The story of the mass-murderer Angulimala, whose name means "necklace of fingers" in Pali, the language of the original Buddhist text, is a parable from the Theravada tradition but is popular in all schools of Buddhism. It demonstrates how even people born with a heavy burden of bad karma can, by following the Buddhist path, purify themselves and become enlightened.

Bhaggava Gagga and his wife, Mantani, gave birth to a son. The father cast the baby's horoscope and discovered that he was born under the 'robber constellation.' This indicated that the boy would have a tendency to commit robbery.

The father was an adviser to King Pasenadi of the Kosala kingdom. On the night that the baby was born, the king noticed that his sword began to sparkle. This worried him, so he asked Bhaggava Gagga what it meant. The father replied: "Do not have any fear, oh King! The same thing happened throughout the city. My wife gave birth to a son and, unfortunately, his horoscope showed the 'robber constellation.' This must have caused your weapons to sparkle." The king asked, "Will he rob alone or will the be the chief of a gang?" The father replied, "He will do it alone, your Majesty. What if we were to kill him now to prevent his future evil deeds?" The King said, "As he will be a lone robber, perhaps if we give him a good education he will lose his tendency to become a robber and will get a good job."

The boy was named "Ahimsaka," which means "harmless." The parents brought him up well and gave him lots of love and encouragement. The boy was very well behaved and was studious and intelligent. Eventually, he graduated to the University at Taxila, the ancient and famous university in India. He studied hard with his professor and gained higher marks than his fellow students. He served his teacher faithfully and humbly and was often invited to have dinner with his teacher's family. The other students became very jealous of him and decided to plot against him. They thought that the teacher might not believe them if they were to go to the teacher together and tell lies about Ahimsaka. They decided to form three groups, and each group would tell the teacher stories about Ahimsaka.

The first group went to the teacher and said, "Respected Teacher, we hear stories that Ahimsaka is planning to make trouble for you." "Get away with you, you evil students. You are just trying to make trouble between me and my dear student, Ahimsaka."

The next group came to the teacher and said, "Ahimsaka is planning to kill you, Sir." "Go away, you naughty students. Stop trying to make trouble. Ahimsaka is my best student. You should try to be like him and study hard."

The third group of students approached the teacher and said, "We have heard that Ahimsaka wants to take your job as professor at this university. He says that you are too old and you should have retired years ago." The teacher began to think that maybe the students may be telling the truth and the only way that he could feel safe in his job was to get rid of Ahimsaka.

He called Ahimsaka to him and said, "Ahimsaka, you have now completed your studies with me and it is time for you to graduate. It is the duty of every student to give a gift of appreciation to their teacher at this time. Please give me your gift."

"What gift would you like? I will give you whatever you ask."

"You must bring me a thousand little fingers from the right hands of people. This will be your token of gratitude for all I have taught you."

The teacher thought that, in obtaining his gift, Ahimsaka would be killed or that the king's soldiers would catch him and put him to death. Ahimsaka replied, "How can I bring you such a gift? My family has never engaged in violence. We are harmless people and we respect all life."

"Well," replied his professor, "if your learning does not receive its proper reward, then it will not be of any use to you. You will not get your certificate."

Ahimsaka left his teacher to fulfill his request. He could have gone to a cemetery and collected fingers from dead bodies, but he didn't think of that. Instead, he collected swords and knives and went into the Jalini forest to wait for his victims. He lived on a high cliff where he could observe the road below. Whenever he saw anybody on the road, he would hurry down, kill them and cut off one finger. He threaded the finger bones into a necklace and wore it around his neck. He was given the nick-name "Angulimala"--"he with the finger garland."

Eventually, people were too scared to enter the forest, so Angulimala went into the village seeking victims. Sometimes he would kill people in the streets, cutting off their fingers and threading them on his necklace. At other times, he would go into houses at night and kill people while they were sleeping.

The people eventually left the villages, as they were no longer safe. They went to the Capital City, Savatthi, to complain to the king. The king ordered that his army should be sent to capture Angulimala.

Although nobody realized that the murderer was Ahimsaka, his mother had a suspicion that it may be her son. She said to her husband, Bhaggava, "It is our son, that fearful bandit. Please go and warn him and ask him to change his ways. Otherwise the king will have him killed." "I have no use for such a son," said the father. "The king can do to him what he likes." But a mother's heart is soft, and out of love for her son, she set out for the forest alone to warn him.

Angulimala had already collected 999 fingers and needed just one more to make up the 1,000 that he was seeking. He would not have hesitated in killing his own mother to reach his goal, but to do so would have put him in danger of going to the worst hell. To kill either of one's parents is one of the worst sins that one can perform.

The Buddha, with his psychic powers, was able to see what Angulimala was about to do and, out of his great compassion, decided to try to prevent this horrible crime. As the Buddha approached the forest, village people warned him not to enter, as Angulimala was very strong and was sure to kill anybody, including monks. The Buddha continued on the path in silence. At first Angulimala saw his mother approaching. So steeped was his mind in killing that he didn't mind killing his mother to gain the final finger.

As he descended on the path, suddenly the Buddha appeared between him and his mother. He thought, "Why should I kill my mother for the sake of one finger when there is someone else? Let her live."

He didn't realize that it was also a very serious offense to kill a monk, but he could only think of the one finger needed to complete his necklace. The Angulimala sutra says: "Now Angulimala took his sword and shield and buckled on his bow and quiver and he followed behind the Blessed One. Then the Blessed One performed such a feat of supernormal power that the bandit Angulimala, going as fast as he could, was unable to catch up with the Blessed One who was walking at his normal pace."

Angulimala was amazed that no matter how fast he was travelling, he was unable to catch up with the Buddha. He called, "Stop, monk! Stop, monk!" The Buddha replied, "I have stopped, Angulimala. You should stop too."

Angulimala thought, "These monks are supposed to tell the truth, but this monk continues to walk when he tells me he has stopped. I must ask him what he means when he says that he has stopped."

The Buddha explained to him, "Angulimala, I have stopped forever, giving up violence to every living being, but you have no restraint toward things that breathe. That is why I have stopped and you have not."

When Angulimala heard these words, a great change came over him. He felt deeply moved by the wise words of the Buddha. He said, "I will for sure renounce all evil after hearing this dharma." He threw his sword and weapons over a cliff and bowed at the Buddha's feet.

He asked the Buddha if he could become his disciple as a monk. The Buddha replied, "Come, Bhikkhu." And that is how he became a monk.

As they were leaving the forest, they met the king leading his soldiers into the forest. The Buddha asked the king if he was going to fight a battle with another kingdom. "No," replied the king, "I am going to capture a single man, the murderous Angulimala."

The Buddha asked the king, "If you were to see Angulimala with a shaven head, wearing the yellow robes of a monk, and that he was abstaining from killing living beings, from stealing, from lying and deceiving, and was living the holy and blameless life, how would you treat him?" The king replied, "I would pay homage to him and offer him my protection, but how could such an unvirtuous person of evil character have such virtue and restraint?"

The Buddha extended his right arm and said, "Here, Great King, this is Angulimala. Do not be afraid. There is nothing to fear."

The king asked Angulimala the names of his father and mother. He told the king that his father was named Gagga and his mother's name was Mantani. The king then remembered who he was and the strange predictions when he was born. The king was amazed that the Buddha could bring about such a change in someone with such an evil reputation.

However, a Buddha can lead even the greatest king or the worst criminal to the Path which overcomes all suffering--the Noble Eightfold Path.

The king said to the Buddha, "It is wonderful, Venerable Sir, it is marvelous how the Blessed One subdues the unsubdued, pacifies the unpeaceful, and calms the uncalm. Him whom we could not subdue with punishments and weapons, the Blessed One has subdued without punishment or weapon."

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