'Novice' is memoir about young Englishman becoming Buddhist monk, then quitting

By Michael Hill, The Canadian Press, Sep 4, 2009

Toronto, Canada -- 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 travelled 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.

"The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit and What I Learned"
Stephen Schettini (Greenleaf Book Group)