A Sense of Belonging

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

Stephen Schettini

I put together an inventory of what I felt compelled to believe, as opposed to what I simply wanted to believe, and remembered that the path is not an instruction manual. A superficial reading of the Prajnaparamita Sutras—a series of vital Mahayana sutras—suggests a sequence of identifiable stages, as if the attainment of each one qualifies the seeker to embark on the next. This wasn’t what the Buddha did, or what he taught. Since becoming a monk I’d filled my life with study, tantric imagery, and monastic ritual that was fascinating but guaranteed nothing. I asked myself, “What is dharma practice?” and the simple words of Lama Thubten Yeshe came to mind: “Know[ing] your own mind and how it works.”

Kala  InsttituteI left Sera and traveled south, going into retreat in a Sri Lankan monastery, away from the romance and colorful imagery of Tibetan Buddhism. There, the differences between the plain bread and water of Vipassana practice and the huge ice-cream sundae of the Tibetan tradition took on a practical new meaning. Perhaps my dharma diet had simply been too rich for me.

After fifteen months, I returned to Switzerland with mixed feelings of relief and foreboding. My robes represented the freedom to devote myself undistractedly to dharma practice, but what did that mean? I began to see the path as a state of mind, an attitude that, when maintained, is itself Buddhahood—not an achievement but a process. Far from being a concrete, predictable, and infallible road map, the path is empty. Like everything, it’s uniquely related to one’s own mental formations. We find our path, I thought, in probing our own creativity.

The question now was, what practices would help me? To what extent were they authentic? How to measure authenticity? Like any other, the Tibetan establishment was a human institution, self-perpetuating, tending to resist the change, questioning, and doubt that is every true seeker’s life mission.

Back in Switzerland I found myself the elder monk, as most of the core group from Rikon had now left for a variety of compelling personal reasons. I taught younger monks, interpreted for Geshe and other visiting lamas, and traveled to other European centers to translate. This was less straightforward than I’d initially imagined. While I’d seen Western audiences happily swallow the most unscientific tales from a Tibetan lama, I was now expected to explain how I reconciled things like Tibetan cosmology with the terms of objective inquiry. It got worse. Following in the tradition of my predecessors, I traveled once a week to Geneva to teach a group of laypeople. I sat before them with crossed legs, feeling constrained to present the same systematic teachings I’d heard myself so many times, and to which they too had grown accustomed. After all, I wore the robes, was there under the aegis of Geshe Rabten’s dharma center, and had a responsibility to represent the orthodoxy. I felt that my delivery was wooden and lifeless, but afterward I was praised for my wisdom and insight. I shuddered inwardly. I’d finally earned the right to teach, but I felt like a fraud. It was time to leave.

I felt my departure as a going forth to homelessness. Buddha’s original intention was to free his followers from the all-consuming commitment of the householder life and to leave behind the illusion of security. He didn’t advocate community life for his bhikshus but instructed them, “Wander forth, O monks. Let no two go the same way.” I was beginning to realize just how much could change in the two-and-a-half millennia between the communities that gathered around Buddha in northern India and today’s renewed Tibetan tradition. The Tibetans had to be understood in their cultural context. By extension, I also had to admit my needs as a Westerner and walk a path sufficiently broad for my exasperatingly sophisticated baggage.

I’d acquired some marketable skills and might have found a place in any number of monastic or academic institutions, but I’d had enough of ivory towers and was bitterly aware that scholasticism tends to make things more exclusive, not more accessible. The direction that instinctively emerged was much less convenient. I would abandon everything, go somewhere unknown, and enter the great rat race. I trusted that whatever I’d learned of truly practical significance would continue to grow in me, and that whatever had been arcane, self-perpetuating dogma would fade. In the meantime, I’d live like most other people, find out what the lay life was like, and perhaps even discover why they call it “real” life.

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