The Tale of Angulimala

The fantastic story of Angulimala from the time of the Buddha is one that children across India know. I got to  know the story on my first Vipassana meditation retreat, and years later it continues to fascinate me. Angulimala’s tale is all about the potential to rise out of our suffering and ignorance and into the light of wisdom. How a good, honest person, given the right circumstances, can be corrupted. And how a bloodthirsty maniac, given the right circumstances, can become one of the most compassionate liberated beings on Earth. It is both a tale of caution and deliverance…

(Excerpts taken from Lives of the Disciples by Hellmuth Hecker)

Angulimala’s story begins on the day of his birth in the kingdom of Kosala to his parents Bhaggava Gagga and Mantani, both members of the royal court. His father consulted a jyotish or astrologer to have his chart cast and the astrologer revealed that the boy was born under the “robber-constellation” of the planets. This indicated that the boy would have within him a tendency to commit robbery and murder. Both parents were beside themselves both with grief and bewilderment over the news. What to do with this innocent newborn?

They decided to protect their son from these evil tendencies by ensuring he was raised in an atmosphere of strong morality and good education. Perhaps then he would follow a good moral life and the prediction of his chart could be curtailed. They named their son “Ahimsaka” which means Harmless in the hopes that upon hearing this name countless times he would grow up to be a gentle creature of this world.

As he grew up, Ahimsaka proved to be a well-mannered, strong and intelligent boy, which pleased his parents immensely and made them forget about the prediction of long ago. When he was of age, they sent him to the renowned university of Takshishila to study under a foremost teacher. 

Under his guru, Ahimsaka surpassed all other students with his bright and intelligent nature, and served his teacher with the utmost humility and love. Very soon, he became his teacher’s favourite student, and was even invited to their home for meals. As is true of human nature, the other students became very envious and jealous of Ahimsaka’s exalted position in their Guru’s eyes and hatched a devious plan to separate devoted student and teacher. 

Three sets of students, all on separate occasions, went to their teacher saying that they had heard some terrible news – that his own very dear Ahimsaka was planning to plot against him to usurp his power as Guru. And would even go as far as to kill him.

Their guru, at first dismissed them with severe reprimand, but as one after the other group came with the same news, the poisonous seed of doubt began to grow in his mind against his beloved Ahimsaka. The Buddha says that of the 5 enemies of a meditator (doubt, agitation, sloth, craving and aversion), it is doubt that is the most nefarious ringleader and can bring down a man.

The guru began himself to hatch a plan to stop his student from killing him. While he knew that he could not overpower such a strong man, nor could he kill him for fear of losing his social reputation, he came up with a clever idea. 

As Ahimsaka’s studies were coming to a close, it is a common tradition in India that the student give his Guru a gift of honour in exchange for all that he has learned (dakshina). One day he called him over and asked for this very dakshina. Ahimsaka replied he would be happy to give whatever his Guru asked. The guru then said, “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.” His teacher knew that very soon, he would either be killed or jailed for even attempting this task, and he would then be free of his fear.

Ahimsaka was shocked, tried to protest, but eventually conceded to his Guru’s request because of his deep trust and devotion to him.  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.

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 cremation 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.

He would hang the fingers from a tree, but birds would eat the flesh and the bones would drop to the ground. He then decided to string the little fingers one by one on a garland around his neck which he wore and would count. Thus, he was given the name “Angulimala” or “one who wears a garland of fingers”.

Soon word spread throughout the villages of the murderous maniac living in the forest, and no one dared to go of fear of losing their life. Fear and panic speed throughout the country, and news soon reached the king of Kosala. The king quickly sent out an announcement to all that Angulimala must be captured, and that the royal army was being assembled to do so.

Agulimala’s real identity was unknown. Back at Ahimsaka’s home, his mother, upon hearing this announcement, knew in the depths of her heart that this Agulimala must and could only be her son. She implored her husband to go with her to save their only son, but the father refused saying he had no use for such a murderous son. His mother’s heart, being so compassionate, decided that she would set of on her own and plead with her son to stop his insidious killing.

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 even would have killed his own mother. 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, was close to hell’s rim.

The Buddha was residing in his hermitage nearby at this very time. Often, early in the morning, he would survey the world with his supernatural powers for anyone who was in dire need of his help. Upon doing so he saw the scene of Agulimala’s mother heading to the forest, and the terrible event that was to ensue. To the Buddha, with his faculty of remembering former existences, Agulimala not unknown. In many lives they had met before, and often had the Bodhisattva conquered Angulimala’s strength of body by his strength of mind. Once Angulimala had even been a close relative of the Bodhisattva, his uncle.

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.

Angulimala, from his look-out, saw first his mother approaching. Though recognizing her, still the thought arose in him to complete the thousand fingers by killing her. So steeped was his mind in the habit of killing without remorse. At that moment the Buddha appeared on the road between Angulimala and his mother. Seeing him, Angulimala thought: “Why should I kill my mother for the sake of one finger when there is someone else? Let her live.” He did not know, however, that it was a similar offense against the most sacred in life to kill an ascetic, a monk. He was only concerned with completing his thousand fingers.

The Angulimala Sutta says:

Now Angulimala took up his sword and shield and buckled on his bow and quiver and he followed behind the Blessed One.Then the Blessed One performed such a feat of supernormal power that the bandit Angulimala, going as fast as he could, was unable to catch up with the Blessed One, who was walking at his normal pace. Then he thought: “It is marvelous! Formerly I caught up with even a galloping elephant and seized it; I caught up with even a galloping horse and seized it; I caught up with even a galloping chariot and seized it; I caught up with even a galloping deer and seized it. But yet, though I am going as fast as I can, I am unable to catch up with this monk who is walking at his normal pace.”
He stopped and called “Stop, monk! Stop, monk!”
“I have stopped, Angulimala. Do you stop, too.”
Then the bandit Angulimala thought: “These monks, followers of the Sakya scion, speak truth, assert truth; but though this monk is walking, yet he says ‘I have stopped, Angulimala; do you stop, too.’ Suppose I question the monk?”
Then he addressed the Blessed One in stanzas thus:
“While you are walking monk, you tell me you have stopped;
But now, when I have stopped, you say I have not stopped.
I ask you now, O monk what is the meaning of it;
How is it you have stopped and I have not?
The Buddha Responded:
“Angulimala, I have stopped for ever,
Foreswearing violence to every living being;
But you have no restraint towards things that breathe;
So that is why I have stopped and you have not.”

When Angulimala heard these words, a second and greater change of heart came over him. He felt as if the current of his suppressed nobler and purer urges had broken through the dam of hardened cruelty that had been built up through habituation in all those last years of his life. Angulimala felt now deeply moved by the appearance and the words of the Buddha.

Angulimala’s response and what followed is again told in the Sutta:

“Oh, at long last a sage revered by me,
This monk, has now appeared in the great forest;
Indeed, I will for sure renounce all evil,
Hearing your stanzas showing the Dhamma.”So saying, the bandit took his sword and weapons
And flung them in a gaping chasm’s pit;
The bandit worshipped the Sublime One’s feet,
And then and there asked for the Going-forth.
The Enlightened One, the Sage of Great Compassion,
The Teacher of the world with all its gods,
Addressed him with these words “Come bhikkhu,”
And that was how he became to be a bhikkhu.
Thus Angulimala became a monk in the order of the Buddha. But the story does not end there…
He strived with all his being to liberate his mind from the impurities of his past actions, and in due time became one of the most compassionate monks of the order, and became an arahant, a fully liberated being.
The people however, did not yet know about Angulimala’s great transformation, and they complained that the king had hesitated too long in sending out an army detachment to track and capture Angulimala. Now, King Pasenadi himself at the head of a large group of his best soldiers, set out towards Angulimala’s haunts, the Jalini forest. On his way he passed the Jetavana Monastery where the Buddha had just arrived. Since for many years he had been a devoted follower of the Buddha, he stopped on his way to pay his respect to the Master.
The Buddha, seeing the soldiers, asked King Pasenadi whether he had been attacked by a neighboring king and was going to war. The king said that there was no war, but he, at the head of his soldiers, was after a single man, the murderous Angulimala. “But,” he said, “I shall never be able to put him down.”
Then the Exalted One said:
“But, great King, if you were to see Angulimala with shaven head and beard, clad in the yellow robe, gone forth from the home life into homelessness, and that he was abstaining from killing living beings, from taking that which is not given, and from false speech, and, eating only one time of day, he was living the life of purity in virtue and noble conduct — if you saw him thus, how would you treat him?”
“Venerable Sir, we should pay homage to him, invite him to accept the four requisites of a monk, and should arrange for his protection. But, how could such an unvirtuous person of evil character have such virtue and restraint?”
Then the Master extended his right arm and said:
“Here, great King, this is Angulimala.
The king was now greatly alarmed and fearful, and his hair stood on end. He had entirely lost his composure, so terrifying was Angulimala’s reputation. But the Buddha said: “Do not be afraid, great King. There is nothing for you to fear.”
Then King Pasenadi turned again to the Buddha and exclaimed:
“It is wonderful, venerable sir, it is marvelous how the Blessed One subdues the unsubdued, pacifies the unpeaceful, calms the uncalm. Him whom we could not subdue with punishments and weapons the Blessed One has subdued without punishment and weapon.”
Still the people of the country were not so understanding – as soon as Angulimala had taken up going on alms-round, people fearfully ran from him and closed their doors. So it was in the outskirts of Savatthi where Angulimala had gone first, and it was the same in the city where Angulimala had hoped he would not be conspicuous. He could not get even a spoonful of food or a ladle of gruel during his alms-round. People would even through stones and sticks at him as he had killed their mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands, and Angulimala, full of compassion would only bear their abuses and pray for their liberation from their sufferings. 
With blood running from his injured head, with his bowl broken, and with his patchwork robe torn, the venerable Angulimala went to the Blessed One. The Blessed One saw him coming, and he told him:
“Bear it, brahmana, bear it, brahmana! You have experienced here and now the ripening of kamma whose ripening you might have experienced in hell over many a year, many a century, many a millennium.”

Being a saint, his mind and heart were firm and invulnerable. But the body, the product of former craving, the symbol and fruit of previous karma (Karma), was still there in present existence and was still exposed to the effects of former evil deeds. Even to the Buddha himself it happened that, as a result of former deeds, Devadatta was able to cause him a slight injury. Also his two chief disciples had to experience bodily violence. The venerable Sariputta had been hit on the head by a mischievous demon, and the venerable Maha-Moggallana was even cruelly murdered. If this occurred in the case of these three Great Ones, how could Angulimala have fully avoided bodily harm — he who in his present life had committed so much evil! Yet, it was only his body that received these blows, but not his mind. That remained in invulnerable equanimity.

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