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The Novice: A Book Review

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The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit, & What I Learned, by Stephen Schettini, Greenleaf Book Group Press

If "The Novice" were fiction, it would be called a Bildungsroman--a novel of education. It's not fiction. It's the personal story of a young man who was brought up in Gloucester, England, where he felt himself a bit of an oddball with his Italian surname and an immigrant father who operated a fancy restaurant--exotic for its location, surely, on the main street of an English county town. In compensation, he chose to rebel--against his parents and their Catholic faith, against his school, against the rules, values and conventions of his middle-class social environment. The book is the long story of his battle with the rebel within, and of his coming to terms with himself as a finally liberated man.

His path is not a comfortable one, nor does Schettini attempt to make it so as he recounts it. We follow him from his early, angry years as a child and his defiant, shop-lifting youth to a disillusioned and disenchanted young manhood. At loose ends and casting about for some kind of meaning to his life, he breaks away from family and home, and takes us along on his cross-continental hitchhiking journey to India. Once there, he describes his discovery and embrace of Buddhism; he introduces us to his teachers and his fellow students at a Swiss Tibetan center where he goes to study, and to the often conflicted path toward his initiation as a monk.

We accompany him, back in India, to the Tibetan Sena Monastic University, and watch him grow disillusioned once again by discrepancies he perceives between the ideals of the orthodox Buddhist teachings and the devastating reality of a quasi-medieval environment rampant with hunger, disease, ignorance, and ubiquitous filth. We return with him to Europe and observe his downward spiral as he persists in obstinately questioning the certitudes in which his teachers would seem to have him believe--along with the upward spiral that brings him to a mature, less dependent sense of self and a release, not only from his monastic vows, but from the intellectual torment of doubt. He finds, finally, his heart, and the balance between heart, mind and spirit that can lead to the kind of inner peace for which he has been searching.

It's a lively read. Schettini excels at evoking the particularity of environment, whether natural landscape of bustling city. Here he is, describing his arrival at the foot of the monumental Bamiyan Buddhas (since that time, of course, barbarously destroyed by the Taliban):

Beyond the open space an enormous shadow dominated a sheer rock face at the western end. It was surrounded by several hundred smaller shadows--caves, most of them impossibly high. The lorry brought us into a direct line of sight, and the large shadow resolved itself into a niche in the vertical cliff. It contained something of immense bulk. In a flash of sunlight, the sandstone features were set in sharp relief and the ancient standing Buddha was revealed.

And here's a back street in Kabul, at night, in 1974:

The main streets were lit only dimly [...] I turned into dark laneways and the moon shone in eerie silence, full and accusing. Thick tobacco smoke and male conversation wafted from an open window. In a corner outside, a girl's voice crouched in a shapeless burka, whispering protectively over a bundle in her arms. The embroidery around her face rustled. A bubbling sound from within made me look up, and I watched a refilled narghile being set down amid a circle of men. One of them glanced in my direction and turned away. The girl's hand brushed my ankle and her voice pleaded. I dropped some coins in her hand.

This remarkable facility with language as an evocative tool brings us into the action and places us vividly in the situations Schettini describes. It moves us along, as readers, as much as does the narrative itself. We are present, engaged. That the author is able to bring the same clarity to describe his inner states and his relationships with those around him makes his story as profound as it is compelling to read. As one who myself abandoned the Christian beliefs with which I was brought up and who also found in Buddhism, later in life, the source of a potential inner serenity, I found myself resonating with much of Schettini's experience. His doubts and his intellectual conflicts, as well as the intensity of his pursuit of an elusive truth about the life we're given to live here on earth were intimately familiar to me.

I did find myself wishing that the end of the book--the mature commitment to a life of family and service--had seemed a little less rushed in the context of the whole. In terms of the personal journey, Schettini's re-dedication of himself as a teacher and counselor along the path to happiness could usefully have been given more attention than it receives in the final "Epilogue." Still, this remains a quibble that reflects, perhaps, my personal priority rather than the author's. All in all, a truly satisfying read.

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