Velthius Scheme Pali Transliteration: Angulimaala

A disciple of the Buddha, both famous and infamous in the Pali Canon. His name means literally 'garland (or necklace) of fingers'.

Of Angulimala, it was said:

'he is murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, merciless to living beings! Villages, towns, and districts have been laid waste by him! He is constantly murdering people, and he wears their fingers as a garland!'
-(MN ii.86, Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Nanamoli trans.)

Angulimala is without a doubt one of the strangest and most interesting figures in the entire Pali Canon. He presents a striking example of the possibilities for redemption presented in Buddhist belief, and what is for many a challenging view of the workings of kamma. All this, plus a nifty miracle or two, a traditional blessing used even in the present day, and what is regarded by some as an ancient account of a sub-continental serial killer.

Angulimala's Story

This odd and amazing story is told in the 86th sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya, located in the division called the Rajavagga, the division on kings. It is entitled, simply enough, the Angulimala Sutta.

Born the son of a brahmin chaplain, Angulimala was initially given the name 'Ahimsaka', meaning 'harmless one' (actually, a commentary to the Theragatha says that the name was actually 'Himsaka', meaning just the opposite, but the name given in one of the primary commentaries on the Majjhima Nikaya, the Majjhima Nikaya Atthakatha, is usually accepted).

But somewhere along the way, Angulimala departed from the course that his heritage would seem to indicate. Instead of succeeding his father as chaplain to the king, he became an infamous and ferocious bandit, preying on travelers along the roads of Kosala.

There are various explanations given as to why Angulimala became a serial killer. One commentary indicates that he was forced to gather 1,000 fingers as a gift to his teacher, who had bound him to this horrible oath through trickery, after having been convinced by Angulimala's jealous rivals that the prize student was sleeping with the teacher's wife. Another says that he had a curse placed upon him by a jealous family member or rival. The Angulimala Sutta itself offers no explanation for his behaviour; it simply presents him as a famous bandit, who kills for profit and the sheer joy of killing.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Angulimala was known far and wide as a killing machine, and he had foiled several attempts at capturing or killing him, defeating up to forty men at a time in the process. Local villagers knew the roads that he frequented and warned travelers away from them. But despite this great threat, as well as the warnings of local farmers and herdsmen, after going on almsrounds one day the Buddha chose to travel down a road known to be watched by Angulimala.

Spotting the Buddha from afar, Angulimala readied his weapons and set off to waylay the traveler. At this point, the Buddha exerted his miraculous powers. However fast Angulimala ran or walked, he could not catch the Buddha, who seemed to be walking at a slow, steady pace. Confounded by this phenomenon, Angulimala halted and called out for the Buddha to stop; even as he continued to walk, the Buddha responded that he had already stopped, and bade Angulimala to stop as well.

Thinking he had caught a wandering holy man in a lie, Angulimala asked the Buddha how he could claim to have stopped, when he clearly still moved. The Buddha responded by saying that he had stopped forever, by abstaining from violence and desire, whereas Angulimala was doomed to continue in motion, for he knew no restraint.

At this, Angulimala realized that it was the Buddha that he spoke to, and that the Buddha knew who he was. He saw also that the Buddha had traveled here only for Angulimala's sake; his whole purpose in traveling down this road was to force a confrontation with the notorious bandit. Overwhelmed, Angulimala at once renounced his murderous ways, and begged admittance into the Sangha.

Shortly after Angulimala became a monk, a local king set off with a company of cavalry to try and kill the infamous murderer. Encountering the Buddha, the king explained his mission. The Buddha asked the king how he would respond if Angulimala were to renounce violence forever, become a monk, and follow the strict ascetic life. The king replied that he would give him a full pardon, and pay homage to him if such a thing were to happen, but doubted that it were possible.

At this point, the Buddha revealed that the monk sitting in noble silence in the corner this entire time was in fact Angulimala. The king, both astonished and frightened, refuses to believe at first, and asks Angulimala about his parentage, to try and establish if it is truly him. Angulimala passes this test easily, and the king offers to supply him with a new robe. Angulimala refuses, as he is already living under several of the strict observances monks may undertake (dutangas)- eating only what he was given, sleeping in the open forest, wearing cast-off rags, and owning only a single three-part robe. The king, astonished that the words of the Buddha have succeded where military intervention could not, departs.

The next morning, Angulimala goes into town on his almsround, and sees a woman giving birth to a deformed child (an account in the Theragatha says only that it is a difficult birth). Reporting this incident to the Buddha, he is instructed to return to the woman and say:

"Sister, since I was born, I can 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!"
Angulimala points out that for him to repeat this blessing of the Buddha's would be to tell a deliberate lie, and so the Buddha instructs him to amend the blessing:
"Sister, since I was born with the noble birth*, I do not recall that I have intentionally deprived a living being of life. By this truth, may you be well, and may your infant be well!"
Upon receiving this blessing, the mother and child were both healed. To this day, this verse is chanted by monks as a blessing for pregnant women close to their time of delivery.

Some time after the incident with the pregnant woman, Angulimala attains enlightenment, and becomes an arahant. During his next trip into town to beg for alms, he is assaulted by villagers, who by now have recognized him as the notorious bandit Angulimala. Struck with rocks, sticks, and clods of earth, Angulimala returns to the Buddha's camp with torn robes, broken begging bowl, and blood seeping from many wounds. The Buddha tells Angulimala to bear this discomfort with patience, for it is the result of his lifetime of murderous ways. Rather than stewing in the hells for countless eons, he will bear the negative results of his evil ways in this lifetime, from now until his death. At this, Angulimala reflects in verse upon his strange journey from 'harmless' to 'garland of fingers' and back again. He wishes the blessings of the Dhamma upon his tormentors and enemies, and warns against the risks of heedless conduct. Reflecting on his trials and tribulations since his decision to become a monk, Angulimala reflects:

So welcome to that choice of mine
And let it stand, it was not ill made;
Of all the Dhammas known to men
I have come to the very best.

So welcome to that choice of mine
And let it stand, it was not ill made;
I have attained the triple knowledge
And done all that the Buddha teaches.

Recent Controversy

Interestingly, Angulimala has recently appeared in the news in Thailand. Thai director Suthep Tannirat attempted in the Spring of 2002 to release his film 'Ongkulimal' (the Thai pronunciation of the Pali name), a re-telling of the story of Angulimala. A number of conservative Buddhist groups in Thailand filed a protest, claiming that the movie distorted Buddhist teachings and ignored important elements of the story. Tannirat's film ommitted any mention of Angulimala being tricked or coerced into beoming a murderer, depicting him instead as a brutal killer. The protestors claimed that the film introduced theistic and 'Hindu' elements that distorted Buddhist teachings. The director claimed that the differences in the movie and the traditional story were meant to depict Angulimala's (possibly distorted) perceptions, and the historical realities (which certainly included Hindu, or rather proto-Hindu, elements).

The protestors were not silenced, and the movie was put before the film censorship board for review. The board rejected the outright ban that protestors had called for, but instructed the director to remove two particularly violent scenes and change the movie's title in order to distance it from the canonical story. Still not content, the protestors petitioned the King of Thailand directly, asking for a ban on the film. The issue is still unresolved.

This event perhaps sheds more light on the relationship between religion, art, and the state in Thai society than it does on the life of Angulimala. It's also a reminder that in the world at large, Buddhism, and particularly the Theravada, serves a much more conservative social role than is generally assigned to it in the West

Some Analysis of the Story of Angulimala

The tale of Angulimala presents something of a challenge to believers and scholars alike. On the one hand, its strong theme of redemption makes it something of a classic among the Pali Canon. On the other hand, Angulimala seems to get off rather lightly for a man who has murdered entire districts, collects fingers, and, according to one commentary, was intent on murdering his own mother before he was interrupted by the Buddha.

Both issues have their root in the doctrine of kamma, as understood in traditional Theravada thought. While Angulimala's reversal of fortune is striking, it must be tempered by the knowledge that every figure in the Pali Canon who attains enlightenment is held to have achieved great deeds in their past lives. Angulimala does not gain the great gift of nibbana based on the presto-chang-o conversion alone; several commentaries mention that the field has been prepared for Angulimala through virtuous deeds in past lives. Even to be born in an age and location where there was an opportunity to encounter the Buddha is regarded as evidence of great achievement and striving for good in a past birth.

Of course, this alone does not resolve the issue altogether. Other figures in the Canon, notably Prince Ajatasatru, commit deeds that seem to be of a much lesser magnitude than those of Angulimala, but these very deeds prevent them from obtaining enlightenment. Of course, the one murder commited by Ajasasatru was a patricide, and of a wealthy patron of the Buddha at that, but nontheless, there seems to be a discrepancy at work.

The origin of this discrepancy could be found in the different statuses of Angulimala and Ajasasatru. While the prince eventually becomes a follower of the Buddha, and a patron of the Sangha, he remaians a lay supporter, whereas Angulimala dedicates his entire life to following the teachings of the Buddha. He is a very strict and austere follower, at that, practicing a number of the extra ascetic observances practiced in modern times only by the most dedicated and remote of meditation monks in the Thai Forest Tradition and certain reform movements in Sri Lanka and other countries. Here, of course, the question of the kamma that lead Angulimala to a position where he could become a monk and engage in these austerities rears its head, but such an investigation does little more than confirm the rather murky nature of anything corresponding to the Western notion of 'free will' in Buddhist thought

The punishment received by Angulimala for his many crimes is also problematic in nature. While certainly it is unpleasant to have things thrown at you, this seems little more than a slap on the wrist for a man who has murdered countless numbers of people. The commentaries suggest here a possible explanation for why Angulimala is getting struck with dirt instead of burning in hell. According to the commentaries, three types of result can come from kamma; a result experienced in the present life, a result experienced in a single future life, and a result experienced in all future lives for so long as one abides in samsara. As Angulimala has become an arahant, and will not be born again in any form, the latter two options are closed to him. But even an arahant can be visited by the fruits of kamma from past lives in their current state, and so all of the results of Angulimala's past transgressions will be meted out in this life.

It is also possible that his punishment is rather worse than it first appears. As a monk, Angulimala is dependant on the support of the community for all his needs. As a monk committed to several of the austere practices, he is even more so dependant, as some of the comforts permitted to other monks are denied to him. A monk reviled and attacked by his supporting community is likely to go home with an empty stomache, and likely to lack for clothing or shelter when the weather turns. Indeed, the modern record is populated with a number of monks who have been forced to change their ways by a community witholding its support, or on the other hand of non-ordained ascetics receiving the support and homage of a lay community more impressed by personal virtue than by lineage.

Furthermore, the sutta, with a lack of commitment to chronology typical of much of the tipitaka, does not indicate for how long Angulimala continues to suffer at the hands of his supposed benefactors. Life for a monk in an ongoing struggle to maintain the support of the community is likely to be difficult indeed. If Angulimala had to live out the rest of his service in the Sangha, then his punishment, though perhaps not as corporal as the dictates of the time, would be by our standards fairly severe.

A last and somewhat unrelated note: it is unclear to me, and I have not be able to divine through the literature, why the Buddha first instructs Angulimala to tell the pregnant woman that he has never intentionally taken a life. The Buddha must be aware that this is not the case, and it seems impossible that he would intentionally attempt to trap Angulimala in a lie. Perhaps it is a reference to one of the frame stories surrounding the sutta- that since Angulimala has been tricked into swearing an oath or cursed, the killings that he has committed are not intentional, and therefore not murder according to Buddhist thought, where intention counts as much if not more than deed. Alternatively, the Buddha may regard Angulimala's birth to the noble life (that is, his ordination as a monk) as his true birth, and all actions prior to it as being no different than a previous life. In any case, Angulimala does not seem to share the Buddha's confidence, and so is given the altered blessing that refers to his ordination into the Sangha rather than his physical birth. As mentioned, this blessing continues to be employed by monks to this day, as a parrita§ used to ease difficult births, or ensure a safe birth and healthy child.

It is traditionally known as 'Angulimala's Protection'- making the Sangha's one serial killer the patron saint of new life.

  • *: In Buddhist literature, 'born to the Noble Birth' refers to being ordained as a monk in the Buddhist Sangha. The ordination process is compared to a rebirth, much as certain Vedic/Hindu initiation ceremonies are. It was for this reason that the upper castes of India were referred to as 'twice-born' (one literal birth, and a rebirth upon their initiation into the adult society of their caste).
  • §: A paritta ( or pirit) is a verse, typically from the Pali Canon, that is chanted by monks and laity to make merit or to provide protection from supernatural or mundane danger. Popular paritta are sometimes gathered together in what is called among the Sinhalese the Pirit Potha, or "Book of Protection". These collections of verse are often used as study guides for new monks, and are also employed by the laity, primarily for merit-making or protection. The Angulimala Paritta is often included in these collections, and is chanted by expectant mothers as well as by monks.
Sources: The Majjhima Nikaya

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