One day, after his meal, the Buddha went out from the monastery where he was staying and walked towards a great forest. Seeing him going in that direction various people working in their fields called out to him to warn him that in that forest dwelt the dreaded Angulimala.
Little is known for certain about Angulimala but the usual account of his life has him the son of a well-to-do family and at one time a brilliant student at the University of Taxila, then the Oxbridge of India.
At Taxila, other students were jealous of him and succeeded in poisoning their teacher’s mind against him, with the result that the teacher asked of him what he must have believed would be an impossible honorarium, a thousand human right-hand little fingers. Unbelievably, instead of giving up and quietly going home without graduating, the young man set out to collect the fingers and pay the fee. Presumably, he quickly discovered that people were reluctant to willingly give up their little fingers and so he was forced to resort to violence and killing in order to obtain them.
Then he found he had nowhere to store these fingers. He tried hanging them on a tree but the birds stole them so his solution was to string them around his neck. For this gruesome and growing garland of bloody fingers he was nicknamed Angulimala which means ‘finger garland’ or ‘finger necklace’.
This was the man who, peering out from his lair, spotted the Buddha coming towards him and who that day had round his neck nine hundred and ninety-nine little fingers. This powerful and athletic serial killer, who had already successfully resisted several attempts to apprehend him, grabbed his weapons and dashed out to murder the Buddha and complete his score.
He expected to easily overtake him and quickly finish the job but then a very strange thing happened – even though the Buddha was only walking, serene and unhurried, Angulimala, despite his formidable strength and speed, found he couldn’t catch up with him. Eventually, exhausted, angry, frustrated and soaked with sweat, Angulimala screamed at the Buddha to stop.
Then the Buddha turned and with neither anger or fear, speaking quietly and directly, he told Angulimala that he, the Buddha, had already stopped. He had stopped killing and harming and now it was time for him, Angulimala, to do likewise. Angulimala was so struck by these words that there and then he stopped; he threw away his weapons and followed the Buddha back to the monastery where he became a monk.
Later, the King, ignorant of what had happened, came by leading his troops out to arrest Angulimala. Being a very pious monarch, he called to pay his respects to the Buddha and to inform him of what he was up to. The Buddha asked the King what his reaction would be were he to discover that amongst this assembly of monks sat Angulimala.
To the King it was utterly unbelievable that such a foul and evil person could now be a Buddhist monk and seated amongst such exalted company, but were it the case, he answered, he would certainly pay his respects and make offerings. Then the Buddha stretched forth his right hand and, pointing, announced that there sat Angulimala.
When he’d mastered his fear and recovered from the shock, the King, having paid his respects, said to the Buddha how incredible it was that, “What we have tried to do by force and with weapons you have done with neither force nor weapons!” In the course of time, after a period of some trial to himself, Angulimala did eventually succeed in purging his mind of all greed, hatred and delusion and realised for himself the Buddhist goal of Enlightenment.
The story of Angulimala teaches us that the Possibility of Enlightenment may be awakened in the most extreme of circumstances, that people can and do change and that people are best influenced by persuasion and above all, example.