A Sense of Belonging

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

Stephen Schettini

Only those who have actually visited a Gelugpa monastic university can believe just how noisy it is. Forget about quiet courtyards, silent meditation, and the serene exchange of ideas! Morning and evening, boys pace up and down verandas and laneways yelling their memorized texts at an extraordinary rate, each vying with the next, until they’ve etched hundreds of pages in permanent memory. The older boys expend their testosterone in excited debate, where pushing and shoving is considered good fun and the spittle flies—Gelugpa debate is no dry or pious exercise. Its main purpose is to thoroughly familiarize the student with the content of the Buddhist canon, although the inspired debater will recognize the inherent limits of thought, and land in the sort of existential quandary that points beyond conventional knowledge. Such debate is considered a form of contemplative mind-training.

“You believe that?” asked a bright nineteen-year-old incredulously.

I actually considered it a fact, but since it wasn’t within my direct experience and the thesis remained unproven—at least among Tibetans—it was indeed a belief. “Yes,” I agreed, “I believe it.”

With the adversarial gusto of a practiced debater, he rose to his feet and reminded me that the wind that destroys the universe at the end of the aeon blows continuously, just above the summit of Mount Meru, destroying everything in its path—American spacecraft included. I jumped at this diversion from scriptural rote and entered cheerfully into the spirit of things.

However, it soon became clear that this was no intellectual exercise. When I suggested that Mount Meru, the center of the classical Hindu and Buddhist universe, was at best a metaphorical description, he became perturbed. Worse still, I responded to his scriptural citations by stating that not everything the Buddha said was necessarily true. The mood changed perceptibly, but I blundered on a little further before realizing that the conversation had gone beyond the pale. I was now struggling with my companion’s personal sense of belonging, his moral and intellectual security. I was no longer just an adversary, but an outsider.

With that, reality hit me in the face. I could learn to speak Tibetan, put on the red robes, and even live in Sera Monastic University, but I was as completely out of place here as I’d been at home—a mass of contradictions when I began and a mass of contradictions now. I “believed” in enlightenment, but without real experience what did that amount to? Such convenient belief was an arbitrary decision, made as if I were an independent entity in charge of my beliefs, thoughts, and existence—not dependent, a product of my times, born of an environment from which I was not separate. I wasn’t a Tibetan but a Westerner who for some reason or another was compelled to ask questions that consistently undermined my own sense of security. I could no more unplug my urge to ask awkward questions than I could abandon my mother tongue. As a godless, disenfranchised Westerner living, as Stephen Batchelor puts it in Living with the Devil, “on a ball of rock and mud hurtling through space, who is skeptical about the promises of religion,” I was already predisposed to questions that resisted final conclusions, even though I still ached neurotically for security.

The eminently human young Tibetan whose insecurities had so shocked me had unwittingly undermined the illusion that had most convincingly brought me into the Tibetan fold—that Buddhists are more tuned in to reality, more open than most religious and even scientific Westerners. The realization that ordained monks and respected scholars might be acting out of insecurity was as painful and therapeutic as having a boil lanced.

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