2021-05-20 Sutta Stories - Aṅgulimāla's Conversion
2:59PM May 20, 2021
Continuing to share the stories that exist in the ancient discourses. One of the more famous stories that involves the Buddha is the Buddha's encounter with Aṅgulimāla. Aṅgulimāla was a mass murderer at the time of the Buddha. This encounter raises important questions about karma, retribution and punishment, and the possibility for people to be reformed. How much can people leave their past behind, leave their terrible actions behind, and start life anew? How much can people be transformed and changed?
The story of Aṅgulimāla begins with a description of him. He was a murderous, bloody man, who took to blows, striking people and killing people. He would kill whole villages and devastate whole territories. Ten, twenty, forty men would go out after him, and he would slaughter them all. He was surprisingly strong, athletic, and fast.
One day the Buddha went into town for his alms, to receive food for the day. He finished with his meal and put everything away. Then he started going into the forest where Aṅgulimāla was. The villagers, the people on the roads said, "No don't go in there. There is this terrible murderer, Aṅgulimāla. Don't go in there, he'll kill you."
The Buddha said nothing, was silent, just kept walking. Three times people said that, "No, no, don't go in there – Aṅgulimāla is there." The Buddha remained silent as he continued walking into the forest where Aṅgulimāla was. The word Aṅgulimāla is a nickname. 'Aṅguli' means finger and 'māla' is like a necklace or rosary. He was called that because he wore a necklace made of the fingers of his victims.
The Buddha goes into the forest and is walking along the road. Aṅgulimāla sees the Buddha. He says, "Wow, I am really strong, murderous and capable. No matter how many men they send after me, I kill them all. Here comes a solitary monk." He does not recognize the monk as the Buddha. He just recognized a solitary monk, with no weapon, walking undefended. "Oh, this is going to be easy for me." He goes after the Buddha to kill him.
The Buddha continues to walk calmly down the road and Aṅgulimāla cannot catch up to him. Aṅgulimāla starts to run. While the Buddha just calmly walks, slow, meditative way perhaps. Aṅgulimāla, who says he can run faster than any chariot and horse, and elephants – very athletic. He cannot catch up to the Buddha, who is walking quietly. It is a bit of a supernatural event.
Aṅgulimāla finally yells out, "Stop, stop" to the Buddha. The Buddha keeps walking, but replies to Aṅgulimāla, "You should stop. I have already stopped."
Aṅgulimāla says, "These recluses, these monks, they never lie. They always speak the truth. What does he mean when he says, "I have stopped, you should stop?" He asked the Buddha, "What do you mean by this?" The Buddha says, "I have fully stopped harming any living being, but you have no restraint. You go on killing." This simple statement by the Buddha in the context of this supernatural thing that he cannot catch the Buddha. He understands that the Buddha is talking figuratively. The Buddha is not talking literally that he stopped walking. He stopped the killing, the harming.
This gets the attention of Aṅgulimāla. He sees the light. He sees a different way. He realizes that the life he has been living is a life that is not worth living anymore. Something happens to him. He renounces his evil ways. He throws away his weapons, and asks the Buddha for ordination as a monk. Back in those days, it was quite simple. The way he was ordained, the Buddha simply said, "Come, monk." "Come" and now you are a monk. That is all.
Aṅgulimāla became a monk and went to live with the Buddha in a forest place where the Buddha and the monks lived. So that is nice. He has been converted so simply. It is almost like a fairy tale, that it should be that simple, someone who is so murderous.
But the story goes on. One of the next things that happens is that now as a monk Aṅgulimāla, goes out for alms. He comes across a house where a woman is giving birth. The birth is not coming – the baby is breech or something. He hears the screams and the struggles that are going on. He goes back to the Buddha and tells him what he saw. The Buddha said, "Go back to the woman and make a statement of truth. And the baby will be born."
In ancient India there was this idea that certain statements of truth have impact on the natural world. They are so powerful, saying the truth. The Buddha says, "Go tell this woman the truth. Give her a statement of truth and say this, 'Never in my life, have I harmed anyone.'" Aṅgulimāla is surprised by this, and he says, "But I can't say that. It is not true." The Buddha says, "No, say it – ever since you entered your life, were born in your life as a monastic, you have not killed anyone."
This radical change is so radical, that he can actually take a stand of truth on the fact that now he does not harm anyone He has not harmed anyone in maybe just a few days. He goes back, makes a statement in the presence of the woman, and the baby gets born.
I lived on the Farm in Tennessee, a large hippie commune that was famous for its midwives. They have a book called "Spiritual Midwifery." We got a lot of stories there from the midwives about the births they attended. Sometimes they would tell stories about how the baby would not be born until the couple, who had tension between them, worked out the tension. They spoke the truth and cleared the air. Then the baby could come.
This story of Aṅgulimāla making his truth statement made a difference for the woman. The whole thing is kind of a fairy tale. It is a literary work. What is happening here, in a rhetorical way, is that there is a contrast between Aṅgulimāla, who kills people, and Aṅgulimāla, who supports or helps the birth of a new life. Aṅgulimāla who kills cannot stop. There is this idea of him not being able to stop. The baby's birth is stopped.
Aṅgulimāla, in his new new life as a monastic, is able to support and help the birth of life. A rhetorical play going on in the text – this contrasting of these two things.
The story goes on. At some point, Aṅgulimāla goes into the town. A town where people knew about him and maybe were even impacted by him, by his murders. He goes in for alms as a monk. Understandably, people are pretty angry with him, upset. They are throwing rocks at him, yelling at him, and some of these rocks hit his head. Gashed head and he is bleeding.
He comes back to the Buddha. The Buddha sees him bleeding and simply says to him, "You have to endure this – this kind of pain, this kind of attack that you are receiving – you have to just endure it. Bear it, If you had not become a monk, and changed your life radically, your punishment would have been eons and eons, living in the worst of the possible hells. Just a little cut in your head is not really such a big deal. You have to just endure it. Do not defend yourself. Do not justify yourself. This is your karma for all the things you have done."
This is a surprising teaching for people to hear. This idea that there is no retribution. He is not punished, and does not go to jail. The worst that can happen is he has some cuts on his bloody head. Is this really okay? Is this right? Shouldn't there be some kind of justice that requires more punishment or more impact on Aṅgulimāla?
In any case, Aṅgulimāla at some point goes into the forest to engage on retreat and to practice meditation. He becomes fully awakened. As he is fully awakened, he gives his awakening poem. One of the interesting things about the poem is he mentions that before he got the nickname Aṅgulimāla, his given name was Ahiṃsa. And "ahiṃsa" means harmlessness, non-violence. He ended his life living up to his birth name.
Aṅgulimāla, it is a story that is rich in interpretations, rich in challenges. Rich as a mirror to look at our own values and beliefs, and our reactions to all these stories. This is a fairy tale story perhaps, but still many people study the story – write about it, interpret it and find it a very valuable story.
In England, there is, or maybe was until recently, a nonprofit organization called Angulimala. That was Buddhist chaplains who would go into the prisons to minister to people. I think with the idea that every human being has the capacity to be reformed. Every human being has a capacity for a radical change of heart. We can give them the opportunity to do so. Aṅgulimāla - Ahiṃsam. Finger Necklace or Non-harming.
May all of us find the tremendous truth, value and impact on the world that a life of non-harming has. Thank you.