I Saw the Monk Scratch His Nose

I recently edited a long article on Buddhist canonical history by a junior scholar. It is an interesting study on how the early Buddhists debated the meaning of the earliest Buddhist writings and what texts should belong in the canon. Common among all of those involved in the debates was their devotion to the Buddha and the developing spiritual tradition. They were trying to better experience the divine as they construed it.

The article reminded me of my experiences at a talk and meditation session facilitated by a Buddhist monk. The talk was about devotion and the benefits of focusing beyond yourself. Devotion is difficult to define or even describe. To be honest, I don’t remember specifics of what the monk said, just that it was fairly standard Western Buddhist philosophy.

What has stayed with me from that night was what I saw of the monk and the audience. The meeting hall was packed with eager people, and I was seated in the last row from the stage along the aisle. The entrance was on the right side of the room near the back wall. A person stepped through the door to announce that “his holiness” was about to enter. Sure enough, a short, bald man dressed in traditional Buddhist ropes entered the hall, walking past where I sat and up the aisle to the stage.

The audience stood up on tip toes straining to get as much of a look at him as they could. Those nearest to me looked like they were about to melt in ecstatic joy. Their faces gave every appearance that they believed they were earning spiritual merit by gazing at “his holiness.” As the monk walked up the aisle to the stage, the people standing on the aisle leaned close as the monk passed, but not too close, seeking to be close to the flame but afraid of getting burned.

I am not a skeptic. I am not a cynic. I know there is spiritual energy. But it really struck me that night, the incongruity between the intense reactions of the people and the very ordinary looking man who arrived on the stage, greeted the audience, and began his talk. He had a sweet visage, a kind delivery, and a calm presence, but other than his orange and saffron robes, he was not much different than other sweet, kind, and calm people I had met.

The monk finished his teaching remarks and began the guided meditation. The rapt hush of the audience fell into even deeper hushitude as the monk spoke a short chant, dinged a bell a few times, then fell silently into meditation.

At times like this, my natural curiosity compels me to watch people and learn how they act. The audience met the monk’s silence with their own, some visibly straining with the earnestness of their silent devotion. Some held their hands up, palms facing the monk, apparently trying to feel the spiritual energy.

Meanwhile, the object of the audience’s devotion sat on the stage, eyes closed. As I looked at the monk, he scratched his nose. A simple gesture repeated multiple times a day by many people. Here, though, the object of devotion, “his holiness,” scratched his nose.

I do not mock. Quite the opposite. I praise the monk’s humanity. He had an itch, he scratched it— in the middle of the meditation.

Philosopher Rudolph Otto described holiness as something mysterious and fascinating, thrillingly vibrant and resonant. The source of holiness is Other, yet we profane beings can experience it. Holiness passes like a communication from one being to another, to anyone open to experiencing it.

That time I observed the monk and the audience I witnessed an enactment of what Otto was describing. Profane humans sought to experience, even if but briefly, the holy, the divine. Devotion in all its forms is that openness to the divine.

If those people in the audience thought the monk was holy, then they were making a mistake. Some describe devotion as being a faucet for the divine. Many artists and writers think and feel similarly. Creative energy flows through them, and truthfully, they are more participating in the act of creation, then being the creator. That in no way diminishes who they are and what they accomplish with their creative acts. (See Jean-François Lyotard’s concept of the creative act.)

I don’t know what others in the audience saw, but I saw the monk scratch his nose. He was not the proper object of devotion but a person serving as vehicle, a faucet. I am sure he would agree. That is perhaps what true devotion is. I suspect that if I had seen Gautama, Jesus, or Laozi, I would have seen a person; an undoubtedly shinny and serene person, but nevertheless a person.

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