Angulimala. (S. Aṅgulimāla [alt. Aṅgulimālīya]; T. Sor mo phreng ba སོར་མོ་ཕྲེང་བ་; C. Yangjuemoluo; J. Ōkutsumara; K. Anggulmara 央掘摩羅). A disciple of the Buddha, who despite having killed nine-hundred and ninety-nine people, was able to purify his negative karma and attain arhathood. His story is seen as an example of the redemptive power of the Buddha's teaching and the universal human potential for spiritual progress, regardless of one's background.
The name Angulimala literally means "necklace of fingers". Before Angulima's conversion to Buddhism, he was on a deluded quest to kill one thousand people. Each time he killed a person, he would cut off one finger of his victim and add it to a necklace that he wore around his neck. Angulimala had already killed 999 people, and he was seeking his 1000th victim when he encountered the Buddha. He chased after the Buddha, intending to kill him, but instead the Buddha was able to persuade Angulima to give up his negative actions. Angulima became a disciple of Buddha and eventually reached arhathood.
It is said in the Angulimala Sutta:
Who once was heedless,
but later is not,
brightens the world
like the moon set free from a cloud.
Angulima'a first encounter with the Buddha is recorded in the following texts from the Pali canon:
Both of these texts offer a fairly short description of Angulimala's encounter with the Buddha, and omit much of the background information later incorporated into the story (such as Angulimala being placed under an oath by a jealous teacher).
These later additions appear in the following Theravada commentaries:
- the Papancasudani (Ps), a commentary on the Majjhima Nikaya, attributed to Buddhaghosa
- the Paramattha-dipani, a commentary on the Therigatha attributed to Dhammapala
These commentaries present Angulimala as a fundamentally good human being entrapped by circumstance, rather than as a vicious killer. The earlier texts just say that he is a brutal bandit, and give no other motivation for his actions.
The Tibetan Canon includes:
- The Sūtra for the Benefit of Aṅgulimāla (T. sor mo'i phreng ba la phan pa'i mdo)
Angulimala is also referred to in commentaries from the Tibetan tradition, such as those by:
- Gampopa (Jewel Ornament of Liberation)
- Patrul Rinpoche (The Words of My Perfect Teacher)
- and others
The account of Angulimala from the Pali suttas
|Editor's note: The quotes in this section use the translation by Thanisarro Bhikkhu.|
The account of Angulimala's life recorded in the sutras of the Pali Canon is short and has few details. According to this account he was a brutal bandit who would kill people and show no mercy; he turned villages into non villages and towns into non towns. Around his neck, he wore a garland made of the fingers of his victims. He was able to run faster than a swift running horse, elephant, or deer or a chariot.
As the Buddha walked along the road to where Angulimala was staying, cowherds, shepherds and farmers saw him going along the road and warned him to not go that way. They said that groups of ten, twenty, thirty and forty men have gone along the road and even they fell into Angulimala's hands. Buddha continued walking in silence, although they warned him three times.
Then Angulimala, seeing this contemplative, with sword, shield, bow and quiver, followed on behind the Buddha. But Angulimala, even running as fast as he could, could not keep up with the Buddha, walking at a normal pace.
So, he stopped and shouted out to the Buddha,
- "Stop, contemplative, Stop!"
- "I have stopped, Angulimala, "You stop."
What happens next is recounted in this short poem:
"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?"
"I have stopped, Angulimala,
once & for all,
having cast off violence
toward all living beings.
are unrestrained toward beings.
That's how I've stopped
and you haven't."
"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,
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:
That in itself
was bhikkhuhood for him.
Meanwhile a crowd of people had gathered at the court of King Pasenadi Kosala asking him to do something about Angulimala, 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!"
So he set off with cavalry of around 500 horsemen, and drove out of Savatthi and went to visit the Buddha, and bowed and sat down near to the Buddha, waiting in silence.
Buddha asked 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?"
He answered that no, it was neither of these, but that he had heard of Angulimala and was on his way to stamp him out.
Buddha then answers
- "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?"
At this point Buddha reveals Angulimala, pointing to him, seated not far away, amongst the other monks. The king was scared, hair standing on end, but the Buddha told him to not to be afraid. The king then makes good on his promise and offers to help Angulimala, but living as a monk and as a wilderness dweller, he tells the king that his triple robe is complete, and he has no other needs at that time.
The King amazed says:
- "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."
He then takes leave of the Buddha and goes on his way to deal with his many duties and responsibilities, with the Buddha saying:
- "Then do, great king, what you think it is now time to do."
The sutra goes on to recount how Angulimala on one of his alms rounds encounters a woman who was in the middle of a breach birth (baby born bottom first instead of head first, a dangerous birth, nowadays most are born using caeserian section for safety of the mother and child). He goes back to the Buddha and tells him what he has seen.
The Buddha says to him to go to the woman and 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.'"
Angulimala does as he suggested and the sutra says "And there was wellbeing for the woman, wellbeing for her fetus".
The sutra goes on to say that Angulimala dwelling alone, secluded, ardent and resolute before long became one of the arhats, having realized for himself the truth of the Buddha's teachings.
There is one more episode recounted, that as Angulimala went into Savatthi for alms, one morning then someone threw a clod at him. Another threw a stone, another a potsherd, and another hit him in the body. The story continues:
- 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:
Who once was heedless,
but later is not,
brightens the world
like the moon set free from a cloud.
I used to be,
renowned as Angulimala.
Swept along by a great flood,
I went to the Buddha as refuge.
His life as elaborated in the commentaries by Buddhaghosa and Dhammapala
The Theravadan commentaries by Buddhaghosa and Dhammapala provide a more detailed account of Angulimala's life.
According to the commentarial texts, omens seen at the time of Angulimala's birth (the flashing of weapons and the appearance of the 'constellation of thieves' in the sky) indicated that Angulimala would become a robber. Angulimala's father, the Brahmin chaplain to the king of Kosala, named him Ahimsaka ("the harmless one" - derived from the Sanskrit and Pali word Ahimsa), as an attempt to deter the dark fate predicted at his birth (Pad indicates that he was initially named Himsaka ("the harmful one"), but that the name was later changed).
Ahimsaka was sent to Taxila to study under a well-known Brahmin guru. There he excelled in his studies and became the teacher's favourite student, enjoying special privileges in his teacher's house. However, the other students grew jealous of Ahimsaka's speedy progress and sought to turn his master against him. To that end, they made it seem as though Ahimsaka had seduced the master's wife and boasted that he was wiser than the guru. Unwilling or unable to attack Ahimsaka directly (Pad states that Ahimsaka was as "strong as seven elephants", while Papancasudani states that the teacher worried that his business would suffer if he was found to have murdered a student), the teacher said that Ahimsaka's training was complete, but that he must provide the traditional final gift offered to a guru before the teacher would grant his approval. As his payment, the teacher demanded 1,000 fingers, each taken from a different victim, thinking that Angulimala would be killed in the course of seeking this grisly prize (Pad states that Angulimala was required to fetch 1,000 fingers from right hands, seemingly unaware that this could be achieved by killing 200 people. Papancasudani states, even more strangely, that he was told to "kill a thousand legs", and gathered fingers only as an aid to keeping an accurate count).
Sources indicate that one of his motivations may have been the unquestioning obedience to the guru - an echo of the higher principles governing his earlier life. But tradition reports that it was probably his innate disposition to violence. In his previous life, he was a Yakkha - a man-eating spirit with superhuman strength. The guru's instructions may have also aroused a strange attraction for killing, or could be seen as a challenge to his manly prowess. It was reported that in all his past lives, two traits were prominent: his physical strength and his lack of compassion. It is also suggested that he was in fact cast out of his Guru's house, branding him an outcast among Brahmins. Being unable to find acceptance anywhere, he turned to brigandry, murdering pilgrims and traders passing through the wilderness, and collecting a finger each from their right hands.
As to the giving of goodbye gifts, this was customary in ancient India. We find an example in the Book of Pausya (Pausyaparvan, Mbh.1,3) of the Vedic epic Mahábháratha. Here the teacher sends his disciple Uttanka away after Uttanka has proven himself worthy of being trustworthy and in the possession of all the Vedic and Dharmashastric teachings. Uttanka says to his teacher: "What can I do for you that pleases you (kim te priyam karaváni), because thus it is said: Whoever answers without (being in agreement with) the Dharma, and whoever asks without (being in agreement with) the Dharma (the Law in the literal sense of the word), either occurs: one dies or one attracts animosity." Friedrich Wilhelm (Prüfung und Initiation im Buche Pausya und in der Biographie des Náropa, Wiesbaden 1965, p. 11) maintains that similar phraseology already occurs in the "Book of Manu" (II,111) and in the "Institutes of Vishnu". I.e., taking leave of one's teacher and promising to do whatever this teacher asks of you brings, according to the Vedic teachings, enlightenment or similar attainment. It is therefore not unusual that Angulimála did his teacher's horrible bidding, although being a good and kind person at heart, in the knowledge that in the end he would reap the highest attainment.
Life as a highway murderer
Ahimsaka became a highwayman, killing travellers who passed through the forest. When the people of the kingdom began to avoid the roads, he entered the villages and dragged people from their homes. He never took clothes or jewels from his victims, only fingers. To keep count of the number of victims that he had taken, he strung them on a thread and hung them on a tree. However, because birds began to eat the flesh from the fingers, he started to wear them around his neck as a garland. Thus he came to be known as Angulimala ("garland (or necklace) of fingers").
Meeting the Buddha
Villagers petitioned the king of Kosala, who vowed to hunt down Angulimala. Fearing for her son's life, Angulimala's mother set out to find him and warn him of the king's intent. The Buddha perceived with his "divine eye" (faculty of clairvoyance) that Angulimala had slain 999 victims, and was desperately seeking a thousandth. If the Buddha encountered Angulimala that day, he would become a monk and subsequently attain Nirvana. If Angulimala encountered his mother instead, he would slay her as his thousandth victim and fall into hell for millennia as a matricide.
The Buddha set off to intercept Angulimala, despite being warned by the people of the village in which he was staying. On the road through the forest of Kosala, Angulimala first saw his mother who came to warn him of the impending arrival of the kings' army. Angulimala, after some deliberation, decided to make her his 1000th victim. But then when Buddha also arrived, he chose to kill him instead. He drew his sword, and started running towards the Buddha. But although Angulimala was running as fast as he could, he couldn't catch up with the Buddha who was walking calmly. "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" (MN 86, translation from Thanissaro Bhikkhu). This bewildered Angulimala so much that he called to the Buddha to stop. The Buddha said that he himself had already stopped, and that it was Angulimala who should stop. Angulimala asked for further explanation, after which the Buddha said that he had stopped of being what he is trying to be so called Nirvana.
Life as a monk
Later, King Pasenadi (the king of Kosala) set out to find and kill Angulimala. He stopped first to pay a visit to the Buddha and his followers at the monastery where they dwelled. He explained to the Buddha his purpose, and the Buddha asked how the king would respond if he were to discover that Angulimala had given up the life of a highwayman and become a monk. The king said that he would salute him and offer to provide for him in his monastic vocation. The Buddha then revealed that Angulimala sat only a few feet away, his hair and beard shaven off, a member of the Buddhist order. The king, astounded, offered to donate robe materials to Angulimala, and then returned to his palace.
Later, Angulimala came across a young woman undergoing a difficult labor. He went to the Buddha and asked him what he could do to ease her pain. The Buddha told Angulimala to go to the woman and say:
'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.'
Angulimala pointed out that it would be untrue for him to say this. The Buddha offered this revised stanza:
'Sister, since I was born with 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.' The Buddha was making a word-play here on the word "born" to support Angulimala, who was suffering from severe remorse which was badly obstructing his meditation, of his renewed commitment to harmlessness since becoming a monk.
After Angulimala delivered this benediction, the woman safely gave birth to her child. This verse, commonly called the Angulimala paritta, continues to be recited at the blessings of houses or pregnant women in Theravada countries.
This helped Angulimala focus his mind on his basic meditation subject. Before, there would always appear in his mind's eye, the place in the jungle where he had slain so many people. After performing the Act of Truth, he was seen to bring safety to people and people started to approach him and provide him with almsfood.
At last, his earlier name Ahimsaka fully befitted him. Most of the people had gained full confidence in his inner transformation and there was no lack of support for him.
However a resentful few could not forget that he was responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. Unable to win revenge through the law, they took matters into their own hands. With sticks and stones, they attacked him as he walked for alms.
With a bleeding head, torn outer robe and a broken alms bowl, Angulimala managed to return to the monastery. The Buddha encouraged Angulimala to bear his torment with equanimity; he indicated that Angulimala was experiencing the fruits of the karma that would otherwise have condemned him to hell. This illustrates the Buddhist belief that while the effects of karma are inescapable, the form that they take and the schedule on which they occur can be modified by later actions—in this case, Angulimala experienced physical suffering during the course of his last life, rather than experiencing torment in another birth for a much longer period of time.
Being an arahant, Angulimala remained firm and invulnerable in mind and heart. But his body, the symbol and fruit of previous kamma was still exposed to the effects of his former evil deeds. As an arahant, he needed no words of consolation, but a reminder of the kammic concatenation of cause and effect, which still has to be endured until the end.
When he entered Sāvatthi for alms, he was attacked by the mob, but on the admonition of the Buddha, endured their wrath as penance for his former misdeeds.
Richard F. Gombrich, in his paper Who was Angulimala?, has postulated that the story of Angulimala may represent an encounter between the Buddha and a follower of an early form of Saivite or Shakti tantra. Gombrich reaches this conclusion on the basis of a number of inconsistencies in the sutta text that indicate possible corruption (particularly the failure of the verses in the Theragatha to conform to accepted Pāli metrical schemes), and the fairly weak explanations for Angulimala's behaviour provided by the commentators. He notes that there are several other references in the early Pāli canon that seem to indicate the presence of devotees of Siva, Kali, and other divinities associated with sanguinary tantric practices, and that Angulimala's behaviour would not be inconsistent with certain violent practices that were observed in India by Thuggee-like transgressive cults into recent times.
Search for videos:
- Search YouTube for: Angulimala Prison Buddhism
- Buddha Dharma - Transformation, The Story of Angulimala by Ven. Sudhamma
- Description: Ven Bhikkhuni Sudhamma explains how a dangerous criminal was transformed into a peaceful noble desiple of the Buddha.
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Gombrich, Richard F. How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings. New Delhi, Munishiram Manoharlal Publishers (2002). ISBN 81-215-0812-6
- Bhikkhu Analayo (2008). The Conversion of Angulimāla in the Saṃyukta-āgama, Buddhist Studies Review 25 (2), 135-148
- Stede, W. (1957). Angulimāla and Liberation, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 20 (1/3), 533-535
- Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche, translator (1998), The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, "Appendix: The Story of Angulimala", Snow Lion.
- G.P. Malalasekera, "Angulimāla (Angulimālaka)", Dictionary of Pãli Proper Names
- Angulimala: the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy
- Bangkok Post: Movie based on Buddhist character needs new title
- Angulimala: A Murderer's Road to Sainthood by Hellmuth Hecker
- Angulimala by G.K. Ananda Kumarasiri (pdf file)
|This article includes content from Angulimala on Wikipedia (view authors). License under CC BY-SA 3.0.|