban Afghanistan provide some of the book's most fascinating passages. His account of the towering Buddhas of Bamiyan before their 2001 destruction by the Taliban is especially poignant.
The larger story here is Schettini's circuitous search for spiritual enlightenment. In his words, he wanted to "unravel my own mind." Luckily for him, Schettini found Buddhism at a time when its leaders were looking to spread to the West. He was able to secure funding to study in Switzerland. He eventually headed to Sera, a 15th-century monastery in Tibet. There, a world away from the Catholic church of his youth, he encountered dogmatic authorities who hewed to ancient codes and treated young people poorly. Maybe it's no surprise he became disillusioned with Buddhist authority and headed back West.
Writings about spiritual journeys have the potential to read like deadly dull navel-gazing. This book is not like that. Schettini is a keen observer of what's around him and what's going on inside him. He has obviously spent decades mulling over the material and has a nice, self-aware style. If Schettini seems a bit too self-deprecating sometimes, maybe that's just the price of years of inner reflection.
Author Launches Biography of his Years as a Buddhist Monk
“A journey of a thousand miles begins
with a single step,” says Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, a phrase that can’t help but come to mind when readers sit down with Hudson author Stephen Schettini’s riveting biography The Novice.
The single step that Schettini took
one day was to leave his childhood
home as a young man and head to
India—a step that would resound
throughout his life. The Novice unveils
the intriguing reason why.
While Schettini would find his vocation
as a Buddhist monk and be ordained
in the Tibetan tradition, his personal
search was far from over, and he
would ultimately leave the monastic life to find himself still on an uncharted path.
The unique circumstances of his experience is only one of the reasons why this book makes for a fascinating read.
Schettini was born in England to an
English mother and Italian father, and
after being schooled at a private
Catholic boys’ school, a troubled adolescence followed, finding him restless, aimless, stealing from stores and hungry for answers to a question that remained frustratingly undefined. Finally, in 1972
he quit England, and set off with a back pack for India.
From English schoolboy to ordained
monk, the reasons why Buddhism and
the monastic life remained in the end
unfulfilling for Schettini complete his
The Novice is a brave, intriguing,
beautifully written, seamless memoir of
a universal, age-old quest story that is told again, but in new and unexpectedly rich ways via the truly original details of this fascinating real-life story.
It is a book shot through with the sensory delights of food, and the smells and colours of Schettini’s life in Asia and then Switzerland. His experience as a drug abuser is retold in a painfully brave way. As for the universality of the age-old
story of a quest for truth and enlightenment, Schettini makes us want to read it one more time by somehow making it about us too with his thoroughly honest account of a life revealed in all its fragility as well as its strength.
The reader is never less than intrigued
by glimpses of a life quite
unimaginable in the West—and when a
reader has the luxury of being set
squarely on the path of a personal journey by a writer of Schettini’s quality, the read is so easy and effortless.
The Novice satisfies on many fronts:
the adventure of travel, the universal
yearning to find answers, and the author’s personal dawning reality that
even this was not the end of the road but only the beginning.
See the author’s website at
Author's Spiritual Journey Reveals Happiness is Not Attained by Religious Ownership
"The Novice" tells the true story of Stephen Schettini’s spiritual journey. He was born into a middle-class Catholic family. Yearning for something different he sets off on a journey that changes the whole course of his life. Deciding to travel to India, he becomes enmeshed in the Tibetan Buddhist culture. Along the way, he also has experiences in which he becomes heavily involved in drugs. Health problems and the drug use pull him away from his path, but they also teach him some valuable lessons. A wake-up call from a concerned friend sets him back on his way.
While involved with the Buddhist traditions, his journeys take him through various countries, and into exotic places. He also encounters some incredible teachers, namely the Dalai Lama. As he is involved with his training to become a Buddhist monk, Stephen continues to hold on to his own ideas and think for himself. His unwillingness to relinquish his individual thoughts don’t always make him popular with others, however, he stays true to himself.
After several years, Stephen begins to realize that it is time for a change and he returns to his homeland. It appears that Buddhism is like many other religions. The teachings of Buddha, as with Jesus, are valuable, however, the politics behind the religion can be dissuading. Learning to be true to his self by living with integrity and to be "real," Stephen’s life journey has taught him how to live. By writing this book, he teaches others about what is important. As with the Buddhist tradition, materialism is not important. Becoming bound to acquiring things is not the way. Happiness does not come from ownership.
"The Novice" is a memoir that everyone can learn from. While the majority of us will never set out on a path like Stephen did, being able to read his story lets the reader learn about his life lessons as an arm-chair traveler. His experiences and descriptions of the places that he has been and the hardships that he has endured are incredible. Pictures are interspersed throughout the book to help illustrate his story. I really appreciate his willingness to share what he experienced. Having been raised in a very strict Catholic upbringing, and having dabbled with other belief systems, I also have come to many of the realizations that he has about what is really involved in being content and happy. His book, however, summed up my thoughts in a way that had much more of an impact on my meandering ideas. I highly recommend this memoir, "The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit, and What I Learned" by Stephen Schettini.
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