Updated: Apr 2, 2020
What the Buddhist parable of Angulimala can teach us about recovery
Bloody-handed Angulimala taught me about recovery. Always running, forever chasing, I learnt before I could start I first had to learn to stop.
The story of Angulimala, the serial killer who found Buddha, and became monk, is one of the most important in Buddhist mythology.
Born Ahimsaka 'the harmless one.' It's said that when Angulimala was born, his father the chief Brahmin for the King of Kosala looked out at the night sky and saw the stars aligned in the constellation of the robber. Fearing his son was destined for a life of banditry, he and his wife Lady Matinee, sent their newborn to a monastery.
Bright, gifted, and on his way to enlightenment, Ahimsaka grows up not fitting in. Evoking the jealousy and wrath of his peers, they concoct a story that he's having an affair with the teacher's wife. When the teacher finds out, fearing a scandal, he opts to get rid of him: He tells, Ahimsaka he's completed his training, he only has one task left.
In order to reach enlightenment the boy would need to bring the teacher, a thousand fingers, one sliced from the hand of each of a thousand victims. Ahimsaka, who held his guru in high regard, bowed down before his master, arrayed himself with weapons, and set on a path of self destruction.
Ahimsaka, becomes what his father feared: A bandit, who haunts the highways and byways of the countryside murdering unsuspecting travellers, cutting off their fingers and nailing them to a tree. When birds began pecking at the severed digits, he takes them down and threads them onto a chain, which he wears about his neck. From here on out he's known as Angulimala or 'finger garland.'
Soon villages are in lockdown. When Angulimala's prey dries up, he takes to breaking into houses, and dragging victims from their beds. The remaining villagers troop to Kosala to petition King Pasenadi to act. The King fearing a riot sends out an army to hunt down the serial Killer of Savatthi forest.
Buddha, who happened to be practising in the nearby forest, foresees the tragedy enfolding Angulimala. He's about to claim his 1000th victim, but this victim is his own mother who's been out looking for him. At this point Buddha sets out on a rescue mission. Along the way the villagers warn him:Do not take this road. On this road is the bandit Angulimala who murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, merciless to living beings.'
Buddha ignores them and continues on his journey. When their paths eventually cross, Angulimala is ecstatic:
It is wonderful, it is marvellous! Men have come along this road in groups of ten, twenty, thirty, even forty, but still they have fallen into my hands. And now this recluse comes alone, unaccompanied as if forcing his way. Why shouldn’t I take this recluse’s life?
Angulimala gives chase, but no matter how fast Angulimala races after the Buddha, he can't catch up with him. He cries out in frustration: ‘Stop recluse! Stop recluse!’ Buddha turns round to confront him: ’I have stopped, Angulimala, you stop too!’ Angulimala’s halts in his tracks. Slowly, as if awakening from a dream, he reflects: ‘This recluse is still walking yet he says, “I have stopped, Angulimala you stop too.” Suppose I question him.’
When he asks what was meant by such an injuction, the Buddha replies ‘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.’ At this point, Angulimala has an epiphany. He throws his weapons into a chasm and decides to be Buddha's best disciple.
In order to recover from intense emotions of rage, shame, fear and sadness, you have to learn how to stop.
Many years ago I too was like Angulimala, that is to say I lived my life without restraint. Constantly running away from my emotions, simultaneously giving chase, my suffering kept me moving; unfortunately I moved in circles. Like a dog on a leash tied to a post, I'd chase my own tail unable to break free.
Buddha's message was simple in order to stop suffering, we should investigate our own mind: Our thoughts, feelings and emotions. If we are able to do this, we'd discover our own secret-self and why we act the way we do. This knowledge, can't be sought in books or therapy, it's a journey of letting go.
Buddha's deepest teaching is the Four Noble Truths: There is suffering, there's a beginning of suffering, there's an end to suffering, and the way to the end of suffering is via the eight-fold path. For many years, I suffered unremitting emotional pain, but was told what I felt was 'wrong' 'bad' or 'incorrect' and was punished for it. As a result, my pain intensified, and desperate acts of communication fell on deaf ears. No one was listening, on the contrary I was told to cheer up and be grateful. Buddha's simple acknowledgement that that life contains suffering was helpful. It wasn't enough though. For the next ten years I became deeply aware that I was suffering, even so, I couldn't see the beginning or end to it. In order to see the end of suffering I first had to stop reacting to it. I had to allow suffering into my mind, and accept pain, without trying to push it away, or cling to it. Before, I couldn't tolerate negative emotions: Sorrow, rage, anger, despair, sadness, anxiety terror, I'd deliberately block them out. Now I bear with.
At first it is very frightening to accept suffering, then slowly it became easier. I saw all these emotions end naturally and of their own accord. They are impermanent and don't belong to me. Of course, I'd soon get bored and start moving again, and suffering would come back up. Here I saw the beginning. Negative emotions arise and cease due to desire. We try to push or pull on negative emotions, chase after them or run away from them, but they only end when we develop a stance of non-attachment. By the story of Angulimala I learnt how to let go.
In the story much later, when King Pasenadi descends upon the Buddhist Sangha asking for Angulimala's whereabouts, the Buddha points him out 'here is Angulimala,' he says. Pasenadi begins shaking with fear, but when Buddha say's this serial killer is now a monk, the king decides there's no need for revenge. Have you ever felt ashamed of past actions, you feel like you don't deserve to live? The story of Angulimala tells us no one is beyond redemption.
In my younger years I committed many unskillful actions; nothing on the scale of what Angulimala did, but are nevertheless painful to recall. I always felt immense relief knowing past behaviours could be the basis of learning. Once I learnt how to stop, I was able to look back, without shame, fear, or regret but contrarily with a sense of loving-kindness. I grew calm, and from this place of calmness I saw my own suffering was only a single teardrop in a wide ocean. I was like Angulimala walking through the village repeating to myself 'how beings are afflicted! How beings are afflicted!' For the first time I was aware of what was happening. Pasenadi shows mercy, and spares Angulimala's life, but it is Buddha who gives him an opportunity to live.
Nevertheless Angulimala's Karma is catching up with him. When out collecting food donations the villagers of Kosala recognise him. Mobbed, beaten to the point of death he returns to the Sangha and Buddha cries out from afar.
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.
I use to ask myself the question repeatedly: "How much more must I endure?" It was a question without answer. Even so, with every crisis, I felt that I was weakening while being forced to live. When I stopped reacting, there was no escape from the truth of what was happening. I had to bear the unbearable: The memories, dreams, nightmares, thoughts, and emotions. I too was mobbed and beaten but it was only my own karma catching up with me. I didn't run away or give chase. I let go of everything.
As the story of Angulimala shows, in order to battle suffering you don't need any weapons. If fact you need only the willingness to throw your weapons away. If it was my karma to sift through the scattered fragments of past mistakes then that is what I would do, and did do. Thankfully it did not take thousands of years.
Later that day Angulimala, bloodied and broken, attains enlightenment. He cycles through the meditative trances, before emerging triumphant. He has discovered how to let go. That is what resilience and recovery is all about: It's the process of letting go. Angulimala sings for the rest of us, who are on a journey to becoming better, kinder, more wiser human beings:
‘Harmless’ is the name I bear, though I was dangerous in the past, the name I bear today is true: I hurt no one at all! And once I lived as a bandit, With the name Finger Garland, one whom the great flood swept along. I went for refuge to the Buddha […] Welcome to that choice of mine and let it stand it was not ill made. Of all the dhammas known to men I have come to the very best.
In Buddhism I continue to find a refuge from the storm raging outside and within. It was Angulimala who taught me how to stop: His story is simple, it's never too late, you can change, you just have to let go. Don't expect miracles, recovery is not based on faith. When Buddha says 'you stop too!' don't just accept it. Be like Angulimala and reply 'well suppose I question him.' When you do, you'll find the answer is right here.