A new film version was released this year based on the classic children’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio, about a wooden puppet who is brought to life and aspires to become a real boy. This story provides a wealth of fodder for spiritual metaphor. Especially when Pinocchio is told he must be “brave, truthful, and unselfish” in order to transform himself into flesh and blood.
Metaphorically, the wooden puppet is the spiritual aspirant. Becoming a real boy is, when squeezing out the gender reference, becoming spiritually enlightened. Next, we will discuss the three qualities that are needed to effect this metamorphosis.
Brave. A perfect example is the celebrated warrior Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, who is overtaken by a paralyzing anxiety when confronted with the prospects of battling his own kin. “My body is trembling; I am feverish all over,” Arjuna confesses (Gita 1:29-30), then he throws down his bow (Gita 1:47), ultimately proclaiming, “I will not fight!” (Gita 2:9). But the avatar Krishna rebukes him, saying, “Rid yourself of this petty weakness!” (Gita 2:3). Upon admitting he is confused (2:7), Arjuna asks Krishna for advice. Krishna smiles (Gita 2:10), then imparts the great teachings of the Gita to his receptive student. This has the effect of reminding Arjuna who he truly is—his spiritual self, and not his body, which is merely undergoing its karmic motions. Arjuna went on to fight and win the war, allegorically the daily battle of life that we all undergo. Pinocchio, too, had to muster up bravery in order to emerge victorious over his many harrowing ordeals. The lesson for us: be brave and attain enlightenment, then face all the vicissitudes of life with a calm, unperturbed mind.
Truthful. The Sufi Junayd said, “The essence of truthfulness means that you tell the truth in situations in which only a lie would save you” (Von Schlegell, trans., Principles of Sufism, p. 193). Truth is simply conveying events as they actually occur without glossing them over. Yet there seems to be a popular trend nowadays of telling lies. For Pinocchio, and especially for a spiritual aspirant, telling the truth is a sine qua non that can never be compromised. When Pinocchio shamelessly lied, his nose grew, which readily exposed his lying. Being truthful also means being true to one’s innermost spiritual nature; that is, following one’s spirituality to the best of their ability and diligently working to unfold it.
Unselfish. Christian and Tibetan Buddhist doctrine both stress the importance of selflessness. “Love one another” and “Work ceaselessly for the welfare of all beings” are the clarion calls of these two great religions. We are enjoined to think outside our own boxes by feeling compassion and expressing kindness toward others. Pinocchio demonstrated selflessness, as well as bravery, when he saved his father Geppetto from certain death in the belly of the whale Monstro. With practice, unselfishness can become one’s ingrained attitude. For a spiritual aspirant, selflessness should be one’s second nature.
In the end, Pinocchio became the real boy he wanted to be. The price of admission was his bravery, truthfulness, and unselfishness. We, too, as spiritual aspirants, can exponentially boost our progress toward enlightenment if we embody these same qualities.