The Story of Angulimala
Gyaltsen, Khenpo Könchog, trans. "The Story of Angulimala." In The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The Wish-fulfilling Gem of the Noble Teachings, 381–84. By Gampopa (sgam po pa). Edited by Ani K. Chodron. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1998.
Chapter 9 [of the Jewel Ornament of Liberation] discusses purifying evil deeds through the power of remorse. In old times Angulimala, the evil-doer who killed 999 persons, achieved the Arhat state by purifying all his evil deeds with the power of full remorse. Nagarjuna's Letter to a Friend says:
One who lacks self guidance
And later possesses mindfulness
Is like a radiant moon being freed from clouds.
For example, Nanda, Angulimala, Ajatashatru, and Udayana.
Angulimala's story goes this way:
While Buddha resided at Shravasti, the ruler there was called King Segyal. He had a special minister who was expert in all different arts and knowledge, and who was very wealthy and powerful. His wife was rather aggressive, not smooth or gentle. But as soon as their child was conceived, she became very gentle, compassionate, and loving. The great sign reader said that this change was caused by the power of the child in her body. So, when the child was born, he was given the name "Ahimsa " (Nonviolence). As he was growing up, Ahimsa was naturally very intelligent, very talented physically, and expert at all different skills. Hi s strength was equal to a thousand people. He was so fast that he could even catch a bird in the sky by jumping.
At that time, there was a Brahmin teacher who was very highly educated in many subjects and who had about 500 disciples. The minister took his son to that teacher so he could teach him all the subjects. Ahimsa's intelligence was so powerful that he could study and understand in one day what it took others a year to learn. It didn't take Ahimsa long to become very highly educated. Hi s teacher was pleased and Ahimsa always stayed with him. The teacher's wife, unfortunately, was very much attracted to Ahimsa's beauty and physical talent, but she had no opportunity to talk to or form a relationship with him.
One time, a sponsor requested the teacher, the Brahmin, to come to his place for three months with all his disciples. The teacher said to his wife, "We have many things to do in our house. Lots of work needs to be done. Who should stay at the house and help you while I'm gone?" The wife said that it should be someone with great knowledge and skill in a lot of areas, and suggested that Ahimsa would be the best. So, the Brahmin teacher told Ahimsa, "You stay at my home and help my wife. Do whatever she advises you to do." Then the Brahmin and the rest of his disciples went off.
The wife thought, "Now I can fulfill my wishes." Soon afterward, she talked to Ahimsa and suggested that he should have an affair with her. But Ahimsa had great reverence for his teacher. Thinking to himself, "This is my teacher's wife, and not only that, this would be against the Brahmin tradition. It would be better to die than have a relationship with her," he did not accept her request. She was very embarrassed and completely upset by this. When the Brahmin teacher and all his students returned, the wife tore off her clothes, scratched her own face with her fingernails, and lay on the floor crying. When the teacher came in the house and saw her in such a state, he asked what had happened. She said, "After you left, Ahimsa was driven by a powerful desire. He wanted to stay here and have an affair with me. Of course, I did not accept his request. Then with his great strength, he did this to me."
At that moment, the Brahmin teacher was very angry, and thought, "Now this Ahimsa is the son of a very important minister. He is very educated and powerful. Not only that, but I could not challenge his power because he has the strength of a thousand men. But I will try a special method to get rid of him." So he went to Ahimsa and discussed things with very polite and pleasant words. He said, "You are one of my closest disciples. M y heart is with you and you are so kind to me. I have a special teaching that I have not given to anybody else that I want to show to you. If you can practice this properly, then without doubt you will be reborn as a god of the Brahma realm."
Ahimsa was so pleased by hearing these words. He knelt down with his two knees on the ground, joined his hands at the heart, and requested, "Master, please give me this special teaching."
The teacher replied, "If, within a week, you can cut the heads off 1,000 people and take a finger from each one and use them as mala beads to wear around your neck, then in this life you will see the face of Brahma directly. Right after that you will be born in the Brahma realm."
After hearing this instruction, Ahimsa had some doubt. He replied to the master this way, "It is not right to be born in the Brahma realm by taking the lives of these people."
The master replied, "You are my disciple. If you don't listen and carry out my instructions, if you don't have trust in my teachings, then you are not a proper disciple. Just get out of here." At that moment, the master stuck a sword in the ground and Ahimsa's mind was completely overcome with great anger. The master put the sword, which he had blessed with a black magic mantra, in his hand. Ahimsa wielded it so wrathfully that he killed whoever he met on the road. From each, he cut one finger and made beads for the mala around his neck. And so, he has been called "Angulimala" (Finger Mala) ever since.
He ran here and there, and within a week he had killed 999 people. Everyone ran away in order to protect themselves, so he could not find one last person in order to make 1,000. During these seven days, Angulimala did not take any food or drink. His mother was overwhelmed with great compassion at the thought that her son hadn't eaten anything, so she started to take him some food and drink. He saw her coming from a distance and thought, "There isn't anyone else around, so maybe I should kill my mother." So he ran toward his mother.
She said, "Son, you should serve and honor your mother. It is not right to kill your mother. It is a heinous crime which will cause you to be reborn in the hell realm. Isn't that right?"
"But, I have instructions from my master to kill 1,000 people within a week. That will create the cause for me to be reborn in the Brahma realm. Now I am missing one finger, so for that I must kill you."
The mother responded this way, "Instead of killing me, just take one of my fingers. Is that possible?"
During this negotiation, the Buddha, omniscient, the embodiment of compassion, all-presence, became aware that this was the time to help liberate this person. In a moment, Buddha emanated as a monk just walking near Angulimala.
Immediately when Angulimala saw this monk and he thought, "Instead of killing my mother I should kill him." So he rushed after the monk, who was walking gently and smoothly. No matter how fast Angulimala ran, he could not catch up with him. Rather, the monk kept going farther away. Noticing that, Angulimala said, " O you monk! Please wait for me."
From a distance the monk replied, "I was waiting for you but you kept running."
Angulimala yelled back, "What do you mean—that you waited and I kept running?"
The monk replied this way, "All my sense organs are fully overpowered by meditative concentration. I always abide in peaceful states. Due to your master's evil instructions, your mind is completely confused and deceived and, so, it isn't stable. Day and night, you are rushing to take life and create inconceivable nonvirtue." The moment he heard those words, Angulimala realized their meaning. He threw the sword down on the ground and did prostrations from a distance, saying, "I take refuge in you."
The monk came forward and remanifested as the Buddha, marked by the all the magnificent signs—radiating light, full of dignity. So Angulimala had the chance to see Buddha directly. At that moment, he developed such confidence and devotion that he regretted his deeds from the bottom of his heart. He confessed all his nonvirtuous deeds. Buddha took him to the temple and gave vast and profound teachings, according to his mental capacity. Angulimala received special insight into these vast and profound teachings and, by gaining confidence in the teachings, the Dharma, he requested to become a monk. Buddha said, "Yes, you are welcome."
Angulimala had his hair cut, became a monk, and went to Shravasti to do a retreat. By receiving those different teachings and because of his great remorse, and his confidence in the Buddha and the teachings, he fully purified all the negative karma he had created by killing 999 people. Eventually, he achieved Arhatship.
This completes the story of Angulimala.