A Sense of Belonging

Searching for meaning at home and abroad, Stephen Schettini realizes that the truth lies within.

Stephen Schettini

Not surprisingly, the Tibetans laughed at us a good deal. Our consumer approach to enlightenment left us hungry for instant gratification, and we compounded our overexertion by trying to outdo our own teachers in a strict—sometimes positively anal—observance of monastic rules, raising the neurotic stakes still higher. Whereas the Tibetans tend to be a good-natured and easygoing lot, we were uptight and anxious, and their generally compassionate responses often lapsed into gentle condescension. One concerned geshe in Sera actually suggested that I focus my entire practice on finding rebirth as a Tibetan, so that in my next life I’d have a real shot at enlightenment. All this was fair enough, if not actually therapeutic, but when our concerns over questions framed in Western terms were greeted with the same paternal condescension, we were more troubled. “Cultural exchange” seemed at times to be a one-way street that flowed from the superior to the inferior. Anyone who has studied Buddhist tenets will know how various interpretations of emptiness are arranged in a philosophical hierarchy, in which each version is slightly less flawed than the previous, until one arrives at the pinnacle—the “correct” (and admittedly elegant) Prasangika-Madhyamika view. Most geshes trying to understand a foreign system of thought would instinctively seek to place it in this hierarchy, with predictable results.

The situation was disappointing, but not yet critical. In the meantime, something much more important was worrying me—my studies were progressing, but I wasn’t finding the emotional control and stability I’d expected. I was learning about dharma, but what about the practice? Geshe Rabten assured me that learning came first, realization second, and encouraged me to persevere. Thus I returned to India to improve my Tibetan and to see his alma mater for myself. The hundred or so Sera monks who had relocated in South India to rebuild their shattered institution had gathered about three hundred boy novices, cultivated fields of corn, and rebuilt their colleges and houses brick by brick.

Geshe had suggested that I become the monastery’s first resident English teacher, but the completion of the schoolroom suffered interminable delays. It took me a while to realize that this wasn’t the result of poor organization, as the abbot preferred me to think, but of monastic realpolitik. The old-school teachers claimed they didn’t want their boys wasting time, but the real concern was that they’d be tempted from the hallowed halls by the suspect world that English would open up to them.

I wasn’t entirely unsympathetic, for I, too, mistrusted the consumer culture and saw that these boys had little resistance to its dubious charms. The walls of many monastery buildings were strangely littered with calendars featuring fantastic pictures of great cities whose streets swarmed with modern automobiles and whose skies teemed with jet planes. Living in that sun-baked compound reclaimed from the jungle, even I was drawn to those icons of physical ease. In fact, my distant but growing respect for Western thought was echoed by a subliminal craving for Western interaction: I missed the eclectic conversations with my colleagues in Switzerland. I wrote long, candid epistles to them from this bedrock of the Gelugpa—one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism—orthodoxy, and received astonished replies, for what I described wasn’t what they had expected.

Neither was it what my Tibetan hosts had expected, for I wasn’t exactly a polite, reserved visitor. Although I managed to see the monastery’s first dispensary off to a good start, I also raised hackles in many quarters by protesting vociferously against the clouds of DDT that were sprayed into one house after another. I spoke out against the living conditions of the novices, who slept in bundles of filthy rags, didn’t taste fresh fruit and vegetables from one year to the next, and were perpetually infected with ringworm, intestinal parasites, and other easily preventable ailments. The last straw came when the abbot point-blank refused my request to step between a particularly brutal teacher and his six-year-old charge. Eventually, the boy’s mother spirited him away, an occurrence over which there was much shaking of heads and for which I was justly blamed. At that point, I ungraciously abandoned the beautiful but very conspicuous room I’d been given in the Sera-Je temple complex for a rat-infested hut in the remotest corner of the monastic compound. There I could think and tend in peace to the boys who came to me with their cuts and scrapes.

The boys themselves were oblivious to their poverty. With remarkably few exceptions, they respected their elders and studied hard. Despite severely overcrowded conditions—up to a dozen boys in a single room—there was a notable absence of fighting or any deep-rooted conflict at all. The crowding was compounded by a complete absence of running water or toilets.

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