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The Social Lesson of Angulimala

September 18, 2013
Depiction of Angulimala meeting the Buddha. Source unknown (published on many websites in Thai and Vietnamese languages).

Depiction of Angulimala meeting the Buddha. Source unknown (published on many websites in Thai and Vietnamese languages).

The Angulimala Sutta illustrates several important lessons. First, there is the miraculous nature of the Buddha and his ability to approach without fear and ‘tame’ even violent persons like the mass murderer Angulimala. Then there is the nature of the Buddha’s awakening, of having ‘stopped,’ that is illustrated in his words to Angulimala. Third is the reformation of Angulimala, demonstrating the potential of all human beings to change their lives and achieve liberation. Fourth, his reformation is recognized and acclaimed. Finally, is the inability of Angulimala to fully escape the fruit of his past karma, even though he now lives blamelessly.

From the perspective of social ethics, I think the most important lessons in this sutra are the last three. Angulimala reformed and the community accepted his reformation, but there were still ramifications of his past actions to be dealt with. The reformation of Angulimala demonstrates that karma is not immutable or deterministic. If anyone was NOT deserving of a good outcome, it was Angulimala. Yet he met the Buddha, changed his ways, and became enlightened, the best of all possible outcomes. At the same time, karma is not something one can simply walk away from. The fruits of our actions continue to follow us even if we have now abandoned the practices that led to them. Angulimala accepted this outcome and did not rebel against it or use it as fuel for further violence. This understanding and response, in turn, contributed to his development along the path to liberation.

Perhaps the most social component of this text, though, is the response of King Pasenadi Kosala, who came to ‘stamp out’ the brigand dwelling in the monastery. Once he saw that Angulimala had reformed, he accepted his reformation, praised him, vowed to support him, and went on his way. The King did not tolerate a brigand in his realm, but he accepted that the brigand could (and had) become a noble contemplative. And what of the people he had killed? I recognize this is a troubling question, but in the sutta, King Pasenadi seems to accept that the good Angulimala might do as a monk could offer at least some reparation. I don’t know if we can, or should, behave in such a manner now.

I think this story is presented much simpler than it might have occurred, but nevertheless contains valuable lessons we can apply to how we live today. Although Angulimala was once described as an ‘evil one,’ that status was not a permanent part of his identity. The possibility of change was never foreclosed. Now, I believe we are too quick to write people off as ‘bad’ by nature, lock them away in ‘punishment,’ and leave them no possibility for reform. We certainly don’t welcome them as noble disciples into our most sacred spaces. Some people are working to change this, but not enough. As a society, we seem to believe that if we don’t punish them, they will receive no punishment. They’ll get off scot free. As long as the wheel of karma continues to turn, I don’t believe this is possible. It wasn’t true for Angulimala.

People who commit crimes should be sought and brought to justice. They should be stopped from harming others. But that justice need not include writing them off as human beings – turning them from men and women into ‘criminals’ (and ONLY criminals). If King Pasenadi had written off Angulimala as ONLY ever an ‘evil one’ and stamped him out, he would have also stamped out any good that came into the world as a result of Angulimala’s reformation and enlightenment. That would have been just as much a crime as one of Angulimala’s.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 22, 2013 5:06 pm

    What determines a “just” penalty? Justice seeks to restore the balance of rights. A wrongful action has caused harm, and we need to repair the harm and correct the agent that caused it. So a just penalty might include these things:

    1) Restitution: If possible, repair the harm. If it cannot be repaired then mitigate the harm as much as possible.
    2) Correction: The offender must change before he can be trusted again.
    3) Protection: Others must be protected from harm while the offender is being corrected. This would usually imply prison (a “correctional institution”).

    I haven’t read the story, but only the summary above. It seems that Angulimala was corrected while in the monastery. It would be interesting to know if he made any attempts to mitigate the harm done to his victims.

    We are obligated morally to do no unnecessary harm. A crime is not a ticket enabling us to blindly apply revenge or retribution upon the offender. We have only the moral authority to take reasonably effective measures to repair the damage and insure our future safety. Anything beyond that becomes our crime.

    • September 23, 2013 8:10 am

      Marvin, that seems like a reasonable description of justice, though I am no expert on such philosophies. I would say that in the sutta, the second and third criteria were clearly met. The first is not address directly. The sutta tells of no meeting between Angulimala and the families of his victims, although it does contain a story of how he was stoned in public and chose to bear it. In Buddhist literature, it is often stated that the best gift one can give is that of Dharma, or the truth/law/teaching of the Buddha. Therefore, if Angulimala taught the Dharma following his reformation that may have been considered restitution (partial or whole), but, again, the sutta is not specific. What constitutes “just” restitution for a harm that cannot be repaired (such as murder), is a big question.

      • September 23, 2013 11:03 am

        Indeed. I hope to learn more about Buddhism. So far my only knowledge has been “The Way of Zen” by Alan Watts, that I read ages ago back in college. I got into the “justice” thing due to a couple of experiences. My father was a Salvation Army minister who died in a gunfight in the street with his mistress. That led me to re-examine the eternal Hell thing, and I decided that there was nothing anyone could do in a finite lifespan that would justify even having your knuckles rapped for eternity. So I’m a Humanist now. The second was as Honor Court chairman where I had to figure out how to convince students to turn in someone who cheated when the only penalty was expulsion. We changed the orientation from “Honor” to “Student Court” to operate more like a court of justice rather than a court of honor. Unfortunately, after the change, I had to drop out due to ignoring my studies. Oh, well. But I’ve done okay without the degree.

  2. June 14, 2015 2:50 am

    The story of Angulimala is mostly focused to acknowledged the greatness of Lord Buddha since he ordained one of the most cruel criminals, Angulimala in the order of Sangha and later Angulimala became one of the important disciples of Lord Buddha.
    The story of Angulimala and Ven. Maha Moggalana showed that Karma cannot be undone nor the effects of Karma.

  3. Atul Bhagat permalink
    August 18, 2016 2:46 am

    Whatever happened with Angulimala is conspiracy. He was very much faithful & great student of his earlier teacher in Takshashila. His teacher got angry because of misguided by other students of Angulimala’s teacher. So, Teacher told him that he will get liberation from death if he killed 1000 humans. He believed & obeyed his teacher. He was expert in five solider weapons e.g. Sword, etc among the students of the Takshashila. When he started killing people, everyone was afraid of him, so one is going to meet him. During that time he had not talked to anybody, just see some one coming and kill him, this was his aim. He forgot how many he has killed and his teacher expressed his doubt regarding the number of killed persons. Sometimes bodies got ants, or other animal taken away. So he started to cut fingers and tie those around his neck with threads for counting purpose. 999 was completed and he was waiting for the 1000 one, last one. Nobody was willing to go by that way of forest, where he was living. King Pasenjit was about to ready with his soldiers. by knowing this, Angulimala’s is looking for last person, his mother decided to go inside forest.
    Meanwhile Gautam Buddha had decided to meet him and started his journey towards him. When he saw Buddha is coming towards him, he saw him in full cloth, and first thing came into his mind was that he will not kill him, first he will take all his clothes and then kill him. Then he started dreaming that he running behind the Buddha and not able to capture him so he shouted – Stop, stop. Buddha replied I have already stopped, when you will stopped. Lat of time had passed, he had talked to anybody, after long time he was talking to Buddha. He had seen many people who was afraid with death in front of them. Buddha was so calmed, without afraid and his voice was sweet. With reply from Buddha, he started thinking about himself, since he had taken meaning that when he will stopped from killing. He introspected himself infrond of Buddha and told everything wrong, he had done during this period. He was feeling shameful infront of Buddha, because after killing so much he had got liberation and peace. He was already very much clever and learned lots of thing in Takshashila. So he easily understood the Buddha’s words. The meeting with Buddha was meeting with Kalyan Mitra i.e. wise friend. So it is always good to have friendship with wise person, good persons. Arhants are one of them, with them we can have good envirnment aroung us.
    Why Angulimala names comes after these years also, because he had given Angulimala Sutta. This Sutta sings, when any baby is in trouble while the baby is taking birth. This is continue till current time and will get sing in such situations to have good birth by baby. So numbers of babies got life during their birth is much much more than the life Angulimala has taken during his wrong period.

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