Angulimala: A Story of the Power of Compassion
(As told by Ven. Walpola Piyananda Thera in Love in Buddhism)
There was once the son of a Brahmin (the highest “priestly” caste in India) in the court of King Pasenadi of Kosala, whose name was Ahimsaka. He was sent to Taxila for his studies. Ahimsaka was intelligent and obedient to this teacher; therefore he was liked by both the teacher and his wife. This made the other pupils jealous of him. So they went to the teacher and falsely accused Ahimsaka of having an immoral relationship with the teacher’s wife. At first, he did not believe them, but after hearing it a number of times, he thought it was true and vowed to have revenge on Ahimsaka. He thought that to kill him would reflect badly on him. His rage prompted him to suggest the unthinkable to the young and innocent Ahimsaka. He told his pupil to kill a thousand human beings and to bring the right thumb of each as payment for teaching him. Of course the youngster would not even think of such a thing, so he was banished from the teacher’s house and returned to his parents.
When his father learned why Ahimsaka had been expelled, he became furious with his son, and would hear no reason. On that very day, with the rain pouring down, he ordered Ahimsaka to leave the house. Ahimsaka went to his mother and asked her advice, but she could not go against the will of her husband. Next Ahimsaka went to the house of his betrothed (in accord with the ancient custom in India calling for betrothal of children long before their actual marriage), but when the family learned why Ahimsaka had been turned out of school, they drove him off. The shame, anger, fear, and despair of Ahimsaka drove him out of his mind. His suffering mind could only recollect the teacher’s order: to collect 1,000 human thumbs. And so he started killing, and as he killed, the thumbs he collected were hung on a tree, but as they were destroyed by crows and vultures, he later wore a garland of the fingers to keep track of the number.
Because of this he came to be known as Angulimala (finger garland) and became the terror of the countryside. The king himself heard about the exploits of Angulimala, and he decided to capture him. When Mantani, Ahimsaka’s mother, heard about the king’s intention, she went to the forest in a desperate bid to save her son. By this time, the chain around the neck of Angulimala had 999 fingers in it, just one finger short of 1,000.
The Buddha; learned of the mother’s attempt to dissuade her son from, and reflected that if he did not intervene, Angulimala, who was on the lookout for the last person to make up the 1,000, would see his mother and might kill her. In that case, he would have to suffer an even longer period for his evil karma. Out of compassion, the Buddha left for the forest.
Angulimala, after many sleepless days and nights, was very tired and near exhaustion. At the same time, he was very anxious to kill the last person to make up his full quota of 1,000 and so complete his task. He made up his mind to kill the first person he met. As he looked down from his mountain perch, he saw a woman on the road below. He wanted to fulfill his vow to complete the 1,000 thumbs, but as he approached, he saw it was his mother. At the same time, the Buddha was approaching, and Angulimala had just enough presence of mind to decide to kill the wandering monk instead of his mother. He set out after the Blessed One with his knife raised. But the Buddha kept moving ahead of him. Angulimala just could not catch up with him. Finally, he cried out, “O Bhikkhu, stop, stop!” And the Enlightened One replied, “I have stopped. It is you who have not stopped.” Angulimala did not catch the significance of these words, so he asked, “O Bhikkhu! Why do you say that you have stopped while I have not?”
The Buddha replied, “I say that I have stopped because I have given up killing all beings. I have given up ill-treating all beings, and have established myself in universal love, patience, and knowledge through reflection. But you have not given up killing or ill treating others and you are not yet established in universal love and patience. Hence, you are the one who has not stopped.” On hearing these words Angulimala was recalled to reality, and thought, these are the words of a wise man. This monk is so very wise and so very brave that he must be the leader of the monks. Indeed, he must be the Enlightened One himself! He must have come here specially to make me see the light. So thinking, he threw away his weapons and asked the Blessed One to admit to the Order of the Bhikkhus, which the Buddha did.
When the king and his men came to capture Angulimala, they found him at the monastery of the Buddha. Finding that Angulimala had given up his evil ways and become a Bhikkhu, the king and his men agreed to leave him alone. During his stay at the monastery, Angulimala ardently practiced meditation.
Angulimala had no peace of mind because even in his solitary meditation he used to recall memories of his past and the pathetic cries of his unfortunate victims. As a result of his evil karma, while seeking alms in the streets he would become a target of stray stones and sticks and he would return to the Jetavana monastery with broken head and blood flowing, cut and bruised, to be reminded by the Buddha: “My son Angulimala. You have done away with evil. Have patience. This is the effect of the evil deeds you have committed in the existence. Your evil karma would have made you suffer through innumerable existences had I not met you.”
One morning while going on an alms round in Savatthi, Angulimala heard someone crying out in pain. When he came to know that a pregnant lady was having labor pains and facing difficulty to deliver the child, he reflected, all worldly beings are subject to suffering. Moved by compassion, he reported the suffering of this poor woman to the Buddha who advised him to recite the following words of truth, which later came to be known as Angulimala Paritta. Going to the presence of the suffering woman, he sat on a seat separated from her by a screen, and uttered these words:
Sister, since the day I became an arahat
I have not consciously destroyed
The life of any living beings.
By this truth, may you be well
And may your unborn child be well.
Instantly the woman delivered her child with ease. Both the mother and child were well and healthy. Even today many resort to this paritta.
Angulimala liked living in solitude and in seclusion. Later he passed away peacefully. As an arahant, he attained parinibbana.
Other bhikkhus asked the Buddha where Angulimala was reborn, and when the Blessed One replied, my son Angulimala has attained parinibbana, they could hardly believe it. So they asked whether it was possible that such a man who had in fact killed so many people could have attained parinibbana. To this question, the Buddha replied, “Bhikkhus, Angulimala had done much evil because he did not have good friends. But later, he hound good friends and with their help and good advice he became steadfast and mindful in practicing the dhamma and meditation. Thus, his evil deeds have been overwhelmed by good karma and his mind has been completely rid of all defilement’s.”
The Buddha said of Angulimala
“Whose evil deed is obscured by good,
he illumines this world like the
moon freed from a cloud.”
The power of love and compassion are stronger than any evil, and are absolute conditions for awakening.