Angulimala: A Story of the Power of Compassion (long post)
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"There was once the son of a Brahmin (the highest "priestly" caste in India) in the court of King Pasenadi of Kosala, whose name was Ahimsaka. He was sent to Taxila for his studies. Ahimsaka was intelligent and obedient to this teacher; therefore he was liked by both the teacher and his wife. This made the other pupils jealous of him. So they went to the teacher and falsely accused Ahimsaka of having an immoral relationship with the teacher's wife. At first, he did not believe them, but after hearing it a number of times, he thought it was true and vowed to have revenge on Ahimsaka. He thought that to kill him would reflect badly on him. His rage prompted him to suggest the unthinkable to the young and innocent Ahimsaka. He told his pupil to kill a thousand human beings and to bring the right thumb of each as payment for teaching him. Of course the youngster would not even think of such a thing, so he was banished from the teacher's house and returned to his parents.
When his father learned why Ahimsaka had been expelled, he became furious with his son, and would hear no reason. On that very day, with the rain pouring down, he ordered Ahimsaka to leave the house. Ahimsaka went to his mother and asked her advice, but she could not go against the will of her husband. Next Ahimsaka went to the house of his betrothed (in accord with the ancient custom in India calling for betrothal of children long before their actual marriage), but when the family learned why Ahimsaka had been turned out of school, they drove him off. The shame, anger, fear, and despair of Ahimsaka drove him out of his mind. His suffering mind could only recollect the teacher's order: to collect 1,000 human thumbs. And so he started killing, and as he killed, the thumbs he collected were hung on a tree, but as they were destroyed by crows and vultures, he later wore a garland of the fingers to keep track of the number.
Because of this he came to be known as Angulimala (finger garland) and became the terror of the countryside. The king himself heard about the exploits of Angulimala, and he decided to capture him. When Mantani, Ahimsaka's mother, heard about the king's intention, she went to the forest in a desperate bid to save her son. By this time, the chain around the neck of Angulimala had 999 fingers in it, just one finger short of 1,000.
The Buddha learned of the mother's attempt to dissuade her son from, and reflected that if he did not intervene, Angulimala, who was on the lookout for the last person to make up the 1,000, would see his mother and might kill her. In that case, he would have to suffer an even longer period for his evil kamma. Out of compassion, the Buddha left for the forest.
Angulimala, after many sleepless days and nights, was very tired and near exhaustion. At the same time, he was very anxious to kill the last person to make up his full quota of 1,000 and so complete his task. He made up his mind to kill the first person he met. As he looked down from his mountain perch, he saw a woman on the road below. He wanted to fulfil his vow to complete the 1,000 thumbs, but as he approached, he saw it was his mother. At the same time, the Buddha was approaching, and Angulimala had just enough presence of mind to decide to kill the wandering monk instead of his mother. He set out after the Blessed One with his knife raised.
Even though the Buddha was walking very slowly, because of the Buddha's psychic powers Angulimala could not catch up, no matter how fast he ran. Finally Angulimala shouted, "O Bhikkhu Stop! Stop!" The Buddha replied, "I have stopped. It is you who have not stopped."
Just in that moment, affected by the fearlessness, the peace, and the compassion of the Buddha, Angulimala stopped running and asked what he meant. The Buddha said, "I say that I have stopped because I have given up killing all beings. I have given up ill-treating all beings, and have established myself in universal love, patience, and knowledge through reflection. But you have not given up killing or ill-treating others and you are not yet established in universal love and patience. Hence, you are the one who has not stopped." The Buddha taught him about stopping the fires of greed, hatred and delusion. And Angulimala, touched to the core by the Buddha's presence and words, made a different choice, which transformed his character. He threw away his weapons and asked the Blessed One to admit to the Order of the bhikkhus, which the Buddha did.
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?"
"My father is a Gagga, great king, and my mother a Mantani."
"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 (became a monk), 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. Even today many resort to this Angulimala paritta.
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!"
Ven Angulimala, having gone alone into seclusion, experiencing the bliss of release, exclaimed several verses including:
"Who checks the evil deeds he did
By doing wholesome deeds instead
He illuminates this world
Like the moon freed from a cloud"
Angulimala liked living in solitude and in seclusion. Later he passed away peacefully. As an arahant, he attained parinibbana.
Other bhikkhus asked the Buddha where Angulimala was reborn, and when the Blessed One replied, my son Angulimala has attained parinibbana, they could hardly believe it. So they asked whether it was possible that such a man who had in fact killed so many people could have attained parinibbana. To this question, the Buddha replied,
"Bhikkhus, Angulimala had done much evil because he did not have good friends. But later, he found good friends and with their help and good advice he became steadfast and mindful in practicing the dhamma and meditation. Thus, his evil deeds have been overwhelmed by good kamma and his mind has been completely rid of all defilements."
The power of love and compassion are stronger than any evil, and are absolute conditions for awakening."
p98 "Insight Meditation" by Joseph Goldstein, Shambhala 1994
With metta / Antony.