This is the sixth talk on the Pali Canon sutras. The text referred to in the talk is the photocopied booklet “Sutras from the Old Way – Selections from the Pali Canon,” which can be downloaded as a PDF.
Sutras from the Old Way 6: Angulimala
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Transcribed and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum
We’re going to read the Angulimala Sutta. This is a really interesting text about karma, because here’s a murderer, who is obviously accruing huge amounts of very, very bad karma, and, then, by virtue of the power of the Buddha’s presence, manages to see what he’s done, repents, changes his life, and even becomes an arhat. And as the story shows, he still has to endure the karmic effects of his deeds, even though he’s enlightened and an arhat. So let’s see how the story goes:
Thus have I heard: on one occasion, the Blessed One was living at Savatthi, in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s Park. Now on that occasion there was a bandit in the realm of King Pasenadi of Kosala bandit named Angulimala . He was was murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, merciless to living beings. He was constantly murdering people, and he wore their fingers as a garland.So he actually wore a necklace around his neck – if you can imagine this – which had on it the fingers of all the people that he had killed
One day when it was morning, the Blessed One [the Buddha] dressed, and taking his bowl and outer robe, set out on the road leading toward Angulimala.
So lest you thought that the Buddha was passive and was not one who would confront aggression head on, here he’s being not only proactive, but we might say proactive in a foolhardy way. He’s going all by himself to confront this serial killer. And the way he goes about it is quite astonishing. He takes care of business and just goes through the day nicely, peacefully, and then he sets out on the road leading toward Angulimala.
Cowherds, shepherds, and plowmen passing by saw the Buddha walking along the road leading toward Angulimala, and they said to him, “Do not take this road, recluse, on this road is the bandit Angulimala, who is murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, merciless to living beings. Villages, towns, and districts have been laid waste by him. He murders people, and he wears their fingers as a garland. Men have come along this road in groups of ten, twenty, thirty, and even forty, but still they have fallen into Angulimala’s hands.” When this was said, the Buddha simply continued on in silence.
There’s something in this phrase, “he continued on in silence,” that gives you the feeling that he’s not going along here with a vigilante spirit, or being stubborn. He’s just going along peacefully, as if he were going walking anywhere. And you’ll see the power in a moment of the Buddha’s peaceful walking.
So he finally approaches the bandit Angulimala who sees him coming in the distance, and when he sees him coming he says, “It is wonderful, it is marvelous —how amazing! Here comes this single person confronting me, apparently without any big weapons, not riding a horse, but just walking peacefully along. People have been coming to get me in groups of ten, twenty, thirty, and even forty but they have all fallen into my hands, and now here comes this recluse, this monk, unaccompanied, as if driven by fate.
The bandit Angulimala set out after the Buddha, who is going along at his Buddha pace, quite slowly. The text here tells us that the Buddha is going to perform a feat of supernatural power. The bandit Angulimala is walking as fast as he could behind the slowly walking Buddha. He was walking at his normal pace, but one thing about the Buddha is that the Buddha always walked at his normal pace. In other words, the Buddha was not a person who would hurry or rush.
So he was doing that, and here’s the bandit Angulimala, who we can presume is in pretty good shape and strong and big, is running as fast as he can behind the Buddha, who’s walking quite slowly. But he’s not catching up! This is the amazing thing! He’s not catching up to the Buddha! He remains too far away to lay a hand on him. So he thinks to himself, This is amazing! Every time before this I could catch up even with a swift elephant and grab it, even a horse I could outrun and seize it! He finally yells out. “Stop, recluse, stop!” And the Buddha says to him, “I have stopped already, Angulimala. Now you must stop.”
Then the bandit Angulimala thought: “These recluses, sons of the Sakyans, speak truth, assert truth, but though this recluse is still walking he says, ‘I have stopped.'”
So here the Buddha is walking along at his normal pace, and he’s saying, “I have stopped.” So now there are two marvellous things: How come I can’t catch up to him when I’m going at full speed and he’s walking slowly? And how come he’s saying that he’s stopped when he clearly has not stopped but is still walking? What does he mean by this? I’m going to ask him.
While you are walking, recluse, you tell me you have stopped;But now, when I have stopped, you say I have not stopped.I ask you now, O recluse, about the meaning:How is it that you have stopped and I have not?
The Buddha say, Angulimala, I have stopped forever;I abstain from violence towards living beings;But you have no restraint towards things that live.That is why I have stopped and you have not.
Now, this is a little bit deeper statement than it seems. The Buddha is not only saying here, I believe, that he doesn’t kill people. He’s saying that on a deep, deep level he has stopped the arising of even those subtle impulses in the human heart, that when not checked and dealt with, eventually will lead to real violence. So not only does he not kill people, but he has totally stopped the arising of any impulses toward aggression, selfishness.
Oh, at long last this recluse, a venerated sage,
Has come to this great forest for my sake.
Having heard your stanza teaching me the Dhamma,
I will indeed renounce evil forever.
So, that was pretty easy! It should be so easy for the rest of us! We can only imagine in our mind’s eye or in our heart’s eye encountering a person who would have such a powerfully good heart that just being in their presence would inspire us to change our lives. Such a thing may be possible, that you would encounter a person that suddenly sees your life, and on that occasion, you would be sincerely willing to change your life completely. Well, this is what happens to Angulimala in hearing this teaching from the Buddha, and, of course, it’s not only the Buddha’s words, but it’s also this miraculous act that Angulimala could not catch up with the Buddha that turns his heart around utterly and completely. He says, I now understand. The spell has been broken under which I’ve been living all this time in my delusion and confusion, and I now see that I also must make the effort to stop as you have done.
So saying, he took his sword and weapons
And flung them in a gaping chasm’s pit.
The bandit worshipped the Sublime One’s feet,
(in other words, he prostrated himself)
And then and there he said “I want to be ordained, I want to be a monastic, right here and now.”
Again, this is not unusual. In the sutras it happens many times exactly like this. And the ordination ceremony is in the next stanza:
The Enlightened One, the Sage of Great Compassion,
The Teacher of the world with [all] its gods,
Addressed him with these words, “Come, bhikkhu.”
So now here you can imagine: the Buddha walks back home with this new bhikkhu, and somebody is going to recognize him as a serial killer. The Buddha seems to have full confidence that Angulimala has literally become a different person. Because this is the idea: when you become a bhikkhu, when you take monastic vows, you actually become a different person. The Buddha is convinced that Angulimala is not the Angulimala that he was a moment before.
The people of the town apparently didn’t recognize him, at least not at first. But eventually the word got out and great crowds of people were gathering at the gates of King Pasenadi’s inner palace, crying out, “Sire, the bandit Angulimala is in your realm; he is murderous, bloody-handed.”
Now, I don’t think they realize at this point what has happened to Angulimala. They just know he’s in the realm and terrorizing everybody and they want him out. So the king sends the cavalry out, five hundred men, looking for Angulimala. And he went as far as he could on the carriage, and then dismounted from the carriage and went forward on foot to the Blessed One, to the Buddha. After paying homage to the Buddha, he sat down at one side, and the Buddha said to him,
What is it? Is King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha attacking you, or the Licchavis of Vesali, or other hostile kings?
In other words, what are you doing here, with a five hundred person cavalry? Is there a war going on that I don’t know about? “No,” he says, “there is no such thing like that, but there is a bandit in my realm, named Angulimala, who is murderous, murdering people all the time, and having this absolutely hideous finger garland. What am I going to do? This is going to be a hard job for me.”
the idea here is quite astonishing, Before he goes out looking for Angulimala, the first thing he does is go to the Buddha and say, “What do you think? What’s your counsel on the matter here? Do you have any thoughts on how I’m going to catch this murderer?” Anyway, he says to the king,
Great king, suppose you were to see that Angulimala had shaved off his hair and beard, put on the yellow robe, and gone forth from the home life into homelessness; that he was abstaining from killing living beings, from taking what is not given and from false speech; that he was refraining from eating at night, ate only in one part of the day, and was celibate, virtuous, of good character. If you were to see him thus, how would you treat him?
When you think about this, this is amazing, because as you see the king says, “I would pay homage to him. We would respect him as we respect all monastics.” So much faith! There are different groups of monastics, travelling around, But it would appear as if they conducted themselves with so much integrity and peacefulness that they had gained the respect of everyone. But to the king, such a thing would be absolutely unthinkable. Nobody would ever think, so much respect would this tradition be held in, even a serial killer would never think of putting on this robe with false pretences. If somebody put on the robe and followed the way of life, they would be doing so sincerely. So if Angulimala were to appear as a monastic, I would have to respect that, there would be no other choice but to respect him and honor him. But, he says, such a thing would never happen, because Angulimala is a terrible murderer and he’s an evil person, and how could he ever possibly have any virtue and restraint?
Now as this conversation is going on, Angulimala is sitting there nearby. The king doesn’t recognize him. And so the Buddha says, This monk right here, sitting over here, is the ax-murderer, the serial killer that you’ve been looking for. You’re worried about how you’re going to capture him with five hundred men, well I’m telling you he’s sitting right here peacefully, two people away from you. Don’t worry. You have nothing to fear from this man. And the king calms down and he goes over to Angulimala, looks him up and down and says, Are you really—is this noble monk really Angulimala?“And he says, Yes, great king. And the king says, This is truly amazing. You, oh Buddha, have tamed the untamable. You have brought peace to the unpeaceful, and led to nirvana those who seemingly could never attain it.
Venerable sir, we ourselves with our armies and so forth, could never tame this person, and yet the Blessed One has tamed him without force or weapons.
The next day, Angulimala goes out for alms, and he sees a woman giving birth to a deformed child. When he sees this, his heart is touched, This is a tragedy I’m seeing in front of me, but how much sentient beings have such things happening to them! He goes back to the Buddha and he tells him. Now the Buddha says something very strange to him. He says, Since your heart has been touched by this woman, you should try to help her. You should try to take away this pain. And here’s how you can do it. Go back to that woman and say to her,
Sister, since I was born I do not recall that I have ever intentionally deprived a living being of life. By this truth, may you be well and may your infant be well.
Now one thing you have to understand about this is that there was an ancient tradition in India, not only Buddhist but throughout Indian culture, that there was the power of truth-telling. That is, somebody would stand up and say something that was significant and really true, usually something that had to do with spiritual attainment. The idea is if you swore this truth, you could use the power of that truth to effect change, to make things happen
So the Buddha’s suggesting that Angulimala do this in relation to this woman, that he go back to her and say to her, I now swear that I have never, since I was born, intentionally hurt a living being and by the power of the truth of that statement, may your child be whole. You can imagine how Angulimala would have felt when he heard the Buddha say that. I think that he was saying this for a reason. Angulimala had already truly repented and turned his life round and had become a monk. But there was still something in Angulimala’s heart that needed cleansing. The Buddha realized that since his heart was opened by seeing this woman, this was good, andhe said to Angulimala,
Then, Angulimala, go into Savatthi and say to that woman, “Sister, since I was born with the noble birth, I do not recall that I have ever intentionally deprived a living being of life. By this truth, may you be well and may your infant be well.
In other words, Since I have been reborn in the dharma, and have become another person in the dharma—since that time, I have never intentionally taken another life. And I think Angulimala upon hearing this, something in him releases, and he really does grieve over his past actions, really lets them go, and really recognizes that he has truly been reborn into a new life. So he goes and tells that to the woman. It actually works, and the woman and the infant become whole again.
Angulimal has learned something and let something go, and also for the first time, maybe ever in his life, has been able to effect goodness instead of harm. Immediately after that, what happens? He is released with direct knowledge.
Here and now he entered upon and abided in that supreme goal of the holy life for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from the home life into homelessness. He directly knew: birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming into any state of being. And the venerable Angulimala became one of the arhats.
So that’s interesting. Encountering the woman and this emotional moment is what he needed to become an arhat. What happens immediately after he becomes an arhat? He’s now released and enlightened. Everything goes well from now on, right? No. Just the opposite. Instead of everything coming up roses, somebody throws a clod of earth at him, somebody throws a stick at him, someone throws a potsherd at him. He comes back to the Buddha in this condition and the Buddha sees him coming in the distance and says to him,
Bear it! Bear it! You are experiencing here and now the results of deeds because of which you might have been tortured in hell for many years, for many hundreds of years, for many thousands of years.
But you’re experiencing it now in a less virulent form—this is nothing, he’s saying, compared to what you deserve. But because of your good deeds and your heart-opening experiences and awakening, this is all you have to bear. Don’t complain about it. Be grateful for this suffering. In other words, his enlightenment does not wipe out his karma. He has to still suffer for it. But because of his practice, the suffering in bearable.