Searching for meaning at home and abroad, Stephen Schettini realizes that the truth lies within.
By my late twenties I’d been a Buddhist monk for five years and was blissfully ensconced in the security of a thousand-year-old tradition when I went to live in Sera Monastic University, in South India. The time I spent there in the late 1970s was a life-changing, formative period—though in none of the ways I had expected. It brought me to a painful turning point that led me to give up my robes, cut all ties, and wander off alone.
I was a child of the sixties—restless, intolerant of my elders and idealistic. I exasperated the poor nuns at my convent primary school in England, who tried to force-feed me on Catholic dogma. I endured the obligatory encounters with political radicalism, drugs, and pop mysticism and dropped out of university when it finally dawned on me that the system was designed not to enlighten but to make a useful citizen of me. I wanted none of it. What I craved was a truly meaningful life, so, like many others at the time, I hitchhiked to India in search of “myself.” The inexorable windings of the hippie trail led me to Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey’s classes in Dharamsala, to the annual Kopan thirty-day retreat in Nepal, and then to Switzerland, where I was ordained by Geshe Rabten.
Geshe had gone to the West to turn out Western teachers, and I joined his small group of students near Rikon, Switzerland, where we lived in cramped conditions. Some of the others had been studying for years and already spoke Tibetan. We took the prospect of becoming teachers very seriously and discussed our mission in earnest. Geshe endeavored to pass on to us the training that had led to his geshe degree, and we thought a great deal about what it would mean to be the future interpreters of Buddhism in the West.
This was an exciting community of like-minded people. All of us in our own ways lamented the limitations of Western thought and were eager to learn Tibetan, to debate the monastic textbooks and transcend conventional knowledge. I discovered that the directed human brain was a powerful tool. My Tibetan progressed, and I was able to peek into the ancient texts for myself. Soon I began to experience self-esteem for the first time in my life; I enjoyed the respect that came with the robes and looked forward to becoming a teacher. After a reprobate youth, I was actually becoming useful.
As I became more proficient, I took part in discussions about how to translate the dozens of technical words that had no direct English equivalents. The language of the debate textbooks is precise and relatively static, but English meanings shift over time as they take their place in ever-evolving systems of thought. It became clear that we’d need to expand our familiarity with Western thought if we were to become effective translators. Geshe happily shared his broad knowledge of the debate textbooks but showed no interest in our language. He taught us as he’d been taught and never apparently considered that we’d be expected to teach any differently when our time came. Nevertheless, we had to understand our audience, and as we gradually delved into Western knowledge from the distant perspective of Tibetan Buddhism we discovered a new respect for our own roots. At first we tried to share our discoveries and dilemmas with Geshe, but he preferred that we spend more time on debate and forget about other subjects. However, the simple fact that we spoke English among ourselves, and to those who spoke no Tibetan, made thoughtful translation an inescapable priority.
Translating Tibetan into English had its challenges, but framing the religious or psychoanalytical questions of Westerners in Tibetan Buddhist terminology is almost inevitably to misrepresent them. Each Tibetan term is precisely defined and thrashed out through constant debate into a clearly shaped building block. It’s not that Tibetan is a less sophisticated language, rather, it’s not sophisticated at all. This gives it a tremendous inner coherence. (The Oxford English Dictionary defines sophisticated as “mixed with some foreign substance; adulterated; not pure or genuine.”)
Problems arose when we were called upon to interpret private interviews between Tibetan lamas and their Western visitors. There was no shortage of professionals and academics eager for cultural exchange, with occasionally improbable expectations. They sought Geshe’s opinions about Christ’s dying for our sins, on Einstein’s theory of relativity, about Jung’s collective unconscious, and even about whom they should or shouldn’t marry. Once rendered in the precise language of Tibetan debate, these questions became a strange caricature of Buddhist philosophy, often provoking Geshe’s consternation. His frowns and smiles were compassionate and fatherly, but they were also a conversation-stopper.