Spiritual Advancement

I was reading this Facebook thread recently where some commenters were debating the “spiritual advancement” of certain gurus and which one was the most advanced of them all. And reading it reminded me of the following incident…


I was an amateur sculptor in my student days. It all began with this wooden Weeping Buddha statue someone gifted me. It was plain and unfinished in its appearance. But it inspired in me this deep desire to create something just like it.

So, I got myself some clay and began working on making a replica of it. After a few days of work, I finished it and covered it in gold paint. Many people complimented me on the statue and remarked that I had a natural talent for sculpting. So, I began sculpting more often. Over the next couple of years, my skill improved and I began sculpting all kinds of figures. My subject of interest was in sculpting figures of ascetics, mendicants and monks in meditation.

Then one day, a friend invited me to display some of my sculptures in a university arts and crafts show. So, I brought a handful of my clay figures together and displayed them on a table that I had been designated.

When I returned later that afternoon, I found a group of three students standing at the table discussing the sculptures. They sounded like freshmen art students who were trying to one-up each other with their superior critiquing skills. I listened in amusement as they analyzed the thought process of the “artist” in sculpting each figure – what he must have been channeling when he created it.

I sauntered over and stood beside them pretending to be just someone browsing.

“See, I don’t think that’s it,” the guy with the glasses was saying to the girl with the pink hair, while pointing to a figure of a meditating monk, “this one is clearly different from the rest. His expression doesn’t bear the same stern resolve and grim ambition so evident in the others’ expressions. His posture is soft and yielding not rigid and defiant. His body isn’t quite as emaciated. To me he seems content. His smile conceals a secret only he can understand. In fact, I dare say, he alone has found what he was searching for. He is enlightened!”

The other two balked at him. The girl with the pink hair disagreed, “you’re not looking at it deeply enough. That’s not contentment, that’s self-satisfaction. It’s not a secret he is concealing, it’s his own ego and arrogance. That smile is the smile of false humility like all those priests and false prophets who fill their coffers with the hopes of the masses. If any of these figures are enlightened it’s this one over there,” she pointed to the frail and aging figure of a peasant woman sitting in the shade of her own shawl.

“Now this is a simple woman who has clearly devoted her life to her work, her family, her love and her god. Her truth is more powerful than any of the others’. Her face is creased with hardship and suffering, but her eyes are full of wisdom and compassion. To me, she strikes me as the most spiritual of them all.”

The big guy with the beard shook his head, “don’t agree with either of you. You’re trying to read too much into their stories. There is only one that easily stands out far above the rest and it’s this sadhu dude over here. You can tell by the length of his hair and the total lack of flesh on his body that this dude is COMMITTED! This guy is hardcore. The others are amateurs!”

This back and forth continued for a while and then, at a certain point, the guy in the glasses noticed me listening to their conversation. So, he decided to settle the argument and asked me, as an outside and unbiased observer, whose opinion I aligned with the most? Which figure, among these, struck me as the most “spiritually liberated”?

I furrowed my brow and thought for a while. And then responded,

“You know, I really couldn’t say. But what I can tell you is that they were all made from the same lump of clay. And next week, they’ll all be going in the same trashcan.”

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