A Monk's Lesson

I minored in philosophy in college, and in the late 1970s one of my teachers—Tom Hersh—relayed a transformative story that has stuck with me all these many years later. I share it here hoping you might find it useful in your own life.


In 1972 Tom overheard a colleague say that a Tibetan monk would be giving a free lecture in Los Angeles, and thought it might be fun to go hear what he had to say (sadly, I no longer recall the monk’s name).


So it was that Tom arrived early at the designated auditorium and took his seat. Before long many others showed up and packed the house. Lights dimmed and the curtain was drawn. A spotlight revealed the monk, who sat on pillows front and center on the stage, head bowed, legs crossed, hands folded calmly on his lap. He raised his head and with a quiet, controlled voice, began to speak.


After the lecture the monk invited members of the audience to approach the stage and meet him. Since Tom enjoyed the lecture he welcomed this opportunity, so he got in line with many others who waited patiently for their turn.


Tom noticed that the monk behaved a little differently to each person who greeted him: he patted one person on the shoulder, smiled and nodded at another, grasped another’s hand. It made him wonder how the monk might greet him when his turn came, and while he waited he thought about which of the various forms of welcome might be most pleasant to receive.


When Tom finally approached the robed figure on the stage, the monk silently assessed him for a few moments. Then, in the blink of an eye, he placed a hand firmly on top of Tom’s head and pressed it forcibly down onto the pillow in front of him.


Tom was instantly humiliated and embarrassed—for all eyes in the auditorium were undoubtably looking at him. But try as he might, he could not raise his head from the pillow, so strongly was the monk’s hand pressing downward upon the back of his head.


Finally—after what seemed like an eternity—the monk released him. Red-faced and with tears running down his cheeks, Tom rushed from the auditorium and back to his car. There he wondered what had just happened, and why. Trembling with anger and shame, he reviewed the situation over and over again in his mind. Why did the monk do that? And why did he feel so very upset?


Tom continued to think about the incident while he drove home, and by the time he arrived the answer dawned on him: the monk saw his arrogance, and was trying to humble him. Yes, it was true and he had to admit it: he had gone to the lecture with a “know it all” attitude, and the monk—with his uncannily sensitive perception—could see it on his face.


Tom never forgot this important life-lesson, and in time grew to not only appreciate it, but to view the monk’s action as a gift. It is said that humility is freedom from pride; a modest opinion of one’s own importance in the world. This powerful lesson served Tom well, and over the years it has benefited me also.