Spirituality vs. Spiritualism and What We Can Learn from Milarepa

Via Nadia Ballas-Ruta
on Aug 16, 2010
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Is being spiritual different than being into spiritualism?

One of my favorite historical figures is the Tibetan Buddhist saint Milarepa.

He came from a well-to-do family but then his father died. Milarepa’s uncle ended up taking all of the inheritance which was meant for Milarepa and left the rest of his family without money and so they went from luxury to having nothing literally over night.

Milarepa’s mother was so angry at what happened that when Milarepa was of proper age, she sent him to learn sorcery so that he could revenge the pain inflicted upon them by their uncle.

Milarepa went off to study with a sorcerer and became a very good student. He then used what he learned back at his village where he ended up killing 30 people with his sorcery.

Upon seeing all the misery that he inflicted, he felt horrible. His mother was extremely happy but Milarepa was in agony at what he did. He left his village and eventually came across a Buddhist monk who showed him mercy.

Due to the kindness bestowed upon him by the monk, he decided to study Buddhism.

Milarepa is famous for living in caves, not wearing many clothes and spreading his wisdom through the gift of song. He is also known for achieving enlightenment in one lifetime. His story is often used as an example of how karma can be reduced by sincere dedication and practice. For if he could attain enlightenment even after causing the death of 30 people, any of us can.

One of my favorite stories about Milarepa is about a young man who comes to study with him. At the end of his studies he asks Milarepa if there is anything more he can share about becoming enlightened. Milarepa simply tells him that he has learned all that he needs to know.

When the time comes for the student to leave, he again asks Milarepa for any final guidance and Milarepa repeats that the man has learned all that he needs to know.

As the young man starts to walk away, Milarepa calls out to him and when the young man turns around, so does Milarepa. He then lifts up the thin garment that was covering him and reveals his bare behind which has many marks caused by sitting in meditation for hours.

The moral of the story is that it takes dedication and effort to attain enlightenment. Knowing theories is one thing but putting them into practice takes things to a higher level.

This leads me to the point about how spirituality is not spiritualism. Let me explain.

Spiritualism is defined as “a monotheistic belief system or religion, postulating a belief in God, but with a distinguishing feature of belief that spirits of the dead residing in the spirit world can be contacted by ‘mediums’, who can then provide information about the afterlife.”

Spirituality, on the other hand, is “an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of their being; or the ‘deepest values and meanings by which people live’.”

To be truly on a spiritual path is to take the wisdom and teaching that resonates most with your heart and apply it to your life.

None of us are in a position to determine who is truly spiritual because none of us truly knows what resides inside a person’s heart. That said…discernment is necessary when distinguishing fact from fiction.

To know your horoscope and believe in your horoscope does not put you on the road to enlightenment. Waxing philosophic on how you love Buddhism but yet having never sat down to meditate or never practicing Buddhist teachings…does not make you spiritual nor does it make you a Buddhist.

When I was on the monastic path, my teacher who taught Hinduism, told us the following story:

There were two men in a village who were used as examples to ask one of the Hindu gods who was a better devotee. The first man did all of the rituals as written in the Holy books but yet when he was done doing the rituals, he never again thought of his studies or of the Divine.


The other man never did any of the rituals but he was constantly saying “God damn this” and “God damn that”.


Once the speaker was done sharing the two examples, there was a moment of silence and then the Hindu god said that the second man was a better devotee because God was on his mind all the time.

Form means nothing unless it is backed with substance and sincerity. I am all for being spiritual. I welcome it. We need a world were spirituality is expressed but we also need to make sure that the integrity of the path is upheld. Let us not dilute it with passive beliefs in things like horoscopes, psychics and crystals. Those things may hold some merit, however, to just have a bunch of crystals and yet be rude to your neighbor is not being spiritual.

Word, thought and deed must be in harmony. For how you engage with others is how your spirituality is put to the test.


About Nadia Ballas-Ruta

Nadia Ballas-Ruta is a former attorney and almost took final vows as a Vedanta nun with the prestigious Ramakrishna Order. She has traveled the world, lived in India and so much more. She currently is working as a freelance writer and photographer. The focus of her work as an artist is to help people recognize their inherent Divinity. She is also a regular contributor at Think Simple Now.


8 Responses to “Spirituality vs. Spiritualism and What We Can Learn from Milarepa”

  1. Ramakrishna told a similar story about two young men who walked past a house where there was a recitation of the Bhagavad Gita in progress. One man went in to hear the Gita while the other continued on to a "house of ill repute." The latter soon regretted his decision, finding the pleasures of the house empty and wishing he were instead with his friend hearing the Gita. The friend, meanwhile, was berating himself for wasting his time when he could have been having fun with his companion! The one who went to the whorehouse but repented of it was counted as the more blessed.

  2. Hey Scott,

    I read that story a long time ago. Thank you for the reminder. It is a great example of what I was referring to in the post!

    Hope all is well!

  3. […] of Buddhist monks. The kind of people your mother warned you about. Over time the message I got was one of subjugation of desires, eliminating the ego and passivity. To my horror, I discovered that I had become “That Guy.” Yes, the sensitive ponytail […]

  4. […] concepts of ego and moving beyond it are present in many spirituality structures, including Yoga, Buddhism, and contemplative Christianity. When one moves into these […]

  5. DeoMor says:

    Thanks Nadia for the informative article.

  6. Thanks for this great article Nadia. Just happened upon it on the front page and I’m so glad that I did.

    I couldn’t possibly express just how much I agree with your closing point. I know far too many people who have fallen into that very trap, essentially holding beliefs yet not living in a way that reflects them.

    It’s all about your daily practice. In each and every moment, what are you thinking/doing? Love it!

  7. Nice Article Nadia. Spiritualism is a western concept in which soul is considered to possess some individuality, powers and memory of the past life and attachments. It is more suited for those who do not believe in rebirth or liberation. Spirituality on the other hand is a purely austere effort, meant exclusively for liberation or self-realization. It is well suited for those who believe in karma, rebirth and the possibility of liberation.

  8. jacky says:

    Spritualism believe in rebirth and liberation as well..correct your knowledge!