The Angulimala Sutta (MN86) paints a portrait of a terrifying killer who slaughtered people and cut off their fingers, wearing them on a garland around his neck. It's hard to imagine a more miserable starting position from which to attain to awakening, and yet that's exactly what this tale conveys. At its core, this is a story of redemption, and that is the first lesson I took away from it: It's never too late. Whatever we have done in the past, whatever horrific state of mind might have occurred in the past, we can leave it behind. We can be compassionate, here and now. Our past mistakes don't need to hinder us from choosing kindness now.
If that were the only message from the Angulimala story to stick in my mind, it would be enough. But it's not. Again and again, bits and pieces of Angulimala's tale sometimes float to the surface of my mind as gentle reminders amid day-to-day life. Here are some of them:
"I have stopped." When the Buddha first encounters Angulimala, the killer can't catch him, even though the Buddha is walking normally and Angulimala is running as fast as he can. Angulimala calls out: "Stop, recluse!" And the Buddha says, "I have stopped."
Angulimala recognizes that the Buddha is a noble teacher not prone to telling lies, so he is inspired to ask the Buddha what he can possibly mean by claiming he has stopped when in fact he is still walking. And of course the answer snaps things right into focus:
Angulimala, I have stopped forever,
I abstain from violence toward living beings;
But you have no restraint toward things that live:
That is why I have stopped and you have not.
So often our world spins and spins, and we wonder, why does it have to be this way? And the answer is that we are the ones spinning. We have not stopped. So why not take a moment and just stop?
"By this truth, may you be well." On an alms round, the now Ven. Angulimala encounters a woman in labor, having great difficulty delivering a baby. This former killer, who had been bereft of compassion, sympathizes with the woman in her suffering. He seeks the Buddha's guidance.
At first the Buddha tells him to 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."
Angulimala tells the Buddha he's not comfortable saying such a thing, because he thinks it would be a lie. So the Buddha clarifies what he meant, telling Angulimala to say the following:
Sister, since I have been 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.
When Angulimala recited these words to the woman, she and her baby both became well. The stanza is still recited as a traditional chant of protection. And it underscores the extreme letting go that occurs when the noble path is attained. It is good for oneself and also good for others.
"Bear it, brahmin! Bear it." On another alms round, someone throws a clod of dirt at Angulimala. Someone else throws a stick. Someone else throws a piece of pottery. Bleeding from his head, and with his bowl broken and robe torn, Angulimala goes to the Buddha. And the Buddha tells 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.
Through force of habit, we experience again and again the results of the kamma (volitional action) that we perform here and now. We amplify the results through our habitual reactions. We turn away from it. We hate it. And we try to salve it with something that we think is better, but that's really just something else to cling to.
Our problem is that we don't bear with it. Sometimes we really can't bear it, because we have not cultivated the capacity to engage with that deep place of pain and sorrow and anger that so often we wish to hide from. And as long as we allow it to lie there, hidden, unexposed, avoided, it comes back again and again. Because we refuse to bear with it.
The Dhamma path is the practice of cultivating the capacity to engage directly with all of this. With equanimity and awareness, we can see things just as they are. We do not turn away.
I also find inspiring how Angulimala's tale shines across the centuries and still illuminates the path, in its own way. As Angulimala himself proclaimed:
Who once did live in negligence
And then is negligent no more,
He illuminates this world
Like a moon freed from a cloud.