The Story of Angulimala

The Buddhist scriptures relate that 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.
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In 1971 I abandoned my promising career as an actor and went out to Thailand to further a consuming interest in Buddhism and deepen my practice of meditation. I was then twenty-seven years old.
I had the good fortune to be accepted by the Venerable Ajahn Chah, one of the greatest Buddhist masters that Thailand has produced and I spent my years in Thailand in the northeast, close to the Lao and Cambodian borders, at forest hermitages and monasteries under Ajahn Chah’s guidance.
In 1977, Ajahn Chah was invited to London and being English it was natural that I should accompany him. It was supposed to be a stay of just two months to see what possibilities there might be but within a week or two Ajahn Chah had decided that while he would have to return to Thailand as planned, I would be staying on.
This was at the old Hampstead Buddhist Vihara on Haverstock Hill where I had first discovered Buddhism and this was the address that the Prison Service then had as its Buddhist contact. It wasn’t long before letters came from Pentonville and Parkhurst asking for someone to go to those prisons as the Buddhist Visiting Minister and coincidentally the chaplain at Holloway also rang for someone to visit a newly arrived Buddhist prisoner there.
Later, on the weekend when the Queen was celebrating her Silver Jubilee, Ajahn Chah and I were seated together on a train and I asked him what he thought about my responding to those requests. He answered with one word, “Go!” And I’ve been going to prisons ever since.
It wasn’t long before some of the prisoners I met on my early visits were moved on to other establishments and I dutifully followed. Fairly rapidly I began to collect appointments as the Visiting Buddhist Minister to an increasing number of gaols and more and more of my time came to be spent sitting or standing on trains and walking and hitching from prison to prison.
From 1979, I was based on the Isle of Wight but in 1984, I accepted an invitation to move up to Warwickshire. That move enabled me to team up with Yann Lovelock in Birmingham, who, by this time, I had drawn into the prison work and with the aim of making Buddhism available in the prisons we were able to push forward the idea of providing a properly organised Buddhist prison chaplaincy.
ANGULIMALA, the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy Organisation was founded on Magha Puja Day in February 1985. The festival of Magha Puja celebrates an occasion when the Buddha explained his teaching in its simplest and most universal form as, “Give up what is unwholesome and wrong, cultivate what is skilful and good and purify your mind – this is the Teaching of all the Buddhas.” It reminds us that behind the exoticism and intellectualisation, the need for practical application lies at the core of everything the Buddha said.
Following consultation with the Prison Service Chaplaincy, ANGULIMALA was recognised in March l985 as the official representative of Buddhism in all matters concerning the Prison Service in England and Wales. ANGULIMALA has since been referred to as the Buddhist Nominating Authority and is now officially the Religious Consultative Service to the Prison Service for Buddhism and the Prison Service contributes to its costs. I am a member of the Prison Service’s Multifaith Chaplaincy Council and referred to as the Buddhist Adviser. In HM the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 2003, I was appointed an OBE for services to prisoners and the following year on his birthday HM the King of Thailand appointed me a Chao Khun.
ANGULIMALA does not favour any form or school of Buddhism over another and has the backing of most major Buddhist organisations in the UK. Membership is open to anyone in sympathy with its aims, whether they wish to play an active part or not. We usually have about fifty chaplains working in around a hundred and twenty of the penal establishments in England and Wales. A committee that meets quarterly and which helps with the wider organisation oversees our several activities. Currently Lord Avebury is the Patron, Rev. Saido Kennaway of Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey co-ordinates the appointment of Buddhist Visiting Ministers and is the Secretary, Dharmachari Sunanda is the Treasurer, John Preston co-ordinates ANGULIMALA SCOTLAND and I am the Spiritual Director.
We organise quarterly workshops and all appointed Buddhist chaplains – the term “visiting minister” has been abandoned – are expected to attend at least one workshop a year, except for new chaplains who must attend two a year for their first three years. At these, following devotions and meditation at 10 a.m., the day is broken up into three sections that follow in whatever order is convenient. The Buddhist section focuses on some aspect of the Buddha’s Teaching and Practice with a particular regard to how it might be applied or taught in a prison. In the specifically prison section, perhaps with the aid of a guest speaker, someone working in the Prison Service or otherwise connected with it, the aim is to broaden our team’s knowledge of how the prisons are run. Guest speakers have included a prison officer, a member of a Board of Visitors, a trainer from Newbold Revel, the Governor of Whitemoor, the Head of Prisoner Administration Group at Prison Service HQ, Graham Clark who was formerly Governor of Wandsworth, the Prisons Ombudsman, Sir Richard Tilt, a former Director General and Sir Stephen Tumim and Sir David Ramsbotham, both former Chief Inspectors of Prisons. During the Report-In section, all the chaplains present have a chance to summarise their recent prison activities and of course, this is also an opportunity to ask questions or discuss anything arising from these reports.
There is present in Britain a wide diversity of Buddhist schools and practices, and were it necessary to provide ministers representing all of these it would be a nightmare for us and for the Prison Service. Fortunately, this diversity is represented within ANGULIMALA’S membership and amongst its chaplains and there is broad agreement that what should be offered is a basic Buddhism with provision when necessary for whatever school or form of practice that might be required.
When I decided to respond to those original requests back in 1977, I had to consider what I had to offer people locked up in prison. I, after all, had never been incarcerated, I had never been in a prison, I didn’t know where they were and I wasn’t even sure I had ever seen one. But when I sat down to think about it I realised that I had also spent quite a lot of my time shut away in small rooms and I too had had to face myself in that solitude. There were differences of course. I had made forest monastic seclusion my choice and as I had sat with myself in those remote places I had had at my disposal an armoury of meditation techniques as well as the guidance, the example, the wisdom and the support of those who taught me. I had also been purposefully seeking to understand my life. There were differences but there were similarities. I too had been uncomfortable and it was my sense of unease that had led me to look beyond the then narrow confines that restricted me for answers. Yes, I realised, I did understand something about imprisonment. And after all, quite apart from any comparisons between prison and monastic life, aren’t we all imprisoned by our greed and aversion, by our ignorance, and our prejudices and attachments? It was my belief then, as it is now, that Buddhist techniques equip us with the means to escape that imprisonment and enjoy a secure and lasting peace. Thinking along these lines, I decided that I did have something to offer those in prison.
I have always disliked the way that some individuals try to thrust their ideas and beliefs on other people and I am only really comfortable speaking about Buddhism and what I do when I’m asked. This I believe should be the Buddhist attitude. We have a responsibility to make Buddhist Teachings and Practice available and to respond when required but after that it’s up to the individual concerned. To those who accuse me of embracing Buddhist social action, I reply that what I do in the prisons is more or less what I do in the monastery. The difference is that while for most people they can come to the temple, for prisoners we have to take the temple to them.
I really wish there weren’t prisons. Buddhism teaches that none of us are perfect and that all determined actions have their results so we might question whether it is right for anyone to sit in judgement on another and impose penalties and whether indeed it’s necessary. But the reality is that prisons do exist, society does demand something from those who offend against its interests and many thousands of human beings now and in the future will spend portions of their lives in prison. To me it is shameful that that time should be wasted. So, as anywhere else, in order to alleviate suffering and offer people the hope of a better and happier future, but especially for prisoners to salvage something positive from their predicament, we try to make the Teachings and Practice of Buddhism available in the prisons.


Venerable Ajahn Khemadhammo (Chao Khun Bhavanaviteht) OBE



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