The Serial Killer Who Became a Saint
by Ryuei Michael McCormick
The Finger Garland
It might astound many people, including many Buddhists, to learn that one of the arhats, or enlightened saints, was a serial killer. This killer was named Angulimala, whose name means “Finger Garland,” due to the garland composed of the finger bones of his 999 victims that he wore around his neck. According to the commentarial tradition, he was on the verge of killing his own mother when the Buddha intercepted him. The tradition also states that all of this was done at the behest of his spiritual teacher who had demanded a garland of 1,000 finger bones as payment for teachings that would enable him to be reborn in heaven. So this mass murderer was motivated by blind faith and religious fanaticism. In our day, he would doubtless have become a terrorist, perhaps even a suicide bomber. And yet Angulimala would become a saint, and even a performer of healing miracles after his encounter with the Buddha. How did this happen?
Buddhism is unequivocally a religion of peace that values non-violence as it’s most important moral principle. The law of cause and effect as taught by the Buddha ensures that, for as long as we are bound to the wheel of birth and death, the causes we make will become the seeds that will come to fruition either later in this present life or some other subsequent lifetime. In other words, one will have to reap what one sows. Those who commit acts of murder will end up being murdered themselves, or having their loved one’s fall victim to the depredations of others, or their lives will be tragically cut short in some manner, or they might even suffer a rebirth in the hells, or as a hungry ghost, or an animal, or a fighting demon. Furthermore, there is no god or divine savior who can erase one’s karmic debt or take on one’s sufferings through a form of vicarious atonement. While beings can and should help alleviate the sufferings of others, and karma can be mitigated, each is responsible for their own causes and the consequences thereof. Such is the most straightforward presentation of the traditional teaching.
So it is all the more remarkable that by encountering the Buddha a remorseless killer such as Angulimala was able to transform into an awakened being who was able to mitigate his karma, and even bring healing where before he had brought harm. Angulimala, however, was not always a killer, and in fact his original name was said to have been “Ahimsaka” which means “Harmless” or “Non-Violent One.” He was the son of a brahmin (the priestly caste) who was the royal chaplain in the court of King Prasenajit of Kosala. Unfortunately his horoscope showed that in the future he would most likely become a mass murderer, the natural outcome of past lives marked by ruthless strength and a lack of empathy for others. His father offered to have him killed, but King Prasenajit believed that this destiny could be avoided if the qualities of gentleness and mercy could be engendered in him. For this reason he was given the name Ahimsaka. He grew up in a strict and pious home and was later sent to study with the finest teachers at the university in Takshashila. It seemed as though his parent’s plans had succeeded; Ahimsaka was growing up to be a very obedient and virtuous person, as well as handsome and physically powerful. Unfortunately, it was in Takshashila that his unquestioning obedience would lead him astray.
In Takshashila, Ahimsaka studied under a guru in order to learn the various religious teachings and ceremonies of Brahmanism. Apparently Ahimsaka became the teacher’s pet, and the other pupils of the guru found him insufferable and became very jealous. They began to spread false rumors and worked constantly to poison their guru’s mind against Ahimsaka by sowing seeds of suspicion at every opportunity. Finally, the guru was convinced that Ahimsaka was trying to seduce his wife. According to one version of the story, the guru’s wife was herself attracted to Ahimsaka and tried to seduce him while her husband was away on a trip. The virtuous Ahimsaka spurned her and so she herself accused Ahimsaka of trying to seduce her in order to get revenge for his rejection. It might be wondered if Ahimsaka’s virtue were not also accompanied by a callous and self-righteous attitude that might further have enflamed his fellow pupils and the guru’s wife against him.
In any case, when the guru returned and was told that Ahimsaka had tried to seduce or perhaps even rape his wife he wanted to kill him. However, he was afraid to confront his superhumanly powerful disciple. He also knew that his own reputation would suffer if anything untoward happened to any of the pupils in his care. So to get rid of Ahimsaka he set before him a horrible task that he hoped would end in Ahimsaka’s own death in battle or capture and execution. It was the custom that a student should unquestioningly obey their guru and also the duty of a disciple to present their guru with a gift before departing for home after their studies were complete. The guru told Ahimsaka that his course of training was finished but before leaving he told Ahimsaka that in order to attain a heavenly rebirth he must present him with a necklace of 1,000 human finger bones. Ahimsaka, the dutiful and obedient student, was horrified; but at the same time something monstrous stirred within him and he set out to obey his guru by robbing and killing travelers and then collecting their finger bones to string into a necklace or garland. Clearly, his obedience was not balanced by compassion, and his unquestioning faith was not balanced by wise discernment. So it was that Ahimsaka, the formerly harmless one, took up arms, made his way into the forest to waylay travelers, and became the remorseless killer who would become known as Angulimala, the wearer of a finger garland.
The twentieth year of the Buddha’s ministry was spent in Shravasti at the Jeta Grove Monastery. It was around this time that Angulimala began his depredations. Things had gotten so bad that people would no longer travel on the road through the forest where Angulimala laid in wait. Angulimala apparently was so swift and strong that he could single-handedly wipe out whole caravans on his own, but now he was hard put to find any more victims. He then began to attack the villages near the forest, and eventually the villagers abandoned their homes and as refugees streamed into Shravasti demanding that King Prasenajit lead his army into the forest and hunt down the killer. At this point, Angulimala’s mother, suspecting that the killer was her son who had not returned as expected from his studies, set forth to find him. Angulimala, in the meantime, was desperately searching for one last victim in order to complete his thousand-fingered garland for his guru. His determination was such that he would have killed even his own mother, who in fact was headed his way.
It was at this time that the Buddha decided to intervene. After collecting alms in Shravasti and eating he took up his bowl and outer robe and headed out on the road to the forest where Angulimala made his lair, overtaking Angulimala’s mother. On the way, the cowherds, shepherds, and ploughmen warned him to head back and go no further down the road from which the refugees had come fleeing the infamous killer. But the Buddha passed on in silence. Finally he arrived in the area where Angulimala lay in wait.
The bandit Angulimala saw the Blessed One coming in the distance. When he saw him, he thought: “It is wonderful, it is marvelous! Men have come along this road in groups of ten, twenty, thirty, and even forty, but they still have fallen into my hands. And now this recluse comes alone, unaccompanied, as if driven by fate. Why shouldn’t I take this recluse’s life?” Angulimala then took up his sword and shield, buckled on his bow and quiver, and followed close behind the Blessed One.
Then the Blessed One performed such a feat of supernormal power that the bandit Angulimala, though walking as fast as he could, could not catch up with the Blessed One, who was walking at his normal pace. Then the bandit Angulimala thought: “It is wonderful, it is marvelous! Formerly I could catch up even with a swift elephant and seize it; I could catch up even with a swift horse and seize it; I could catch up with even a swift chariot and seize it; I could catch up with even a swift deer and seize it; but now, though I am walking as fast as I can, I cannot catch up with this recluse who is walking at his normal pace!” He stopped and called out to the Blessed One: “Stop, recluse! Stop, recluse!”
“I have stopped, Angulimala, you stop too.”
Then the bandit Angulimala thought: “These recluses, sons of the Shakyans, speak truth, assert truth; but though this recluse is still walking he says: ‘I have stopped, Angulimala, you stop too.’ Suppose I question this recluse.”
Then the bandit Angulimala addressed the Blessed One in stanzas thus:
“While you are walking, recluse, you tell me you have stopped;
But now, when I have stopped, you say I have not stopped.
I ask you now, O recluse, about the meaning:
How is it that you have stopped and I have not?”
“Angulimala, I have stopped forever,
I abstain from violence towards living beings;
But you have no restraint towards things that live:
That is why I have stopped and you have not.”
“Oh, at long last this recluse, a venerated sage,
Has come to this great forest for my sake.
Having heard your stanza teaching me the Dharma,
I will indeed renounce evil forever.”
So saying the bandit took his sword and weapons
And flung them in a gaping chasm’s pit;
The bandit worshipped the Sublime One’s feet,
And then and there asked for the going forth.
The Enlightened One, the Sage of Great Compassion,
The Teacher of the world with [all] its gods,
Addressed him with these words, “Come, monk.”
And that was how he came to be a monk.
Then the Blessed One set out to wander back to Shravasti with Angulimala as his attendant. Wandering by stages, he eventually arrived at Shravasti, and there he lived at Shravasti in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s Park.
(Adapted from Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 710-712)
This teaching is pretty straightforward, though the Buddha initially presents it in a paradoxical fashion by making himself move miraculously faster than the superhumanly strong and swift Angulimala and then insisting that he has stopped already when he is clearly still moving out of Angulimala’s range. The actual meaning is that the Buddha has abstained from violence and has stopped moving towards or away from anything within samsara, the cycle of birth and death and its attendant sufferings wherein people are so deluded that they will even see mass murder as a ticket to heaven. Angulimala is said to have been a very sharp person, despite his lack of common sense or conscience, and understood immediately that the Buddha had found the correct way to end all suffering.
It was not just the miracle or the Buddha’s teaching that brought about such a change however. One could imagine that this miracle was actually nothing more spectacular than the Buddha’s awesome poise and calm presence. As the Buddha kept walking fearlessly on, Angulimala found himself unable to lay a hand on him, and had to keep pace with the Buddha just to talk to him. This man who was so feared that entire villages had fled, now found himself begging a lone monk to stop for a moment. And then he discovered through a simple exchange of words that this wandering monk knew exactly who he was and had purposely sought him out to deliver this message of peace and liberation specifically to him. It dawned on Angulimala that this was none other than the Buddha himself who had taken the trouble to find him and teach him. In fact, the Buddha had risked his life in seeking after Angulimala, and he did it for Angulimala’s sake. This was what moved Angulimala. This act of selfless compassion awoke the compassion that had long slumbered within the vicious killer. In that moment he renounced his old way of life and embraced a new one under the Buddha. He threw away his weapons and begged to become a monk, a disciple of the Buddha. The Buddha granted his wish and extended to him the earliest form of the invitation to join the monastic Sangha, “Come, monk.” Together they returned to the Jeta Grove Monastery in Shravasti.
The Meeting with King Prasenajit
In the meantime, the refugees besieging King Prasenajit’s palace were growing more demanding. Here is what transpired:
Now on that occasion great crowds of people were gathering at the gates of King Prasenajit’s inner palace, very loud and very noisy, crying: “Sire, the bandit Angulimala is in your realm; 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! The king must put him down!
Then in the middle of the day King Prasenajit of Kosala drove out of Shravasti with a cavalry of five hundred men and set out for the park. He drove thus as far as the road was passable for carriages, and then he dismounted from his carriage and went forward on foot to the Blessed One. After paying homage to the Blessed One, he sat down at one side, and the Blessed One said to him: “What is it, great king? Is King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha attacking you, or the Licchavis of Vaishali, or other hostile kings? (Ibid, p. 712)
Was the Buddha just joking with King Prasenajit? The Buddha knew full well why the king had set out, and in fact had the king’s quarry sitting right by him, though now shaved and accoutered as a monk. Considering what had happened it seems like an odd time to make light jests. However, more likely the Buddha was hoping to draw out the reason for the king’s expedition in order to begin a discussion of Angulimala’s fate. King Prasenajit indeed responded by telling the Buddha of the purpose of his expedition, ending with a rather gloomy appraisal of his ability to catch or kill the bandit: “I shall never be able to put him down, venerable sir.”
Of course the Buddha had already conquered the bandit Angulimala, but in a non-violent way. Now he needed to reveal to King Prasenajit that his problems were over:
“Great king, suppose you were to see that Angulimala had shaved off his hair and beard, put on the yellow robe, and gone forth from the home life into homelessness; that he was abstaining from killing living beings, from taking what is not given and from false speech; that he was refraining from eating at night, ate only in one part of the day, and was celibate, virtuous, of good character. If you were to see him thus, how would you treat him?”
“Venerable sir, we would pay homage to him, or rise up for him, or invite him to be seated; or we would invite him to accept robes, almsfood, a resting place, or medicinal prerequisites; or we would arrange for him lawful guarding, defense, and protection. But venerable sir, he is an immoral man, one of evil character. How could he ever have such virtue and restraint?” (Ibid, pp. 712-713)
Note that in this passage the exemplary roles of the Buddhist monastic and the supportive householder are outlined. The monastic is to renounce the secular pleasures of home life and live a life of simplicity and restraint, extending even to total sexual abstinence and the regulation of eating. The faithful householder, on the other hand, shows respect to the monastics, supplies their basic needs and even offers protection. At this point, however, King Prasenajit cannot imagine that one such as Angulimala could so transform his character. But he is about to discover that the Buddha is not talking about a hypothetical situation.
Now on that occasion the venerable Angulimala was sitting not far from the Blessed One. Then the Blessed One extended his right arm and said to King Prasenajit of Kosala: “Great king, this is Angulimala.”
Then King Prasenajit was frightened, alarmed, and terrified. Knowing this, the Blessed One told him: “Do not be afraid, great king, do not be afraid. There is nothing for you to fear from him.”
Then the king’s fear, alarm, and terror subsided. He went over to the venerable Angulimala and said: “Venerable sir, is the noble lord really Angulimala?”
“Yes, great king.”
“Venerable sir, of what family is the noble lord’s father? Of what family is his mother?”
“My father is a Gagga, great king; my mother is a Mantani.”
“Let the noble lord Gagga Mantaniputra rest content. I shall provide robes, almsfood, resting place, and medicinal prerequisites for the noble lord Gagga Mantaniputra.”
Now at that time the venerable Angulimala was a forest dweller, an almsfood eater, a refuse-rag wearer, and restricted himself to three robes. He replied: “Enough, great king, my triple robe is complete.” (Ibid, p. 713)
King Prasenajit was as good as his word. For a second time the king spared Angulimala’s life, the first being the time when he declined to allow infanticide in the case of the baby who was predisposed to grow up to be a mass murderer. Rather than arrest Angulimala, he did what he said he would do. He offered Angulimala the respect normally due to any monk and also offered to supply his clothing, food, shelter, and medicine – the four necessities. This also shows that King Prasenajit trusted the Buddha’s judgment that Angulimala had really changed. He entrusted Angulimala to the Buddha’s care rather than insisting on his arrest and execution, which was certainly in his power as king.
As for Angulimala, he declined the king’s offer and in fact revealed that he was following the ascetic practices allowed by the Buddha that are called the dhuta. These practices included such things as dwelling under the trees in the forest except during the rainy season, not accepting dinner invitation but only collecting food on alms rounds, and wearing only rags gathered from refuse piles and graveyards rather than donated cloth. None of these practices were harmful, at least in the climate of the Indian subcontinent, and thus were held to be in accord with the Middle Way. They were undertaken by the monastics either for set periods of time or permanently in order to strengthen their discipline and humility by refusing the “luxuries” allowable to the monastics in order to live as simply as possible. It is not told why Angulimala took up the dhuta, but perhaps it was a way of expiating past misdeeds, or perhaps it was to further discipline himself, or perhaps it was just another manifestation of his uncompromising resolve which was now turned to simple living and the contemplative life rather than murderous fanaticism.
King Prasenajit then returned to the Blessed One, and after paying homage to him, he sat down at one side and said: “It is wonderful, venerable sir, it is marvelous how the Blessed One tames the untamed, brings peace to the unpeaceful, and leads to Nirvana those who have not attained Nirvana. Venerable sir, we ourselves could not tame him with force and weapons, yet the Blessed One has tamed him without force or weapons. And now, venerable sir, we depart. We are busy and have much to do.”
“Now is the time, great king, to do as you think fit.”
Then King Prasenajit of Kosala rose from his seat, and after paying homage to the Blessed One, keeping him on his right, he departed. (Ibid, pp. 713-714)
Here the king acknowledges that what force could not accomplish has been accomplished through the Dharma. Where before, the king saw only the possibility of bloody slaughter, and perhaps a perpetual cycle of violence, now peace had been restored due to the Buddha’s act of courage and compassion that gave Angulimala a chance to turn his life around. Of course this does not mean that the king was relinquishing his responsibility to keep the peace or to protect the borders of his kingdom from criminals, bandits, or invaders. The king did not go out and disband his army. Neither did the Buddha make any such recommendation. In fact the Buddha does say to him, “Now is the time, great king, to do as you think fit.” This means that the Buddha acknowledged that the time had come for the king to return to his secular duties and responsibilities. In that sphere it would be up to the king to govern himself and fulfill his duties to his kingdom in accord with his own conscience.
The Act of Truth
Still, to what extent had Angulimala really changed? It is easy enough to outwardly embrace religion as a way to seek forgiveness for unforgivable acts, or even to in some way avoid responsibility for one’s actions without really letting go of the “self” that committed such acts. Had Angulimala really changed for the better? The Buddha, with his deep insight and awareness of the thoughts and feelings of others, knew that he had. Understandably others were not so certain, and perhaps even Angulimala was unsure of himself. The next two stories explore respectively the extent of his transformation and the karmic responsibility for past actions that even someone who attains enlightenment cannot avoid.
Then, when it was morning, the venerable Angulimala dressed, and taking his bowl and outer robe, went into Shravasti for alms. As he was wandering for alms from house to house in Shravasti, he saw a certain woman giving birth to a deformed child. When he saw this, he thought: “How beings are afflicted! Indeed, how beings are afflicted!” (Ibid, p. 714)
Here we see that Angulimala had in fact awakened the heart of compassion within himself. Where before he had remorselessly slaughtered anyone who crossed his path, seeing them as nothing more than a kind of fruit to harvest for the finger-necklace that he believed was his ticket to heaven, now he could relate to people as people. Now he could empathize with their suffering. The Buddha’s care and regard for him had touched his heart of stone and turned it into a heart of flesh, soft, warm, vulnerable, and able to care for others. Angulimala returned from his alms round, ate his meal, and then reported what he saw and felt to the Buddha. The Buddha then gave him this extraordinary and paradoxical instruction:
“In that case, Angulimala, go into Shravasti and say to the woman: ‘Sister, since I was born, I do 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!”
“Venerable sir, wouldn’t I be telling a deliberate lie, for I have intentionally deprived many living beings of life?”
“Then, Angulimala, go into Shravasti and say to that woman: ‘Sister, since I was born with the noble birth, I do 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!’”
“Yes, venerable sir,” the venerable Angulimala replied, and having gone into Shravasti, he told that woman: “Sister, since I was born with the noble birth, I do not recall that I have ever deprived a living being of life. By this truth, may you be well and may your infant be well!” Then the woman and the infant became well. (Ibid, p. 714)
Here we have a prime example of what is called an “Act of Truth.” The Indologist Heinrich Zimmer explained this in connection with the concept of “dharma” as duty or correct way of life: “There exists in India an ancient belief that the one who has enacted his own dharma without a single fault throughout the whole of his life can work magic by the simple act of calling that fact to witness. This is known as making an “Act of Truth.” (Philosophies of India, pp. 160-161) This Act of Truth was later extended to include any deep truth spoken aloud, “…Truth must be rooted in the heart. The Act of Truth has to build out from there. And consequently, though dharma, the fulfillment of one’s inherited role in life, is the traditional basis of this Hindu feat of virtue, nevertheless, a heartfelt truth of any order has its force. Even a shameful truth is better than a decent falsehood…” (Ibid, p. 167) In modern times, Mahatma Gandhi based his political action on this principle and called it Satyagraha or “Holding to the Truth” in order to free India of British rule. In Gandhi’s case the “Truth” that he held to was “Ahimsa” or non-violence, the very name Angulimala was originally given. Zimmer explains, “Ahimsa, ‘non-violence. non-killing,’ is the first principle in the dharma of the saint and sage – the first step to the self-mastery by which the great yogis lift themselves out of the range of normal human action. They attain through it to such a state of power that when and if the saint steps again into the world, he is literally a superman.” (Ibid, p. 171) Here in the story of Angulimala we have the earliest Buddhist assimilation of these ancient Indian principles concerning the power of truth and non-violence.
In addition, we find here an idea usually associated with the teaching of Jesus, that of being “born again.” The Buddha assures Angulimala that he should consider himself to have had a noble birth from the time that he renounced his evil ways and became the Buddha’s disciple. His old life was gone, and a new one had begun. Angulimala had been given a fresh start, a noble birth. He had been “born again” through the Dharma. With that assurance he was able to move ahead and bring healing and truth into the world. More importantly, Angulimala was able to breakthrough the last remaining fetters of attachment, aversion, and ignorance and was able to attain enlightenment and become an arhat.
Before long, dwelling alone, withdrawn, diligent, ardent, and resolute, the venerable Angulimala, by realizing for himself with direct knowledge, here and now entered upon and abided in that supreme goal of the holy life for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from the home life into homelessness. He directly knew: “Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.” And the venerable Angulimala became one of the arhats. (Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 714-715)
The Angry Mob
Angulimala had become free of the rounds of birth and death. He was not, however, completely absolved of the karmic consequences of his actions. There were those in the city of Shravasti who were not willing to overlook Angulimala’s past, even if the Buddha did vouch for his change of character. For them, as for many in our own culture, reformation was beside the point. Justice required retribution, and if the king was content to leave Angulimala in the care of the Buddha, some people decided that they must take the law into their own hands.
Then, when it was morning, the venerable Angulimala dressed, and taking his bowl and outer robe, went into Shravasti for alms. Now on that occasion someone threw a clod and hit the venerable Angulimala’s body, someone else threw a stick and hit his body, and someone else threw a potsherd and hit his body. Then, with blood running from his cut head, with his bowl broken, and with his outer robe torn, the venerable Angulimala went to the Blessed One. The Blessed One saw him coming in the distance and told him: “Bear it, brahmin! Bear it, brahmin! You are experiencing here and now the result of deeds because of which you might have been tortured in hell for many years, for many hundreds of years, for many thousands of years.” (Ibid, p. 715)
This is the counterpoint to the Buddha’s previous teaching to Angulimala that he had been born again with the noble birth. It is also significant that at this point Angulimala was an arhat. He had cut off all remaining clinging and notions of selfhood. He was enlightened and free of the self-fixation that perpetuates the cycle of birth and death and the continual sowing of causes and reaping of effects. Because there was no longer a self-identification to bring about a new birth in any of the realms of suffering or even in the human or heavenly realm, the great mass of karma accrued by Angulimala could no longer come to fruition. The ground of selfhood had fallen away, taking the seeds of violence and suffering with it. But for as long as Angulimala lived as a man in this world, he would still have to reap the fruits of the deeds he had sown. Even then, one could say that in escaping arrest and execution and in surviving the attempt of the mob to kill him he was still getting off fairly easy. He had truly mitigated the effects of his karma, but still had to take responsibility for what remained and endure it patiently. What is more, Angulimala undoubtedly realized with his newfound compassion that his attackers were themselves suffering greatly from the loss of those who were dear to them, losses that he had inflicted on them when he was still a killer. Angulimala may have transcended self and suffering, but as long as he remained in the world, he could not but be aware of the suffering of others and the repercussions of his own past actions unfolding still. He was no longer caught in the karmic cycle of birth and death, but neither was he blind to it. In fact, as an arhat he could see it all the more clearly, without the bias of self-interest or disregard for the views and feelings of others.
It should also be pointed out that the members of the mob, in presuming that Angulimala was deserving of death, came perilously close to committing one of the five gravest of offenses: killing one’s father, killing one’s mother, killing an arhat, causing the Buddha to bleed, and causing a schism in the Sangha. According to Buddhism, anyone who commits one of the five grave offenses will be immediately reborn in the Avichi Hell (the Hell of Incessant Suffering) after death without any chance of reprieve. Angulimala had himself come close to committing one of these acts but the Buddha’s timely intervention prevented him from killing his own mother. Angulimala had changed and become Ahimsaka or “Harmless” once again, but the cycle of violence that he had set in motion was still in operation, and now it was those who had been harmed by him in the very recent past who were in danger of committing one of the five grave offenses by unwittingly killing an arhat. The anger of the mob is certainly understandable, and as the Buddha points out even deserved. However, this part of the story shows that if one insists on paying back violence with more violence, such presumption may lead to wrongdoing as grave or even worse than the wrongdoing one is trying to avenge. From the Buddhist point of view, the best way to respond to violence is by stopping the cycle of violence. The energy that is lost through bitterness and the pursuit of vendettas is better directed to the restraint of active evildoers, the rehabilitation of those who have been restrained, and the healing of those who have been harmed. This is what will create a safe and peaceful world.
Apparently Angulimala survived this attack. The manner of his death is not recorded. It is said that he spent the rest of his life as a hermit living in the wilderness apart from others except for the rainy season retreats and daily almsrounds. The verses that are attributed to him in the Theragatha (some of which are also in the Dhammapada) express the peace and joy of his new life:
Who once did live in negligence
And then is negligent no more,
He illuminates the world
Like the moon freed from a cloud
Who checks the evil deeds he did
By doing wholesome deeds instead
He illuminates the world
Like the moon freed from a cloud.
The youthful monk who devotes
His efforts to the Buddha’s Teaching
He illuminates the world
Like the moon freed from a cloud.
Let my enemies but hear the discourse on the Dharma,
Let them be devoted to the Buddha’s Teaching,
Let my enemies wait on those good people
Who lead others to accept the Dharma.
Let my enemies give ear from time to time
And hear the Doctrine as told by men who preach forbearance
Of those who speak as well in praise of kindness,
And let them follow up that Dharma with kind deeds.
For surely then they would not wish to harm me,
Nor would they think of harming other beings,
So those who would protect all beings, frail or strong,
Let them attain the all-surpassing peace.
Conduit-makers guide the water,
Fletchers straighten out the arrow,
Carpenters straighten out the timber,
But wise men seek to tame themselves.
There are some that tame with beatings,
Some with goads and some with whips;
But I was tamed by such alone
Who has no rod nor any weapon.
“Harmless” is the name I bear
Who was dangerous in the past,
The name I bear today is true:
I hurt no living being at all.
And though I once lived as a bandit
With the name of “Finger-garland,”
One whom the great flood swept along,
I went for refuge to the Buddha.
And though I once was bloody-handed
With the name of “Finger-garland,”
See the refuge I have found:
The bond of being has been cut.
While I did many deeds that lead
To rebirth in the evil realms,
Yet their result has reached me now;
And so I eat free from debt.*
They are fools and have no sense
Who give themselves to negligence;
But those of wisdom guard diligence
And treat it as their greatest good.
Do not give way to negligence
Nor seek delight in sensual pleasures,
But meditate with diligence
So as to reach the perfect bliss.
So welcome to that choice of mine
And let it stand, it was not ill made;
Of all the Dharmas 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.
I stayed in forests, at the root of a tree,
I dwelt in the mountain caves –
But no matter where I went
I always had an agitated heart.
But now I rest and rise in happiness
And happily I spend my life.
For now I am free of Mara’s snares – ***
Oh! for the pity shown me by the Master!
A brahmin was I by descent,
On both sides high and purely born.
Today I am the Master’s son,
My teacher is the Dharma-king.
Free of craving, without grasping,
With guarded senses, well restrained,
Spewn forth have I the root of misery,
The end of all taints have I attained.
The Master has been served by me full well,
And all the Buddha’s bidding has been done.
The heavy load was finally laid down;
What leads to new becoming is cut off.
(Great Disciples of the Buddha, pp. 330-333)
* “free from debt” – Monastics who had not yet attained enlightenment were said to have been accepting offerings as a kind of advance or loan until they did so. After attaining enlightenment, they were considered arhats which means “worthy ones” and therefore worthy to receive the offerings. There is also the sense in this verse that Angulimala is expiating at least some of the karmic debt for his past murderous deeds by patiently undergoing the attacks of the angry mobs.
** “triple knowledge” - originally referred to the learned brahmin’s knowledge of the three Vedas or revealed scriptures of Brahmanism. In Buddhism, the term was used to indicate 1) the knowledge of one’s own past lives, 2) the knowledge of the past, present, and future lives of other sentient beings caught in the rounds of birth and death, and 3) the knowledge of the complete eradication of the defilements within oneself. The Buddha and the arhats were those who realized the “triple knowledge” in attaining enlightenment.
*** “Mara” is the deity of the sixth heaven who presides over the world of desire, and in general works to keep sentient beings bound to the wheel of becoming. He functions as a kind of devil who uses various forms of temptation or intimidation to keep people from attaining buddhahood.
Frye, Stanley trans. Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish or Ocean of Narratives. Dharmasala: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 2000
Nanamoli, Bhikkhu, The Life of the Buddha. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1992.
Nanamoli, Bhikkhu and Bodhi, Bhikkhu trans. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston, Wisdom Publication, 1995.
Nyanaponika, Thera, and Hecker, Hellmuth. Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy. Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 1997.
Zimmer, Heinrich. Philosophies of India. New York: Princeton University Press, 1974.