The Various Stages of Spiritual Growth

The Various Stages of Spiritual Growth

Within the human world, we have people in various stages of spiritual development. It ranges from one end of the spectrum to the other end. Historically, we can find people in all the spectrum.

To me, people in this human world can easily be grouped into the worldings and the spiritualists.


The worldings or puthujjana are those who have yet to see that they are spiritual beings. They believe strongly that this human form is all there is to their existence. Most believe that this life is all that matters. They do not believe in rebirth or reincarnation.

The result is that these worldings see no importance in the pursuit of spiritual knowledge. They may even see others who pursue spirituality to be foolish. This is understandable given their world view.

The danger with these worldings is that because they see no importance in spirituality, their focus is often entirely on the pursuit of worldly pleasures. Power and material wealth become their consuming passions. They do things to feed their egos and further increase their sense of self importance. Sensual gratifications become something that is not only good but desirable. It is their goal in life to have unlimited access to as much sense pleasures as possible. Thus, indulgence in sex, alcohol and all sorts of material happiness become their main motivation.

Unfortunately, no matter how much power or material wealth they may possess, they will not find lasting happiness. Since the nature of this world is ever changing, their happiness is only fleeting. The end result is that they will need greater and higher degree of sense pleasures to feel happy, thus locking themselves in a vicious cycle that will never end until and unless they wake up one day from their material stupor and recognize the emptiness that is within their heart.

Why is their heart empty? This is because they have been feeding their material body while neglecting their spiritual body, and in time this spiritual body becomes increasingly empty and hungry. Starving this spiritual body only increases the emptiness in the heart, and eventually it reaches a point where this emptiness cannot be ignored anymore.

It is like a building with a poorly built foundation. When we continue to build upon the building, making it higher and higher, eventually the foundation must give way and the entire building collapses upon itself.

Our spirituality is the foundation of the building. Building it higher and higher is like craving more and more sense pleasures.

On the other spectrum is the spiritualists.

The Spiritualists

Spiritualists, in my definition, are those who are awakened to their spiritual nature. They are those people who believe that they are primarily spiritual beings. They see this physical body and existence as simply a manifestation of their spirituality in this physical world. They believe that the goal of existence is spiritual growth. They recognize that having this physical body requires them to seek a certain degree of food, clothing, shelter and medicine for their material existence. However, beyond a certain level, these material seeking ends and their spiritual pursuit begins.

Spiritualists tend to focus their energy and effort into spiritual pursuits. They seek more knowledge and understanding of the world and of life. They quest for the ultimate unchanging truth and they live their lives in accordance with the universal laws.

One way to spot the difference between a worlding and a spiritualist is how they feed their ego. For the worlding, feeding the ego is his goal while the spiritualist takes great care to avoid feeding his ego. After all, the goal of spiritual practice is to go beyond the ego.

However, even among the spiritualists, we can further group them into two:

  1. Those with right understanding
  2. Those without right understanding

I will not discuss what constitutes right understanding here. We will save this for future discussion. Suffice to say that what we refer to as right understanding is the right understanding of how the world works and how life unfolds. In other words, seeing things as they really are. Knowing this automatically sets our attitudes toward life, giving us the right views and thoughts that lead to right speech and actions.

Thus, having the right understanding becomes essential for a spiritualist because it helps him to set himself in the right direction. Without this right understanding, even though one may be a spiritualist with the right intention for spiritual growth, one may continue to find himself confused and perplexed by the many so-called spiritual teachings available today.

Every major religion in this world claims that their teachings is the right one. Logic will tell us that all cannot be right. However, that does not mean that all are wrong. What is possible is that all contains the ultimate truth but through the ages, this ultimate truth may have been concealed deep under their regular teachings. It is possible that if we can find the similarity among these religions, there you will find the ultimate truth.

Indeed, I believe this to be true. Unfortunately, this ultimate truth is deeply buried within their teachings. Thus, they have become occult knowledge – hidden from view.

When a spiritualist has found right understanding, then he is said to have awaken to the truth. At this stage, he has still not realized the truth. To realize the truth, he has to walk the path and put into practice all that he has learned about the truth, and cultivate his mind until all defilement and obstacles to experience the pristine nature of our being are removed.

Having awaken to the truth, he can progress faster in his spiritual growth. The destination is clear to him and his spiritual path becomes a straight and direct one.

For a Buddhist, this goal becomes the ultimate goal of complete emancipation from the world of samsara. Anyone working towards this path is said to be becoming a noble one or an ariya.

The Noble Ones

A noble one or an ariya is one who has at least entered the stream and will not fall back into any one of the woeful planes of existence. This stream-winner is said to have, at most, only seven more rebirth before becoming an arahant or a fully enlightened one.

The Buddhist teachings categorize four levels of awakening, with sotapanna or stream-winner being the first level. The second level of awakening of a noble one is that of sakadagami or once-returner while the third level is that of the anagami or non-returner. The final and complete awakening is that of an arahant.

To become a stream-winner or a sotapanna, one has to eradicate the first three of ten fetters. They are:

  1. Eradication of doubts in the dhamma
  2. Eradication of self-identity views
  3. Abandonment of attachment to rites and rituals

Thus the goal of every Buddhist should be to achieve at least the level of sotapanna in this very life so that there is no risk of further falling back, and the road towards Nibbana is certain even with the remaining rebirths.

How does one enter the stream? According to the Buddhist sutta (SN55.5), there are four practices that lead to stream entry. They are:

  1. Association with people of integrity
  2. Listening to the true dhamma
  3. Appropriate attention – seeing things in terms of cause and effect
  4. Practice in accordance with the dhamma

A stream-winner is one who has no more ambivalence about the dhamma. He has strong faith and lives his life in accordance with the dhamma. A stream-winner has four distinct qualities. They are:

  1. Conviction in the Triple Gem. This conviction is not merely in the form of belief or devotion but through true understanding and seeing of the dhamma. Due to this conviction, the stream-winner lives in accordance with the universal laws.
  2. Virtue in thought, speech and actions.
  3. Generosity and the elimination of the 5 stinginess of lodging, supporters, gains, status and dhamma.
  4. Discernment of the true nature of things, of dependent origination, of cause and effect.

“Sole dominion over the earth, going to heaven, lordship over all worlds: the fruit of stream-entry excels them.” – Dhp 178

The various stages of spiritual growth

Note: Between the worldlings and the spiritualists is a group I called spiritual seekers. Spiritual seekers are those who are actively seeking to understand spirituality. However, they do not have the conviction of belief in their spiritual nature as a spiritualist does. A heavy dose of doubt still exists in their mind. Therefore, their confidence in the dhamma is not there. They live an ambivalent life, often believing in the truth that they have come to understand yet unable to live up to this truth.

Due to this uncertainty in their mind, some spiritual seekers try to play it safe by having their feet on each side. However, this is like standing on two boats with one foot in each boat. The position is precarious and totally unstable, and a very high likelihood of falling into the water.

Others continue to seek until they eventually become convinced and awaken to the spiritual nature of their being.


  1. The Way to Stream Entry, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
  2. Stream Entry and After, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Related Links:

  1. Stages of Spiritual Evolution
  2. What is Spiritual level?

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