There’s a very interesting story from the time of the Buddha, about a man named Angulimara, or, One Thousand Finger Mala. The story is an example of how even the most heinous of criminals can find Nirvana, and also another example of returning the debt of one’s Kamma. For those who know the story already, you may also share my impression that it is also a great example of the Buddha’s proactive effort to ease the world of suffering.
For those who don’t know the story, there are two main parts; his life up until being confronted by the Buddha, and his Holy monastic life afterward. They are quite long for a blog post, but very interesting. I’ve found two excellent translations, available at http://www.accesstoinsight.org.
If you don’t have the time to read, I’ll do my best to sum it up…
Angulimala was born with the omen of a thief. Out of concern, his parents named him Ahimsaka, Harmless. His parents raised him very well, and sent him to a good school where he became the teacher’s favorite. Out of jealousy, the other students caused the teacher to distrust Ahimsaka, and the teacher told him that to complete his studies, he must present his teacher with a mala of one thousand human little fingers of the right hand. Laking the compassion to consider going to the burial grounds and taking them from corpses, he began murdering. By the time he’d collected 999 fingers, no one came near the woods where he dwelt. His mother had heard of what was happening and knew that it must be her son. Despite warnings that he would kill even his own mother to complete his mala, she went to stop him.
At this time, the Buddha also went into the woods. When Angulimala saw him he began chasing the Buddha, but even though the Buddha walked slowly, Angulimala could not run him down. So he stopped and called out to the Blessed One, “Stop, contemplative! Stop!”
“I have stopped, Angulimala. You stop.”
The thought occurred to Angulimala, “These Sakyan contemplatives are speakers of the truth, asserters of the truths, and yet this contemplative, even while walking, says, ‘I have stopped, Angulimala. You stop.’ Why don’t I question him?”
“While walking, contemplative, you say, ‘I have stopped.’ But when I have stopped you say I haven’t. I ask you the meaning of this: How have you stopped? How haven’t I? The Buddha responded, “I have stopped, Angulimala, once & for all, having cast off violence toward all living beings.With that, Angulimala finally stopped and became a disciple of the Buddha, and even became an Arahant. The people of the village could not forgive him, though, and stoned him and beat him with sticks. Advised by the Buddha, he accepted this as the culmination of his Kamma, and was fortunate to receive it there-and-then and not in the fires of Hell.
by Hellmuth Hecker
Angulimala, the robber and murderer, is one of the best known figures of the Buddhist scriptures, because of his dramatic life story. His conversion to monkhood and later to sainthood was exceptional as he seems to have been the only former criminal to be accepted into the Buddhist monastic order. The Buddha had often warned not to judge people from appearances and their external behavior. In Angulimala’s case, the Buddha had seen his hidden potential to win freedom, not only from his present low moral status and from rebirth in the lowest worlds of painful existence, but that Angulimala would also be able to gain the highest freedom from all suffering in this very life.
In Christianity, too, we find some instances of radical changes in the moral character of people: there is the “thief on the cross” at Golgatha who was promised by Jesus that he would be with him in paradise the next day; and the chief of a gang of robbers who was converted by Francis of Assisi and became a monk. Cases like these have always moved the hearts of the religious-minded and have raised the question how such changes could be possible. Angulimala’s story might give an answer to these questions.
At the Buddha’s time, at the court of King Pasenadi of Kosala, there was a learned brahman called Bhaggava Gagga who held the office of a Royal Chaplain and was thus one of the kingdom’s highest dignitaries. One night his wife, Mantani, gave birth to a son. Soon afterwards, the father cast the boy’s horoscope and to his consternation found that his son was born under the “robber-constellation” of the planets. This indicated that the boy would have within him a tendency to commit robbery. One can well imagine what the father must have felt when confronted with that shocking and unexpected revelation. On the day of the child’s birth, there was another disquieting event: all weapons and armory in the city of Savatthi had suddenly begun to sparkle.
In the morning, the brahman went to the palace as usual, and asked the king how he had slept. “How could I have slept well?” replied the king. “I woke up in the night and saw that my auspicious weapons lying at the end of my bed were in bright sparkle, so I was afraid and perturbed. Should this mean danger to the kingdom or my life?”
The brahman said: “Do not have any fear, O King! The same strange thing happened in the entire city, and it does not concern you. Last night my wife bore me a son, and unfortunately his horoscope had the robber-constellation. This must have caused the weapons to sparkle.”
“Will he be a lone robber or the chief of a gang?” — “He will do it alone, your Majesty. What if we were to kill him now and prevent future misdeeds?”
“As he would be a loner, O Teacher, let him be raised and properly educated. Then, perhaps, he may lose his evil propensities.”
To further this aim, the boy was called Ahimsaka, which means “Harmless.” When he grew up, he was quite well behaved, and unusually strong in body. But he was also studious and intelligent. So his parents had good reason to think that any evil dispositions in their son had been removed by a good education, and by the religious atmosphere of the home. This made them, of course, very happy.
In due course, his father sent Ahimsaka for his traditional studies to Takkasila (Taxila), the ancient and famous university of India. He was accepted by the foremost teacher of that seat of learning, and he continued to be so studious that he surpassed all his fellow students. He also served his teacher so faithfully and humbly, was of so pleasant speech and conduct, that he soon became his teacher’s favorite. He even received his food from his teacher’s family. And this made his fellow students very jealous: “Since that young Ahimsaka came, we are almost forgotten. We must put a stop to it and cause a break between him and the teacher.” The well-tried way of calumny was not easy as neither Ahimsaka’s studiousness nor his conduct and noble ancestry gave an opening for denigrating him. “We have to alienate the teacher from him and thus cause a break,” they thought; and so they decided that three groups of people should approach the teacher at intervals.
The first group of pupils went to the teacher and said, “Some talk is being heard around the house.” — “What is it, my dear?” — “We believe it is about Ahimsaka plotting against you.” Hearing this, the teacher became excited and scolded them: “Get away, you miserable lot! Do not try to cause dissention between me and my son!” After some time, the second set of pupils spoke to him in a similar way. So also a third group, which added: “If our teacher does not trust us, he may examine it himself and find out.”
Finally the poisonous seed of suspicion took root in his heart and he came to believe that Ahimsaka, so strong in body and mind, actually wanted to push him out. Once suspicion is roused, one can always find something that seems to confirm it. So the teacher’s suspicion grew into conviction. “I must kill him or get him killed,” he thought. But then he considered: “It will not be easy to kill such a strong man. Besides, if he is slain while living here as my pupil, it will harm my reputation and students may no longer come to me. I must think of some other device to get rid of him as well as punish him.”
It happened that soon afterwards Ahimsaka’s course of studies had come to an end, and he was preparing to go home. Then the teacher called him and said: “My dear Ahimsaka, for one who has completed his studies, it is a duty to give a gift of honor to his teacher. So give it to me!” — “Certainly, master! What shall I give?” — “You must bring me a thousand human little fingers of the right hand. This will then be your concluding ceremonial homage to the science you have learned.”
The teacher probably expected that Ahimsaka, in his attempt to complete that deed, would be killed himself or, being caught by the king’s men, would suffer the highest penalty of execution. Perhaps the teacher may also have secretly cast Ahimsaka’s horoscope, seen from it his latent propensity to violence and now tried to incite it.
Faced with such an outrageous demand, Ahimsaka first exclaimed: “O Master! How can I do that? My family never engaged in violence. They are harmless people.” — “Well, if the science does not receive its due ceremonial homage, it will yield no fruit for you.” Now Ahimsaka consented and, after worshipping his teacher, he left.
The stories of old on which this present narrative is based do not tell us what had moved Ahimsaka finally to accept his teacher’s macabre demand, without any further and stronger protest. One of his motivations may have been that an unquestioning obedience to the guru appeared to him as the first duty of a pupil, this being an echo from his earlier way of life that was governed by higher principles. But the stronger factor in his decision will probably have been that his hidden dispositions had actually emerged in his mind when vistas of violence were evoked by his teacher’s words. He may have felt attracted by a life of violent adventure as a challenge to his manly prowess.
Tradition tells that in one of his former lives he had been a powerful spirit, a so-called yakkha, who used his superhuman strength to hurt and kill living beings to satisfy his appetite for human flesh. In all his past experiences that are reported in the Jatakas, two traits are prominent in him: his physical strength and his lack of compassion. This was the dark heritage of his past which broke into his present life, submerging the good qualities of his early years.
So, in his final response to his teacher’s demand, he did not even think of the alternative, to gather the fingers from corpses thrown into India’s open charnel grounds. Instead he equipped himself with a set of the fivefold weaponry, among them a large sword, and went into the wild Jalini forest in his home state, Kosala. There he lived on a high cliff from where he could observe the road below. When he saw travelers approaching, he hurried down, slew them and took one finger from each of his victims.
First he hung the fingers on a tree where birds ate the flesh and dropped the bones. When he saw that the bones were rotting on the ground, he threaded the finger bones and wore them as a garland. From that he received the nickname Angulimala, “He with the finger garland.”
As he went on killing, people shunned that forest and soon nobody dared to go there, not even the firewood gatherers. Angulimala now had to go into the vicinity of villages and, from a hiding place, attack people who passed, cutting off their fingers and making his necklace grow. He even went so far as to enter houses at night, killing the inhabitants just for the taking of their fingers. He did this in several villages. As no one could resist Angulimala’s enormous strength, people had to leave their homes, and the villages became deserted. The homeless villagers, having trekked to Savatthi, camped at the outskirts of the city and went to the royal palace. Weeping and lamenting, they told the king of their plight. Now the king saw that firm action was necessary and he had the drum of royal announcements beaten to proclaim: “Quickly, the robber Angulimala must be captured. Let an army detachment gather for instructions!”
Apparently, Angulimala’s true name and descent had remained unknown. But his mother felt that it could not be anyone else than her son, Ahimsaka, who had never returned from Takkasila and may have fallen into those evil ways predicted by his horoscope. So when she heard the public announcement, she went to her husband, the Brahman Bhaggava, and said: “It is our son, that fearful bandit! Now soldiers have set out to capture him. Please, dear, go, find him and plead with him to change his life, and bring him home! Otherwise the king will have him killed.” But the Brahman said, “I have no use for such a son. The king may do with him what he likes.”
But a mother’s heart is soft, and out of love for her son, she set out alone for the forest area where Angulimala was reported to have been hiding. She wanted to warn him and save him, and to implore him to renounce his evil life and go back with her.
At that time Angulimala had already gathered 999 fingers, and only one more was needed to complete the 1,000, the target set by his teacher. To bring his task to an end, he may well have killed his mother when seeing her on the road. But matricide is one of the five heinous offenses that have an irreversible and immediate result. They lead to rebirth in the lowest hell. So, without his knowing it, Angulimala, as it were, was close to hell’s rim.
In this situation — it was in the twentieth year of the Buddha’s teaching career — the Master, in surveying the world, became aware of Angulimala. To the Buddha, with his faculty of remembering former existences, he was not unknown. In many lives they had met before, and often had the Bodhisatta conquered Angulimala’s strength of body by his strength of mind. Once Angulimala had even been a close relative of the Bodhisatta, his uncle (Jat 513).
Now, when their lives had crossed again, and the Buddha saw the grave danger in which Angulimala had placed himself, he did not hesitate to walk the thirty miles to meet him and save him.
translated from Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi at Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. And at that time in King Pasenadi’s realm there was a bandit named Angulimala: brutal, bloody-handed, devoted to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. He turned villages into non-villages, towns into non-towns, settled countryside into unsettled countryside. Having repeatedly killed human beings, he wore a garland (mala) made of fingers (anguli).
Then the Blessed One, early in the morning, having put on his robes and carrying his outer robe & bowl, went into Savatthi for alms. Having wandered for alms in Savatthi and returning from his alms round after his meal, set his lodging in order. Carrying his robes & bowl, he went along the road to where Angulimala was staying. Cowherds, shepherds, & farmers saw him going along the road to where Angulimala was staying, and on seeing him said to him, “Don’t go along that road, contemplative, for on that road is Angulimala: brutal, bloody-handed, devoted to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. He has turned villages into non-villages, towns into non-towns, settled countryside into unsettled countryside. Having repeatedly killed human beings, he wears a garland made of fingers. Groups of ten, twenty, thirty, & forty men have gone along that road, and even they have fallen into Angulimala’s hands.” When this was said, the Blessed One kept going in silence.
A second time… A third time, cowherds, shepherds, & farmers said to the Blessed One, “Don’t go along that road, contemplative… Groups of ten, twenty, thirty, & forty men have gone along that road, and even they have fallen into Angulimala’s hands.” When this was said, the Blessed One kept going in silence.
Then Angulimala saw the Blessed One coming from afar and on seeing him, this thought occurred to him: “Isn’t it amazing! Isn’t it astounding! Groups of ten, twenty, thirty, & forty men have gone along this road, and even they have fallen into my hands, and yet now this contemplative comes attacking, as it were, alone and without a companion. Why don’t I kill him?” So Angulimala, taking up his sword & shield, buckling on his bow & quiver, followed right behind the Blessed One.
Then the Blessed One willed a feat of psychic power such that Angulimala, though running with all his might, could not catch up with the Blessed One walking at normal pace. Then the thought occurred to Angulimala: “Isn’t it amazing! Isn’t it astounding! In the past I’ve chased & seized even a swift-running elephant, a swift-running horse, a swift-running chariot, a swift-running deer. But now, even though I’m running with all my might, I can’t catch up with this contemplative walking at normal pace.” So he stopped and called out to the Blessed One, “Stop, contemplative! Stop!”
“I have stopped, Angulimala. You stop.”
Then the thought occurred to Angulimala, “These Sakyan contemplatives are speakers of the truth, asserters of the truths, and yet this contemplative, even while walking, says, ‘I have stopped, Angulimala. You stop.’ Why don’t I question him?”
So Angulimala the bandit addressed this verse to the Blessed One:
“While walking, contemplative, you say, ‘I have stopped.’ But when I have stopped you say I haven’t. I ask you the meaning of this: How have you stopped? How haven’t I?” The Buddha:
“I have stopped, Angulimala, once & for all, having cast off violence toward all living beings. You, though, are unrestrained toward beings. That’s how I’ve stopped and you haven’t.” Angulimala:
“At long last a greatly revered great seer for my sake has come to the great forest. Having heard your verse in line with the Dhamma, I will go about having abandoned evil.” So saying, the bandit hurled his sword & weapons over a cliff into a chasm, a pit. Then the bandit paid homage to the feet of the One Well-gone, and right there requested the Going-forth. The Awakened One, the compassionate great seer, the teacher of the world, along with its devas, said to him then: “Come, Bhikkhu.” That in itself was bhikkhuhood for him.
Then the Blessed One set out wandering toward Savatthi with Ven. Angulimala as his attendant monk. After wandering by stages he reached Savatthi, and there he lived, near Savatthi, in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery.
Now at that time a large crowd of people, loud & noisy, had gathered at the gates to King Pasenadi Kosala’s inner palace, [calling out,] “There is a bandit in your realm, sire, named Angulimala: brutal, bloody-handed, devoted to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. He has turned villages into non-villages, towns into non-towns, settled countryside into unsettled countryside. Having repeatedly killed human beings, he wears a garland made of fingers. The king must stamp him out!”
Then King Pasenadi Kosala, with a cavalry of roughly 500 horsemen, drove out of Savatthi and entered the monastery. Driving as far as the ground was passable for chariots, he got down from his chariot and went on foot to the Blessed One. On arrival, having bowed down, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, “What is it, great king? Has King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha provoked you, or have the Licchavis of Vesali or some other hostile king?”
“No, lord. King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha hasn’t provoked me, nor have the Licchavis of Vesali, nor has some other hostile king. There is a bandit in my realm, lord, named Angulimala: brutal, bloody-handed, devoted to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. He has turned villages into non-villages, towns into non-towns, settled countryside into unsettled countryside. Having repeatedly killed human beings, he wears a garland made of fingers. I am going to stamp him out.”
“Great king, suppose you were to see Angulimala with his hair & beard shaved off, wearing the ochre robe, having gone forth from the home life into homelessness, refraining from killing living beings, refraining from taking what is not given, refraining from telling lies, living the holy life on one meal a day, virtuous & of fine character: what would you do to him?”
“We would bow down to him, lord, or rise up to greet him, or offer him a seat, or offer him robes, almsfood, lodgings, or medicinal requisites for curing illness; or we would arrange a lawful guard, protection, & defense. But how could there be such virtue & restraint in an unvirtuous, evil character?”
Now at that time Ven. Angulimala was sitting not far from the Blessed One. So the Blessed One, pointing with his right arm, said to King Pasenadi Kosala, “That, great king, is Angulimala.” Then King Pasenadi Kosala was frightened, terrified, his hair standing on end. So the Blessed One, sensing the king’s fear & hair-raising awe, said to him, “Don’t be afraid, great king. Don’t be afraid. He poses no danger to you.”
Then the king’s fear, his terror, his hair-standing-on-end subsided. He went over to Ven. Angulimala and said, “Are you really Angulimala, lord?”
“Yes, great king.”
“What is your father’s clan? What is your mother’s clan?”
“Then may Master Gagga Mantaniputta delight [in staying here]. I will be responsible for your robes, almsfood, lodgings, & medicinal requisites for curing illness.”
Now it so happened that at that time Ven. Angulimala was a wilderness-dweller, an alms-goer, wearing one set of the triple robe made of cast-off cloth. So he said to King Pasenadi Kosala, “Enough, great king. My triple robe is complete.”
So King Pasenadi Kosala went to the Blessed One and on arrival, having bowed down, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, “It’s amazing, lord. It’s astounding, how the Blessed One has tamed the untamed, pacified the unpeaceful, and brought to Unbinding those who were not unbound. For what we could not tame even with blunt or bladed weapons, the Blessed One has tamed without blunt or bladed weapons. Now, lord, we must go. Many are our duties, many our responsibilities.”
“Then do, great king, what you think it is now time to do.”
Then King Pasenadi Kosala got up from his seat, bowed down to the Blessed One and — keeping him to his right — departed.
Then Ven. Angulimala, early in the morning, having put on his robes and carrying his outer robe & bowl, went into Savatthi for alms. As he was going from house to house for alms, he saw a woman suffering a breech birth. On seeing her, the thought occurred to him: “How tormented are living beings! How tormented are living beings!” Then, having wandered for alms in Savatthi and returning from his alms round after his meal, he went to the Blessed One. On arrival, having bowed down to him, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, “Just now, lord, early in the morning, having put on my robes and carrying my outer robe & bowl, I went into Savatthi for alms. As I was going from house to house for alms, I saw a woman suffering a breech birth. On seeing her, the thought occurred to me: ‘How tormented are living beings! How tormented are living beings!'”
“In that case, Angulimala, go to that woman and on arrival say to her, ‘Sister, since I was born I do not recall intentionally killing a living being. Through this truth may there be wellbeing for you, wellbeing for your fetus.'”
“But, lord, wouldn’t that be a lie for me? For I have intentionally killed many living beings.”
“Then in that case, Angulimala, go to that woman and on arrival say to her, ‘Sister, since I was born in the noble birth, I do not recall intentionally killing a living being. Through this truth may there be wellbeing for you, wellbeing for your fetus.'”
Responding, “As you say, lord,” to the Blessed One, Angulimala went to that woman and on arrival said to her, “Sister, since I was born in the noble birth, I do not recall intentionally killing a living being. Through this may there be wellbeing for you, wellbeing for your fetus.” And there was wellbeing for the woman, wellbeing for her fetus.
Then Ven. Angulimala, dwelling alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, & resolute, in no long time reached & remained in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing & realizing it for himself in the here & now. He knew: “Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for the sake of this world.” And thus Ven. Angulimala became another one of the Arahants.
Then Ven. Angulimala, early in the morning, having put on his robes and carrying his outer robe & bowl, went into Savatthi for alms. Now at that time a clod thrown by one person hit Ven. Angulimala on the body, a stone thrown by another person hit him on the body, and a potsherd thrown by still another person hit him on the body. So Ven. Angulimala — his head broken open and dripping with blood, his bowl broken, and his outer robe ripped to shreds — went to the Blessed One. The Blessed One saw him coming from afar and on seeing him said to him: “Bear with it, Brahman! Bear with it! The fruit of the kamma that would have burned you in hell for many years, many hundreds of years, many thousands of years, you are now experiencing in the here-&-now!”
Then Ven. Angulimala, having gone alone into seclusion, experienced the bliss of release. At that time he exclaimed: