by Wayne Ren-Cheng
The Angulimala Sutta, found in the Majjhima Nikayas is often viewed as proof of the power of the Dharma to transform even the most hardened bodymind from violence, hatred and fear to compassion, acceptance and loving-kindness. Early in the sutra Angulimala is described, “The bandit Angulimala, a murderer, violent and deadly, showing no mercy haunts that road. He murders people and wears their fingers as a garland.”. Later, in such texts as the Jinakalamali 1, and the Milinda Panha 2 Angulimala’s early life is written of, and in the Theragatha text 3 his realizations as an arhat are given in the form of short poems. These texts act as bookends for the events described in the Angulimala Sutra. Without these texts it would seem as if this man, Angulimala, with his violent disposition just appeared in the Buddha’s world, in need of the Awakened One’s intervention.
Whether Angulimala was a real person or an allegorical construct created to teach Buddhist lessons, or whether the story of his early life has any basis in fact has little relevance. Both the story of his early life and the sutta itself have important teachings to offer those who take the time to realize them. It may well be that some disciple of the Buddha, or the Buddha himself saw this tale of Angulimala’s early life as a skillful way to offer lessons in causality, the not-self, and commitments in relationships (the Six Directions that the Buddha teaches to Sigala 4).