The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit and What I Learned
Greenleaf Book Group Press
345 pp, $24.95
Review by Christine Gertz
In a hotel room in Teheran on his way to India, Steve Schettini casts the I Ching and the coins respond to him with the result of “The Wanderer”. This cast encapsulates the experiences that Schettini recounts in his book, The Novice, which briefly recounts his childhood, youth, failed attempt at university and his meandering into the East which leads him to Buddhism and his ordination as a Buddhist monk in the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. For eight years, he studies and lives as an ordained Buddhist monk in Switzerland and Tibet, but in the end, his convictions that his staid, unquestioning fellow monks will not lead him to Awakening encourage him to leave the monastery and for a new life in Canada.
The Novice is a memoir with some aspects of a travelogue. When Schettini packs up and departs for India, he decides to hitchhike his way there, a rather haphazard travelling method that leads him into contact with Iranian businessmen and North American hippies. Schettini is frank about his own belief at the time that his pursuit was somehow more pure than the motives of his fellow travelers, and how he has come to grips with his own self-importance. This issue comes up again and again in the book: as a Buddhist, how can we be sure of labels, of human classifications? Schettini can’t and after his period in Tibet where he sees the ossification of practice and how unquestioning his fellow monks are, of their religion and cultural practices, he makes the difficult decision to find a new path.
The discussion of Buddhist percepts is light in book, so a person with limited exposure to Buddhism may not be confused. There are endnotes in the back to help the reader with unfamiliar or foreign terms. However, a reader may be confused by Schettini’s discontent with his seemingly idyllic life as a monk. After all, what more is expected of him but study, debate and teaching? But this appears to be one of Schettini’s arguments for his departure: it is not enough to study and accept, but to live and examine.
At the end of the classic movie, Lost Horizon, a Western romanticization of Eastern religions, Hugh Conway departs from the lamasery at Shangri-la, but he can never find his way back, though he continues to search for it, presumably until he dies. Schettini is still a wanderer at the end of The Novice, but his emphasis is on the path, not the end of the journey, and the book is not a resolution to his experience, but encouragement to keep wandering.