The Clay Buddha Who Revealed a Simple Truth about People & (Workplace) Culture

by Daniel Jacobs

In 1955, the government of Thailand decided to build a highway in Bangkok through a location where an old temple stood. They purchased the rights to the temple, and agreed to let the local monks move a centuries-old clay Buddha to another location.

The clay Buddha was massive. It stood more than ten feet tall, and its belly was more than six feet in circumference. So the monks arranged for a crane to safely move the Buddha from the old temple to a new home.

But when the crane began to pick up and move the Buddha, it was clear they’d miscalculated its fragility. The idol was cracking. Immediately, the temple’s abbot screamed for it to be lowered to the ground and covered with tarps to protect it from incessant rains.

Later that night, the abbot couldn’t sleep. So he returned to the Buddha with a flashlight to inspect the damage to the sacred idol. As he peered at one of the cracks, he noticed something strange deep beneath the surface.

He returned to his monastery, found a hammer and chisel, and chipped away a small section around the crack. He was puzzled by what he saw. So he returned to the monastery, awoke the other monks, and asked for their help.

He told them each to bring a flashlight, hammer, and chisel. Together, they returned to the clay Buddha and, synchronously, they began to chip away at the enormous idol they’d been protecting for so many years.

When they finished their work the next morning, they stood back and gazed at what, together, they’d uncovered: their clay buddha wasn’t clay at all. Instead, it was a solid gold Buddha — the largest known solid gold statue in the history of the world


The golden Buddha in this story is a metaphor for the potential that’s hidden inside each of us, and inside each of our cultures. Each of us is gold on the inside, as are our work cultures. Often, we just have to chip away at an outer layer of clay to get to the gold!

Here’s the exciting news: it doesn’t matter how much clay stands in the way of our individual potential and the potential of our cultures: A few simple tools are all that’s required to chip away and reveal the golden potential inside.

  1. We need a flashlight (vision). The abbot and other monks used their flashlights to see through darkness and locate the gold through a crack in the clay. The flashlight represents the vision required to ignore our memory and conditioning, and instead see gold in our cultures.

  2. We need a chisel (precision). The abbot and other monks used their chisels to precisely remove the clay surrounding the golden Buddha without injuring it. The chisel represents the precision we need to improve our culture in ways that are aligned with the unique needs of our people and organization.

  3. We need a hammer (determination). The abbot and other monks used their hammers to create the force necessary to break apart the clay and reveal the gold. The hammer represents the determination required to see our culture efforts through to completion.

When we have a flashlight, a hammer, a chisel — used by an inspired team of people excited to work with vision, precision, and determination to uncover gold, great cultures – and the great lives that accompany then – are much more likely to emerge.

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