Buddha and the Terrorist


by Ven. Wayne  Hughes (Ren Cheng)

I originally wrote this book review for an issue of The Pragmatic Buddhist Journal, edited and published by my root teacher, Eubanks Sensei. A couple of years have passed and I recently reread The Buddha and the Terrorist. Being dedicated to life-long learning and being aware of the changes in my impermanent self I have put additional remarks in italics.

The parable of the Buddha’s encounter with Angulimala was first recorded in the Majjhima Nikayas after being recited as a Buddhist lesson for centuries. In The Buddha and the Terrorist, author Satish Kumar retells the story now, a time when its message has relevance to the situations faced around the world. It is a story that can change the perceptions of anyone interested in ways to end violence without resorting to violence.

The Buddha and the Terrorist, Satish Kumar

In Buddhist philosophy there is the reality of the Universe being a causal process, or dependent origination. Nothing comes from nothing. What is, is, because something else is. That realization is what empowers Buddhists to practice and to bring about positive changes in themselves and in the world around them, because doing good is more likely to promote future good.

Mr. Kumar did not attempt to recast the characters or reset the locations of the original parable in order to modernize the it. He instead let the rich texture of the dialogue take the reader to the past while speaking directly to the issues of today.

Angulimala (anguli = fingers, mala = necklace), Necklace of Fingers, was a violent robber and serial killer who sought to punish, then rule those who he believed had done him wrong. The horrible necklace of his victim’s fingers he wore reminded him of his hatred for others, and others of their hatred and fear of him. A great change overcame him when he met the Buddha. Later a completely reformed Angulimala speaks before the King about his past actions, “Frustrated and depressed, I left home and came to the conclusion that I must take control of society, be the ruler myself, and bring an end to the oppression and segregation which were destroying me and my people.”

Angulimala, who had reverted to his birth name, Ahimsaka (the harmless one) gained the knowledge of his connection with the people around him and took responsibility for his past actions. In the contemporary world it is not this easy to just “take someone’s word” that they have changed. The trick is to find a way that they can prove it short of unjustified incarceration or being put to death (which simply leaves no room for renunciation).

Mr. Kumar’s use of dialogue is extraordinary whether it is the nervous voice of the village woman Nandini, the coarse words of Angulimala, the refined speech of King Pasenadi, or the compassionate teachings of the Buddha. I found myself in each of their hearts and minds as they considered the possible results of their thoughts, words and actions.

In the foreword, Thomas Moore writes, “This exchange of violence and this contagion of terror have been handed down for eons from family to family and from nation to nation.” The Buddha and the Terrorist presents challenges to that paradigm. Is it possible to hold a meaningful dialogue with religious fundamentalists, no matter what their beliefs? Can revenge be set aside in order to assess the best way to approach an end to what has become a worldwide problem?

It has been ten years since the events of September 11, 2001 and we seem to be no closer to understanding the encompassing causal process that brought it about. Or, maybe it is that we DON’T want to recognize it. All parties involved, and in an interconnected world like ours that means everybody, have their worldview and their own strand of the causal web they are responsible for. Rigorous self-honesty between peoples, religions, and goverments is scary to all involved.

There are many levels of Buddhist teachings in this parable. The idea that violence, hatred and fear are not the most effective way to combat violence, hatred and fear is right on the surface. Going deeper in to the tale there is more. Mr. Kumar reveals the teachings of causality, ethics, and karma to those readers willing to take the plunge.

Like any book about Buddhist philosophy it is up to the reader to find the lessons. More importantly it is up to the reader to then put what they learn into practice . . . to take action. Buddhist philosophy from the Four Ennobling Truths to the Abhidharma, and beyond is about action.

The Buddha and the Terrorist, by Satish Kumar, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 121 pages.

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