The Social Lesson of Angulimala
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.