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The Angulimala Sutta

Daku Angulimala (Pāli: “finger necklace/garland”; Sinhala: අංගුලිමාල, Burmese: အင်္ဂုလိမာလ) is an important early figure in Buddhism, particularly within the Theravada suttas. A ruthless killer who is redeemed by a sincere conversion to Buddhism, he 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 Angulimala Sutta

Angulimala: Questioning the Buddha’s Choice

by Wayne Ren-Cheng, Shi


On Fridays at the Buddha Center in Second Life the sangha has been learning about and discussing aspects of the Angulimala Sutta.  This talk arose from the middle section of the sutta – which I am more likely to name a parable . . . one that I feel someone turned into a sutta – at the point the Buddha chooses to ordain Angulimala.


Let’s recap the sutta so far:


‘Born into a family of wealth and privilege, under the horoscope sign of the ‘robber-constellation’ he is named Ahimsaka (Harmless One) by his parents, and given all opportunities and resources to grow into a respected, intelligent and gentle person.  At the time he leaves for the university at Taxila he is that laudable person.  Ahimsaka performs exceptionally as a student, becomes a favorite of his teacher which causes the arising of fear, anger and hatred in his fellow students.  These students engage in a campaign of lies and manipulation to cause that same arising in the teacher.  Eventually the teacher believes the delusions and lies and to rid himself of the perceived danger of Ahimsaka the teacher demands that his student honor him by collecting the little fingers (some translations say it was thumbs) of 1000 people.  The teacher tells him that only by doing so will Ahimsaka benefit from all the hard work and study he has done.  Confused, but always the respectful and dutiful person, Ahimsaka returns to Kosala, goes into the forest of Jalini and embarks on a murderous quest as Angulimala.


The Buddha, knowing of Angulimala and heedless of the voices of the townspeople warning him of danger enters the forest and soon encounters Angulimala.  Chasing, but never catching the recluse Angulimala calls out STOP.  The Buddha’s words that he has stopped wielding the rod, and that Angulimala has not stopped results in an AhHa moment for the murderer.  He tosses away his weapons and renounces his evil ways’.


Up to this point in the parable choices were made by the father and mother (giving him a harmless name and opportunities to succeed), the king (when the father offers to have his son killed the king declines), Ahimsaka (first choosing to be good, later choosing to do bad), his fellow students (negative actions), and the teacher (first being supportive, later believing lies and manipulating Ahimsaka).  Each choice was made interdependent of the encompassing factors of culture, perceptions and dispositions.  The Buddha made the choice to walk into the forest of Jalini and to engage with Angulimala.  In the next section of verses the Buddha makes questionable choices.    


‘Come, O monk!’ and just this indeed made him a monk.’  On the spot the Buddha ordains Angulimala with the Ehi-bhikkhu upasampada (the Acceptance by saying, come bhikkhu), making him a formal part of the monastic sangha.  Leaving the forest of Jalini with Angulimala as his attendant, the Buddha returns to Jeta’s Grove.


King Pasenadi arrives at Jeta’s Grove and takes an audience with the Buddha.  He speaks of the murderer Angulimala and how he has been unable to subdue him.  The Buddha responds, “Now, maharajah, suppose you were to see Angulimala with shaven head and face, wearing a

saffron robe, and gone forth into homelessness; is abstaining from destroying life, abstaining from taking what is not-given and abstaining from false speech; that he is eating only one meal a day, and is celibate, virtuous, of good character. If you were to see him like that, what would you do?”


To paraphrase the King’s response, “I would treat him as I would any disciple of the Buddha.”  The Buddha smiles and gestures toward Angulimala saying, “Maharajah, this is Angulimala!”  The King reacts with fear and anger but is calmed by the words of the Buddha, “Fear not, maharajah, fear not! There is nothing for you to fear from Angulimala.”  The King accepts the word of the Buddha that Angulimala is no longer a threat and leaves Jeta’s Grove, his responsibility as the ruler of his people seemingly forgotten.


The Buddha made the choice, interdependent on his own dispositions, needs and culture to ordain Angulimala.  He used skillful means to get King Pasenadi to publicly state his intention to do no harm to a disciple of the Buddha.  This engaging of ‘noblesse oblige’ [royalty bound by word] bound the king to follow that declaration then, and in the future, as is revealed later in the parable.  This choice protected Angulimala from the system of social justice of that time and culture.  


So, Angulimala, murderer and terrorist undergoes a miraculous change to a harmless bhikkhu.  He no longer suffers under the dispositions of anger, hatred, violence and fear; and so, is not a danger to the community at large.  Quite the show of compassion from the Buddha.


Was it an APPROPRIATE demostration of compassion?  The Four Ennobling Truths reveal the reality of suffering/discontentment as part of the human condition, and they reveal a way out of that suffering/discontentment, the Eightfold Path.  Looking solely at Angulimala/Ahimsaka the Buddha’s compassion can be recognized as appropriate.  Seeing the same situation through the lens of Appropriate View and the Buddha’s choice may seem ill-advised.  


The compassion the Buddha showed to Angulimala by offering him a more noble path would have reduced Angulimala’s psychoemotional suffering, and would have prevented him from taking that last little finger, thereby easing some future suffering.  What about compassion for the friends and families affected by the deaths of 999 people; and for the villagers who lived in constant fear?  What about compassion for King Pasenadi whose people expected Angulimala to be brought to justice?  What about the villagers who would fear that Angulimala might one day revert to his evil ways?


In moment-to-moment life we are each faced with decisions.  Some will be easy to make, others will be complicated taking much thought and debate.  This is why it is pragmatically useful to engage a sense of situational ethics in these decisions.  Morally, as Buddhists, we realize that compassion is non-negotiable, that everyone deserves compassion.  This is the moral foundation that arises from the Three Pure Precepts, the intent to act with loving-kindness no matter the circumstances.  Ethically, as Buddhists, we must strive for an Appropriate View of each situation, while holding to our Appropriate Intent.  Situational ethics are the intentional actions that arise with an encompassing and corrective view.  There can no doubt that in the Angulimala parable that the Buddha’s intent was the alleviation of some suffering.  The question is . . . did he act with an encompassing and corrective sense of situational ethics?


At the EDIG, Buddha Center (Second Life) meeting I could imagine the silence in the temple when I asked, “Did the Buddha act appropriately in this part of the parable?”  For anyone on the Middle Path, monastic or layperson, we will do a disservice to the dharma, and to the Buddha if we don’t question the choices made by all the characters in the parable.  This is how we learn to pose questions about our own choices, and to build the positive character and wisdom to make choices that bring about positive causal consequences.  Choices interdependent on culture, context and dispositions; choices whose determination have a firm foundation in moral acceptance and situationally ethical actions.

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