This is a Buddhist story about redemption. It is a little bit gruesome. The story serves as a reminder to us. If you think you are inferior, that something is wrong with you and you aren’t an ethical person and you can’t walk the Buddhist path, you’re wrong. This is a story about a man who fell further into darkness than we will ever fall and came back. I’m almost hesitant to tell it, but I think the lesson is important.
He was born to a Brahmin family. His father was a Hindu priest and he was expected to be the same. His father named him Ahimsaka, which means ‘the harmless one’. This turned out to be a name that really didn’t fit.
Ahimsaka was sent to study under a very famous guru. He excelled in his studies so much that he became the guru’s favorite student. This made the other students grow jealous. One of the other students started a rumor that stated not only that Ahimsaka had arrogantly declared himself wiser than the guru, but also that he had been secretly having sex with the guru’s wife. For whatever reason, the guru believed the rumor.
We know nothing about this guru outside of this story. He seems like a bad guru, if you ask me. I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and remind you that this story was told by individuals who wanted to cast him in a negative light.
The guru was very angry. He wanted to kill Ahimsaka for having sex with his wife, but he knew that killing one of his students would obviously harm his reputation. Instead, he got creative. He declared that Ahimsaka’s training was complete and asked for a final gift from his favorite student.
Ahimsaka, of course, agreed that he would give any gift the guru asked for.
The guru asked for one thousand severed fingers. He didn’t really think Ahimsaka would make this effort, of course. He thought that the gentle student Ahimsaka would either refuse or would be killed on his first attempt.
So, Ahimsaka left the guru behind.
What happened next is a little unclear. Did Ahimsaka develop a taste for violence because he was trying to fulfill his duty to his guru? Did he always have a taste for violence that was looking for a way out? Or did he lash out because he knew he couldn’t fulfill his role as a Brahmin unless he completed his guru’s request?
We don’t have the answers to these questions. We do know that it was normal for a guru to request a final gift and that sometimes these gifts were very difficult things. And this was a time in India in which failing to fulfill your caste duties was considered one of the worst things you could do.
Ahimsaka became a murderer. He lived in the forest by a well traveled and he killed people that came into the area. He killed them and kept grisly trophies. He kept their fingers. He would wear them on a string around his neck. Suddenly he had gone from the path of the Brahmin priest to becoming a ghoulish fiend. We don’t know how it began, but at some point, he developed a taste for murder and grew to really enjoy causing pain to others. And he was incredibly skilled at it.
He was feared. Locals gave him the name, “Angulimala”, which means necklace of fingers. This is the name that is usually used when people talk about Ahimsaka. In a way, I suppose this is the reverse of the Buddha’s story. Siddartha left the path his father set out for him and became the Buddha. Ahimsaka left the path his father set for him and became Angulimala. But, the Buddha brought compassion and wisdom to the world. Angulimala only brought suffering.
When people were so afraid that they stopped traveling on the roads, Angulimala started sneaking into small villages at night and killing people.
This went on for some time. We are told that Angulimala killed 999 victims. At this time, some local people ran to Pasenadi, the King of Kosala, and petitioned him for help. They wanted him to do something about this maniac who was ravaging the countryside. At the moment they were asking for help, the Buddha happened to be meeting with the King and he overheard what was going on. The Buddha decided to go find this killer himself. He was told all of the horror stories about Angulimala. He was fearless.
Meanwhile, Angulimala’s mother had been searching for him. She had heard that her son had turned into this monstrous killer and she wanted to see for herself. Angulimala came across his mother in the forest. His mind was so far gone, he had turned so completely evil, that he wanted to make his own mother his 1000th victim.
He drew his sword to slay his mother, but the Buddha arrived and got in his way. Angulimala turned his attention to the Buddha, and that’s when the Buddha took off running. Angulimala gave pursuit and chased the Buddha through the woods.
“Stop!” Angulimala yelled.
The Buddha called back, “I have stopped already. It is you who must stop, my friend.”
Angulimala did stop running and the Buddha stopped as well.
“What do you mean?” Angulimala asked.
“I have stopped harming living beings. You should stop as well. When you harm others, you are also harming yourself. You must stop harming yourself, my friend.”
Angulimala immediately understood. He threw down his sword and vowed to change his ways. He shaved his head and became a monk, spending the rest of his life in a monastery. His birth name, Ahimsaka, finally suited him.
The King eventually did come looking for him, but when discovered that Angulimala had renounced his evil ways and become a monk, he decided to let him go.
Not everyone was so forgiving. For the rest of his life, he faced abuse from the relatives of those he killed. They would assault him in a number of ways whenever they saw him, both physically and verbally, but he always took their abuse without responding. He knew he deserved it, so he didn’t make any efforts to avoid it.
Is this story true? It’s probably not. What can we learn from it?
We all have trouble doing the right thing sometimes. We all struggle with maintaining our compassion and equanimity, although some of us struggle more than others. We might get discouraged and think we’re not good enough, that we are tempted and fall into bad behaviors to easily, that our weaknesses of character make us a bad fit for the Buddhist path. This story can serve to remind us that this is not the case. For if even a being as lowly as Angulimala can practice the Dharma, so can we.
Some might call this a story about a killer who isn’t brought to justice. I think that misses the point. The point is that the Dharma is the way and that it can change your life in ways that seem impossible.