“Some prisoners are tamed with punishment of a stick, or a hook or a whip. I was tamed without a stick or a weapon. I was tamed by the kind words of the Compassionate Buddha.”
Angulimala was one of the historical Buddha’s monks and followers.
He was known for being stringent in his practice, sublimely peaceful, for supporting pregnant women and being a mass murderer that killed hundreds of people.
His name literally means “finger necklace.” This comes from his years living as a bandit, killing people and stringing their fingers around his neck. Later tradition says that this was due to a request given to him by his Guru, though the original sources just indicate someone who enjoyed killing people and wearing fingers around his neck. Angulimala spent years doing this, living in a forest and killing anyone who dared to pass through. This all ended when he met the Buddha.
Upon meeting the Buddha, Angulimala tries to kill him before realizing that no matter how fast he runs, he can’t catch up to the serene monk walking casually through the forest. He yells for the Buddha to stop to which the Buddha replies, “I have stopped, why haven’t you?” The Buddha proceeds to talk about respecting all life and not harming anything.
Angulimala literally throws away his weapons and becomes a monk right there. He spends the rest of his life doing his best to be a harmless monk filled with love, but runs into a few pitfalls. People run from him when they see him and his meditation is frequently disturbed by thoughts of the people he’d killed. The Buddha’s solution to both of these issues was to give Angulimala a short verse to recite to help expectant mothers.
“Sister, since I was born in the noble birth, I do not recall intentionally killing a living being. Through this truth may there be well being for you and well being for your fetus.”
The people began to accept Angulimala and focused on the good he’d done since becoming a monk, Angulimala finds peace and eventually enlightenment.
His life came to an early end when he was killed by an angry mob. He ran to the Buddha for help and instead of a speech about redemption or non-judgment, the Buddha tells Angulimala to rejoice because his past karma was manifesting itself instead of damning him to one of the Buddhist hells.
This story is one of the most well known in South East Asia. Millions of people recognize Angulimala as a saint and spiritual ancestor. For me, Angulimala has always been one of the more reachable of the figures in the Buddhist legend. Most of the monks are only distinguished by what spiritual powers they had and what scriptures they memorized, but Angulimala is a hardened criminal that fights his past and becomes enlightened.
No matter who we are, we’ve all done things that we’re not proud of.
Maybe we don’t make necklaces out of severed fingers, but we all have regrets that hold us back and until we throw our old baggage away, we can never catch up with the promises of peace and serenity. Angulimala shows us that we can do it— that we can drop whatever it is and become spiritual beings—but we also have to pay our karmic debt.
One of the monks I’ve studied with once said that following the Buddhist precepts is easy; if we’re killing, stealing, lying, abusing others (or ourselves) via our sexuality or drugs, eventually the police will help us return to a more spiritually pure mode of life. But beyond this, when we cause harm and destruction, we need to pay up before we can move on. We may be squared away in our spirituality, but not necessarily squared away in the material realm.
Along with this message however, the Angulimala story shows us something even more important. At the end of his life, Angulimala reflects on how it wasn’t soldiers or prisons or politicians that rehabilitated him, it was the simple monk that was able to walk past Angulimala’s threat on his life. There’s a Dhammapada verse that sums it up:
“Hatred has never been ceased by hatred. Only love can defeat hatred. This is a law, ancient and eternal”
Any hatred we put out in the world will not solve anything but will only create more hatred. By abandoning any sense of vengeance, by walking through a killer’s forest completely unarmed except for love and compassion, can we start moving things in a more positive direction.
To this day, in Southeast Asia, Buddhist monks chant Angulimala’s verse to help women through childbirth. Much like Alfred Nobel, the man who invented dynamite but is remembered for the Nobel peace prize, Angulimala is remembered as a paragon of peace and as a man who sought to help ease beings into this world instead of ripping them out of it.
The next time you feel down on yourself, remember the serial killer who became a pacifist and maybe he can ease your suffering as well.
Andrew Cvercko lives in Winsted, Connecticut. He works at a drug rehab, teaching mindfulness meditation to people recovering from drug addiction. He spends his free time corresponding with people in prison on religion and meditation, exploring this strange planet we find ourselves on, and thinking too much.
Like elephant I’m not “Spiritual.” I just practice being a good person on Facebook.
Assistant Ed: Karla Rodas / Ed: Lynn Hasselberger