The Disciple Angulimala: From Serial Killer to Enlightened Monk

Angulimala’s story is found in two places in the Pali Sutta-pitaka. It in in the Angulimala Sutta, which is the 86th sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya, and the story is also told in the Theragatha, which is part of the Khuddaka Nikaya. Here is the story as told in the Angulimala Sutta.

Angulimala’s Story

Once when the Buddha was staying in the monastery built by Anathapindika, he arose one morning, put on his robe, and went out to beg for alms. After he had returned to the monastery and eaten his meal, he set out walking on the road to where Angulimala was known to be staying.

As he walked, farmers and herders saw him and warned him to go no further.

Angulimala, wearer of the mala of fingers, had slaughtered whole villages, they said. As many as forty men had walked together down that road and had all died by Angulimala’s hand. The Buddha heard this, but said nothing and kept walking.

As the Buddha continued to walk, more people saw him and warned him to stop. A second and third time the Buddha was warned about the fierce Angulimala who could slaughter forty men at once and who had left entire villages dead. The Buddha said nothing, but kept walking.

Finally Angulimala himself saw the Buddha and was astonished to see a man walking alone. He picked up his sword, bow and quiver and ran toward the Buddha.

Then a remarkable thing happened. The Buddha was walking at a normal pace, but as fast as Angulimala ran, he could not catch up. Finally, in exasperation, Angulimala yelled “Stop!”

At this, the Buddha spoke. “I have stopped, Angulimala,” he said, still walking. “You stop.”

Angulimala said, “You say you have stopped, but you still walk. I have stopped, but you say I haven’t. How can you say you have stopped and I have not?”

“I have cast off violence toward living beings,” the Buddha said. “I have stopped causing harm. You, however, kill without restraint. That’s why I say I have stopped and you have not.”

Angulimala was so moved that this holy man had come to save him, he threw his weapons into a pit and prostrated himself before the Buddha. He became a disciple of the Buddha on the spot, and then the two returned together to Anathapindika’s monastery.

Read More: The First Precept, Do Not Kill

Angulimala’s Pardon and Enlightenment

This is not yet the end of the story. One day the King and 500 soldiers on horseback and in chariots came and entered the monastery grounds. The King told the Buddha he was looking for the terrible bandit Angulimala. “I’m going to find that fellow and put an end to him!” The King said.

“I must ask you something,” the Buddha said. “What if you were to find that Angulimala had shaved his hair and beard, and put on monk’s robes. And what if you learned that he is living a virtuous life and keeping the Precepts. What would you do?”

“I would bow to him,” the King said, “and offer him alms, robe cloth and lodging.”

At this, the Buddha pointed to Angulimala and said, “There he is. And you do not need to fear him.”

The astonished King questioned Angulimala and became satisfied that this was, indeed, the terrible murderer, now gentled. And the King kept his word. He bowed to Angulimala and offered to give him food, robe cloth and a place to live. But Angulimala said he needed nothing he didn’t have already. And the King departed.

Angulimala spent most of the rest of his life in seclusion in a forest, meditating and keeping his monastic vows. In time he realized enlightenment and became an arhat.

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